3 Keys To An Aztecs Victory Over Heavily Favored #14 Utah

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After two home games at their new stadium, the Aztecs venture away from Snapdragon Stadium to take on a talented #14 ranked Utah squad who demolished Southern Utah last weekend 73-7.

The Aztecs won an overtime thriller over the Utes last year in Carson 33-31. This year, the Aztecs are heavy underdogs (+21) against what may be their toughest opponent of the season.

Kickoff is scheduled for Saturday at 7pm PST at Rice Eccles Stadium and will be televised on ESPN 2.

In its two contests, SDSU has not looked like a team capable of competing with the Utes. The Aztecs were dominated on the defensive line of scrimmage by a much-improved Arizona team and had no answers for a slot receiver who burned the Aztecs for 152 yards and 3 touchdowns. On offense, SDSU was unable to move the ball on the Wildcats despite good production from its running backs.

The woeful performance against Arizona carried into the Idaho State game where the Bengals right away on a 75-yard touchdown pass that resulted in another Aztec defensive back being benched for poor play.

Behind the strength of punter Jack Browning who pinned Idaho State inside the 5-yard line multiple times and converted a 4th down on a fake punt, Jordan Byrd’s punt return touchdown and another great performance by the running backs, the Aztecs were able to pull away from the Bengals 38-7.

Photo Credit: San Diego State Football

Now comes a major step up in competition. Are the Aztecs ready for it?

Utah Offense

The Utes return their starting quarterback Cameron Rising who spelled starter Charlie Brewer in the 2nd half of the game last year against the Aztecs and almost led the Utes to a comeback victory. He guided Utah to a Pac 12 championship and a Rose Bowl appearance vs. Ohio State.

In 2022, the junior quarterback has thrown for 470 yards and 4 touchdowns and rushed for 86 yards. He’s accurate with throws when given time and can make plays with his feet outside of the pocket.

Utah’s best receivers are their tight ends. Brant Kuithe came up big against Florida finishing with 9 catches for 105 yards and 1 touchdown. USD transfer Dalton Kincaid caught 7 passes for 107 yards and 2 touchdowns vs. Southern Utah. Solomon Enis and Devaughn Vele standout among the wide receivers.

Micah Bernard and Tavion Thomas share the workload in the backfield and have 4 touchdowns combined.

Utah Defense

Gone from last year’s squad is linebacker Devin Lloyd who totaled 13 tackles including 2.5 tackles for loss against SDSU. This squad is still loaded. Cornerback Clark Phillips III, safety Cole Bishop and defensive end Van Fillinger are 1st team preseason Pac 12 selections. Defensive lineman Junior Tafuna is a 2nd team selection.

3 Keys to Victory

1. To Thine Own Self Be True

For the second consecutive game, Aztecs’ offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski tried to establish the passing game early on with no success. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister was inaccurate in a clean pocket and his receivers had difficulty getting separation versus an Idaho State pass defense that gave up 405 yards and 5 TDs to UNLV. The Aztecs rank 116th out of 131 FBS programs in 3rd down conversion percentage (28%). This is largely due to incompletions on 1st and 2nd  downs creating 3rd & long situations.

Make no mistake—the strength of the Aztecs offense is their run game. They rank 5th in the country with 6.47 yards per carry.

Similar to SDSU’s game plan in 2021, Florida proved in week one you can beat Utah with a one-sided rushing attack. The Gators racked up 283 yards on the ground against the Utes while only passing for 168 yards.

If the Aztecs are going to win, they need to embrace a run-first identity- committing to it early and often. Make Utah bring 7 or 8 defenders into the box to stop the run which should create 1 on 1 opportunities to receivers Tyrell Shavers, Jesse Matthews, Brionne Penny and Mark Redman.

2. Double Team Kuithe

Kuithe is Rising’s primary target and the biggest mismatch on the field for either side. As the Gators found out, if you leave him alone on an island with a defender, he will torch your defense. He’s too big for Aztec corners and too fast for the safeties & linebackers.

The best way for the Aztecs to contain Kuithe is to use bracket coverage on him when Utah is in 3 or 4 wide receiver sets. This involves keeping one defender in front and one behind. As you can see from the video below, Florida employed the concept but its young secondary didn’t execute it properly. The deep Florida safety doesn’t keep Kuithe in front of him resulting in a huge gain for Utah.

Kuithe usually operates out of the slot receiver position which the Aztecs had trouble defending vs. Arizona. Davaughn Celestine replaced Cedarious Barfield at the Field Warrior position vs. Idaho State and led the team with 9 tackles and 2 pass deflections. He may be the Aztecs best option in pass coverage vs. Kuithe combined with safeties C.J. Baskerville or Patrick McMorris providing help over the top.

Photo Credit: San Diego State Football

Adding an extra defender on Kuithe means other Utah receivers will have single coverage with no safety help. That’s okay as Rising often locks on to his primary target for far too long which may allow the Aztec defensive front time to get home for a coverage sack or hit.  

Being overly committed to one receiver may also force a bad pass by Rising into coverage. On Utah’s last drive vs. the Gators, Rising never looked off his primary target allowing a linebacker to step in front of the pass for the game sealing interception.

3. Be Aggressive

In order for the Aztecs to pull an upset over Utah, they have to be aggressive in their decision making. This means going for it on 4th & 3, selling out to block a punt, executing a fake punt or fake field goal by Browning or an onside kick. If ever there was a game to reach in their bag of tricks, this is the game to do it.

Final Takeaways

The Aztecs haven’t been more than 21-point underdogs in a game since the 2013 season when they lost 42-7 at Ohio State (+28). The Aztecs have a history of starting off the season slow in week 1 or 2 and then bringing it all together against a power conference opponent. Will this trend continue and allow the Aztecs to pick up their 8th victory over a Pac 12 opponent since 2016?

While that would delight SDSU fans especially since the Aztecs have been rumored to be a hot expansion candidate for the Pac 12 or Big 12, the reality is this Aztecs team sorely misses their 2021 defensive leaders in Cameron Thomas, Tayler Hawkins and Trenton Thompson- all of whom are in the NFL. The Aztecs haven’t found a way to replace them.

On the other side of the ball, Coach Brady Hoke emphasized in this week’s press conference that he wants the offense to be more balanced.

This suggests that the Aztecs will not embrace a run-first identity despite the tremendous production in the run game compared to the passing game. With two All-Pac 12 players in the Utes’ secondary, SDSU may encounter similar troubles to what they faced vs. Arizona and in the 1st half against Idaho State. Incompletions early on in the game will create short time of possessions which is a recipe for disaster. Handing the ball over to a Utes offensive that can score quickly by using bunch formations and crossing rub route to confuse the young Aztecs secondary is only going to put the Aztecs in an early deficit that will be difficult to overcome without an effective passing game.

Utah is loaded with experienced players who almost knocked off a tough SEC opponent on the road in front of a hostile crowd and are favorites to win the Pac 12 conference again. The Utes are very tough to beat on their home field and crowd noise may impact the Aztec offense’s ability to communicate on the field. My heart wants to go with SDSU in another close one but my head says this game will not be close. I hope the Aztecs prove me wrong.

SD Sports Fiend’s Prediction

Utah 38 Aztecs 13

Watch & Listen below to the latest Sons of Montezuma Podcast episode recapping last week’s win over Idaho State and Previewing the SDSU vs Utah matchup.

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