Aztec fans, the historic 100th season of SDSU football is finally here. Welcome to Game Week! After 2 seasons playing away from home, SDSU returns to San Diego to open its new Snapdragon Stadium. Anyone who attended the team scrimmage on 8/20 got a preview of the new stadium experience and there were plenty of rave reviews.
Now it’s time to showcase to the world what should be one of the best collegiate football atmospheres in the US. A showdown with PAC-12 foe Arizona Wildcats has been set in place years in advance. The way college football programs schedule their out of conference matchups seemingly has worked out in SDSU’s favor with this quality opponent.
The Aztecs pummeled Arizona last year 38-14 in Tucson. The rematch this year is set for a 12:30pm kickoff time on Saturday, September 3. The game will be televised nationally on CBS with their A-1 team on the call.
Started From the Bottom
Arizona hit the reset button after the 2020 season by firing Head Coach Kevin Sumlin who was 9-20 in 3 seasons. Jedd Fisch was hired away from his duties as QB coach with the New England Patriots to rebuild the Arizona program.
Everyone knew winning would take time. However, the energetic Jedd Fisch provided hope that he could right the ship quickly. After losing 24-16 to a ranked BYU team on a neutral field in week 1, Arizona sports media were optimistic about their chances against SDSU the next week.
Much to everyone’s surprise including Aztec fans, the Wildcats were routed early and the game was essentially over at halftime with the Aztecs up 35-7. One thing was evident from that game: Arizona was not as physically strong as SDSU who dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
The Wildcats would go on to finish 1-11 in Coach Fisch’s 1st year as head coach.
Want to learn more about SDSU’s new opponent the Arizona Wildcats? Listen to our sit down interview with Jason Scheer, senior editor of wildcatauthority.com. Jason spoke candidly of Arizona’s much needed purging of last years team. Jason explains how SDSU can beat UofA and how UofA can beat SDSU.
So Who Are These Cats?
The question surrounding the Arizona Wildcats program is how much progress has been made in year 2?
Coach Fisch hit the transfer market in the offseason and brought in talent which should help expedite his rebuild plan.
The prize was quarterback Jayden de Laura who transferred from Washington State after winning the 2021 Pac 12 Offensive Player of the Year award. De Laura threw for 2,798 yards and 27 TDs against 9 interceptions. The 6’0 sophomore QB is effective operating in the pocket and has good touch on deep vertical routes, something Arizona was missing in the passing game a year ago.
While de Laura isn’t considered a dual threat QB (he rarely ran out of RPO sets at Washington State), he has good wheels and wiggle to escape the pocket similar to what the Aztecs saw in Utah’s Cam Rising last year. The biggest improvement in de Laura’s game over the offseason is the addition of 15 pounds of muscle to help him better absorb inevitable hits in the pocket.
Speedster Jacob Cowing transferred in from UTEP where he ranked 7th nationally with 1,367 receiving yards along with 8 touchdowns. He is listed as the slot receiver and will likely be de Laura’s top receiving target in 2022.
Split out wide is the highest ranked recruit in the history of the U of A program, Tetairoa McMillan. The 6’ 5” true freshman who originally committed to Oregon has impressed coaches during fall camp and could be a valuable target for de Laura in back shoulder throws along the sideline similar to the role of the Aztecs’ Tyrell Shavers.
The receiving corps also includes Jamarye Joyner and Dorian Singer, two receivers with great hands and body control.
The running back position is deeper than a year ago. Junior Michael Wiley returns along with DJ Williams, a 220 lb. bulldozing 2 x transfer from Auburn and Florida State.
True Freshman Rayshon “Speedy” Luke has track speed similar to the Aztecs’ Jordan Byrd and will be likely be used in a similar role.
A major question will be along the offensive line and if they can open holes for running backs that they couldn’t do last season. True freshman Jonah Savaiinaea has comparable size and strength to the Aztecs’ William Dunkle which may help give Arizona the grit they’ve been lacking.
A major reason why the Wildcats finished 1-11 last year is they couldn’t stop anyone, giving up 31 points per game and 281 yards on the ground.
NT Kyon Barrs anchors the defensive line. The 2nd team All-Pac 12 selection in 2021 finished with 8 tackles for loss and 5 sacks.
In the secondary, Christian Roland-Wallace is the man. In the first five days of fall camp, he held super frosh T-Mac to zero catches. It will be interesting to see who Roland-Wallace matches up with vs. the Aztecs. Will it be another tall receiver in Tyrell Shavers or the Aztecs’ most productive pass catcher in Jesse Matthews?
Strong Safety Christian Young is also someone to watch. He finished 2nd on the team in tackles in 2021 and has had a productive fall camp. He has similar physical attributes to the Aztecs’ Patrick McMorris.
3 Keys to Victory
Control the Line of Scrimmage
It’s cliché to say that whoever controls the line of scrimmage usually wins the game but in this case it’s especially true. The Wildcats strongest positions are their skill positions and secondary. Their weakest? Both side of the line. Arizona lost their best offensive lineman to graduation. While Savainaea is a promising young player, he has yet to play a college snap. Despite losing Mountain West defensive player of the year Cam Thomas, SDSU returns Keshawn Banks and Jonah Tavai from a defensive line that held Arizona to 51 yards rushing last year. Add transfers Justus Tavai and Cooper McDonald to the equation and this defensive line unit may be even better.
On the opposite side of the ball, 5th year center Alama Ulauve anchors this unit along with junior left tackle Brandon Crenshaw-Dixon. Similarly to Arizona, the Aztecs will have to replace experience on their offensive line with the departures of Zack Thomas and William Dunkle. Highly recruited redshirt freshmen Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli and Josh Simmons, who had Oklahoma as a recruiting finalist, join Oklahoma State transfer Cade Bennett. It will be trial by fire for this young group but facing the vaunted Aztec defensive front everyday in practice should help with their preparation.
The Aztecs’ DNA is to push opponents around at the line of scrimmage. Arizona addressed their skill positions in the offseason but still have work to do in the trenches.
Watch the Play Action
The Wildcats like to use play action to open up their passing game. The hope is the linebackers will cheat up to stop the run allowing open passing lanes over the middle for receivers. The Aztec linebackers and safeties are going to have to be sound in their technique to not commit too early to stopping a ball carrier which will create easy throws for de Laura to his talented receiving corps. Fortunately, the Aztecs return plenty of experience at these positions with seniors Caden McDonald, Michael Shawcroft, Patrick McMorris and Seyddrick Lakalaka leading the way.
Run the Ball
I know Aztec fans including myself want to see a more vaunted passing attack in 2022 with the addition of Virginia Tech transfer Braxton Burmeister but success is more likely to come on the ground than through the air. I subscribe to the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Running the rock worked well last year and Arizona hasn’t made significant upgrades to their front 7. If the Wildcats’ fall camp videos are any indication, the Aztecs should be able to break tackles on the ground.
The Aztecs are loaded at running back with both size and speed. Senior Chance Bell and sophomore Jaylon Armstead won’t be brought down with arm tackles alone. Senior Jordan Byrd and USC transfer Kenan Christon may be the fastest players on the field. Assuming the o-line controls the point of attack, the Aztecs should be able to rack up yardage and control the time of possession to keep Arizona’s offense off the field.
The Wildcats are hungry for revenge from last year’s embarrassing performance and would like nothing more than to ruin SDSU’s grand opening of Snapdragon Stadium. Temperatures are expected to soar into the 90’s by kickoff. The better conditioned team may have the advantage in the 4th quarter if the game is close. The point spread is 6 points in favor of the Aztecs and while Arizona is poised to take a step forward in Jedd Fisch’s 2nd year, they don’t have the talent yet to get them over the mountain in this contest. The Aztecs will feed off of the home crowd energy in a brand new stadium to come away victorious.
SD Sports Fiend’s Prediction: San Diego State 27 Arizona 20