The Aztecs returned from Salt Lake City early Sunday morning and it was a road trip they would soon rather forget. After holding #14 ranked Utah scoreless through the 1st quarter, the wheels came off for the Aztecs as the Utes scored 35 unanswered points in route to a 35-7 loss.
In the process, the Aztecs lost starting quarterback Braxton Burmeister for the game due to being gouged in the eye.
They also lost backup QB Will Haskell who announced on Tuesday he will be leaving the team and entering the transfer portal. This came after he was pulled from the Utah game after only 3 snaps and replaced by true freshman Kyle Crum who finished the game passing 5-16 for 53 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception.
Coach Brady Hoke announced Burmeister will return to the starting lineup this week with Crum and another true freshman Liu Aumavae as the lone backups.
Despite the controversy surrounding the program, the Aztecs must prepare for the Toledo Rockets (2-1) who are coming off of a blowout road loss at #3 Ohio State 77-21. The game is set for 12:30pm PST at Snapdragon Stadium and will be televised on Fox Sports 1.
Toledo comes into the contest as a 3 point road favorite. It’s difficult to gauge how good this Rockets team is based on their 3 lopsided games: 2 blowout wins vs. FCS Long Island University and FBS doormat U Mass and the loss to the Buckeyes.
The Rockets are led on offensive by the spectacular play of Dequan Finn. The dual threat sophomore QB has thrown for 541 yards and 5 TDs against 2 INTs. He is also the team’s leading rusher with 208 yards and 4 TDs. Finn managed to keep the game vs. Ohio State close in the 1st quarter because of plays like this.
Finn’s top targets are wide receivers Jerjuan Newton and Demeer Blankumsee who have a combined 26 receptions for 325 yards on the season.
The Rockets’ front 7 are the strength of their defense while their secondary is young and vulnerable to giving up big plays. Former 4-star Ohio State transfer Dallas Gant anchors Toledo’s defense. The 6’3 225lb. middle linebacker leads the team with 24 tackles and 1 forced fumble.
Playing next to him is Dyontae Johnson, a 6’2 230lb. outside linebacker who has registered 21 tackles. Jamal Hines, a 6’3 250lb. pass rusher, was named preseason 1st Team All-MAC. He has 14 tackles on the season but no sacks. DT Desjuan Johnson and safety Maxen Hook have been productive players for the Rockets defense this season.
3 Keys to Victory
1. Improved Passing Game
One of the biggest concerns to the Aztecs offense is the lack of a passing game that can stretch the defense. SDSU has made big plays in the past in Coach Hecklinski’s system with back shoulder throws to receivers along the sideline and RPO vertical routes. One has to wonder why more of these plays are not being called? The video below is a textbook example of the Aztecs executing a vertical RPO route vs. Arizona in 2021.
Play calls will depend on the look the defense gives the Aztecs offense. Toledo’s defensive backs played 10 yards off the line of scrimmage on Ohio State’s fast receivers to take away the vertical threat. This allowed more completions for the Buckeyes underneath. If Toledo’s secondary takes a similar approach, the Aztecs should be able to complete quick easy passes to its receivers Jesse Matthews, Tyrell Shavers and Brionne Penny for chunks of yardage.
2. Byrd & Christon in Space
The 2nd key to victory is complimentary to the 1st key. Since Toledo’s secondary has shown on tape to give receivers a lot of open room at the line of scrimmage, now is the time to lineup the Aztecs two fastest players on the team, Jordan Byrd and Kenan Christon, at the slot receiver position and get them the ball as a receiver in space.
This is a play call Aztec fans have been waiting patiently for 3 years for Coach Hecklinski to make but hasn’t happened to date. Most plays for Byrd lined up as a slot receiver involve him as a ball carrier in a misdirection play behind the line of scrimmage. He has 0 receptions in 2022. Byrd and Christon are a quick slant route and one missed tackle away from taking it to the house for 6 points. Give them an opportunity to do that.
Another way to get Byrd and Christon involved in the passing game and to utilize their speed is to call a wheel route for them. This involves them releasing out to the flat and then turning up field for a downfield catch. The Aztecs need to take advantage of mismatches and when Byrd or Christon are matched up with a linebacker, it’s the perfect time to clear out that side of the field and let them go one on one with a slower defender.
The video below shows Christon when he was at USC turning up field and getting behind his defender for a catch that he turns into a touchdown by breaking a tackle.
3. Who’s The Spy?
Finn’s quickness allows him to get out of the pocket and extend pass plays to his receivers. It also allows him to tuck the ball and run when he feels pressure in the pocket. He is averaging 8 ypc in 2022. The Aztecs need to prevent Finn from hurting them with both his arms and his legs. One way to contain his runs is by using a spy.
Ohio State tried this strategy and Finn still burned them for 70 yards on 7 carries and 1 touchdown. In the video clip below, Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers who has 4.5/40 speed was spying the QB but still couldn’t bring him down resulting in a Toledo 23 yard touchdown.
By identifying early who the spy was on the Buckeyes defense, Finn was able to react to the pressure and run through a gap on the offensive line at an angle away from Chambers.
The Buckeyes potent offensive attack put up enough points so the game wasn’t even close. The Aztecs have not shown to have as prolific an offense so containing Finn and not allowing him to rack up first downs and yardage by running the ball is going to be vital to the Aztecs hopes for a victory on Saturday.
A strategy the Aztecs have used to keep a QB guessing who the spy is on their defense is by using the spy first as a pass rusher and then dropping back off the line at the snap. We saw this vs. Utah when Jalen Mayden showed like he was pass rushing and moved to the spy position after the snap. This confused Utah which allowed Garrett Fountain to easily beat his man and bullrush a running back to register the sack.
The Aztecs defense will need Toledo to guess where the pass rush is coming from and who the spy is to keep them off balance. It’s up to the spy to then use proper tackling angles and technique to take down Finn for short gains.
While both teams are coming off of blowout losses to ranked opponents, the Aztecs have had the extra distraction of losing their backup quarterback Will Haskell to the transfer portal and questions surrounding the coaching staff’s handling of his benching at Utah. How will this affect the Aztecs preparation for Toledo?
There is growing discontent within the Aztec fanbase for changes to be made to the offense’s play calling and Hecklinski is feeling the most heat he has experienced during his tenure as Aztec offensive coordinator and QB coach. Will this light a fire underneath him and the rest of the offense to produce more? One week is not a lot of time to turn the offense around.
Another question to consider is the health of Braxton Burmeister. He has been injured in all 3 games this season. This comes on top of playing through a shoulder injury while at Virginia Tech in 2021. With the loss of Haskell, the Aztecs have 2 true freshmen backing up Burmeister. Hoke also said that Mayden will not be moved back to the QB position.
Toledo’s secondary is not nearly as talented as that of Arizona and Utah but should be much better than Idaho State’s secondary- a team the Aztecs threw for only 108 yards against. Involving the Aztecs top playmakers Byrd & Christon could help the Aztecs passing woes along with several targets to reliable receivers Matthews and Shavers.
The defense showed improvement against Utah and should continue to build on that momentum. SDSU has the advantage on special teams with Ray Guy Award watch list punter Jack Browning also doubling as a reliable kicker.
Temperature for the early kickoff is expected to be warm in the mid 80’s but not as brutally hot as the Arizona game. I believe this game will be close and decided on a few key plays by either side. The Aztecs are hungry to get back in the win column and should get it done.
SD Sports Fiend Prediction
San Diego State 24 Toledo 21