The Aztecs have won a back-to-back set of games for the first time this season with a 23-7 victory over the Nevada Wolfpack on Saturday night. Brady Hoke’s team has alternated wins and losses each game but, following a bye week, was able to pull a second win in a row together after they beat Hawaii two weeks ago.
The game was a crucial next step in the hunt for their 22nd conference championship and the progression on both sides of the ball. It was the first of two back to back road games faced against divisional teams that has given the Aztecs trouble in recent years. The Aztecs needed a victory before heading into next Saturday’s contest against an always stout Fresno State team.
At times this divisional matchup had its bright spots and its rough streaks. But in the end, a win is a win and the boys in red & black more than made the necessary plays—they imposed their will against the lowly Wolfpack.
There was a ‘moose on the loose’ in the Sierra-Nevada mountains.
All the attention coming in to this week was focused on the feel good story of Jalen Mayden’s re-conversion back to the quarterback spot. As we detailed in our Nevada preview, this game would present some challenges from an opportunistic Wolfpack secondary.
Mayden’s night wasn’t nearly as stat driven as two weeks ago and he is still yet without a passing touchdown. But his 12/25 156 yards and 7 carries for 50 yards were just as phenomenal as once again he put the offense on his back and lead the Aztecs to victory.
Mayden’s miraculous 30 yard TD run in the 3rd quarter was more proof of the young lefty’s abilities in his arsenal. It was one of those plays reminiscent of a Mike Vick or Lamar Jackson—and that’s no hyperbole.
All night Mayden demonstrated his poise in the pocket again. But on this particular play no receivers were open and time in the pocket was running out.
Mayden maneuvered himself, sliding forward then backward, dodging incoming defensive lineman as if he had eyes on the back of his head—or felt his spidey sense tingling. He then slipped out the left side of the backfield, turned the corner around four wolfpack defenders and with the help of some key blocks by route runners Tyrell Shavers and Jay Rudolph, he outraced everyone passed the goal line and into the endzone.
Overall on the night Mayden was steady in the passing game. He continued to connect with WR Tyrell Shavers 3 catches for 36 yards. Jesse Matthews had 3 catches for 27 yards. Brionne Penny snagged 1 for 22, and Mekhi Shaw hauled in 1 for 13.
One of the positive signs of this Jeff Horton & Jalen Mayden offense has been the subtle inclusion of the tight ends. Mark Redman was involved early, but not often, as he grabbed 2 catches for 34 yards.
It was another performance that may have not concluded with any touchdown strikes, but left you feeling the cohesion and rhythm in the passing game was a real asset to the offense and no longer a detriment.
Perhaps the pass of the night was one big 3rd down conversion to QB turned WR Braxton Burmeister. Burmeister got into the game for a few plays as was expected and caught a pass for 19 yards in stride to keep the chains moving. It was a play that showed another glimpse of potential in OC Horton’s offense. If he could interject a positive wrinkle with the speedy Burmeister, it could be a real X factor moving forward.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Unfortunately the bigger story of the offense this night is the struggling play of the offensive line. Arguably no one has it tougher than the young men on the line having to get up to speed with not only all the schematic changes but personnel changes.
The young O-Line continues to show many spots of inconsistent play with false starts, holding, and face mask penalties. Often the miscues halted any momentum the offense had built up and effectively took them out of the red-zone multiple times. Absolutely brutal considering this game was played in front of a less than raucous crowd.
Coming into this 2022 season, SDSU was fully aware that their projected O-Line was going to be the #6 youngest in the nation in terms of career starts. Nearly every other team represented on that list is accompanied with a struggling offense including Bowling Green, New Mexico, Iowa, and Middle Tennessee.
A bright spot to look forward to was the return of Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli that talented redshirt freshman. The right guard was able to come into the game action in the 2nd half. It was his first playing time in weeks going back before the by week.
The line struggles may also be a problem when it comes to the running game. Chance Bell continues positive production but is still limited due to his injury. With a slightly increased workload Bell’s 12 carries and 55 yards gave him another solid average at 4.6 yards per carry.
Most importantly Bell showed his toughness and kept churning his legs to get yards after contact. His opportunities will increase, but if he truly wants to help take this running game to the next level he must take advantage of the touches. In the game his dropped swing pass had potential to be a TD.
Jordan Byrd began the game with visibly more touches than any other RB and even had many of those carries between the tackles with a fullback leading the way. His 10 carries for 30 yards were tough earned and not sure if this style best suits his kind of athleticism. With scoring plays earlier this season, Byrd was most effective getting the ball in space on short passes.
When taking QB runs out of the equation, the running backs totaled just 32 carries for 111 yards. Clearly the Aztecs have been looking for balance all season long. With a struggling O-Line trying to create that rhythm that isn’t heavy on either the pass or run has been a challenging pursuit.
Defense Flexes Their Muscle
The real story of this game is by far the defense. Perhaps their best outing, the unit made their presence known on the game’s 2nd play from scrimmage. That’s when LB Michael Shawcroft delivered a punishing hit to the RB causing a fumble. The loose ball was quickly snatched up by Safety Patrick McMorris and returned for the games opening score.
Nevada’s starting QB Nate Cox was rendered completely ineffective against the Coach Mattix’s squad. Quickly Nevada switched to their backup Shane Illingworth and he put together a respectable game going 21/33 for 181 yds with 1 TD and 1 INT.
There were impressive performances all over by the Aztecs. Michael Shawcroft eager to return since missing the Hawai’i game two weeks ago, was the leader among them with 7 Total Tackles, 1 sack, and 2 Tackle for loss.
The linebacker has been impressive all season long bringing energy and instincts within the defensive scheme. His return wasn’t unnoticed as his performance earned him the Mountain West Defensive Player of the week.
Seyddrick Lakalaka made his mark with physical play totaling 6 tackles. Patrick McMorris as mentioned had his 30 yard scoop and score and was very close to adding a big interception. Keshawn Banks had by far his best game of the season. 5 tackles total with 3.5 of them being tackles for loss.
All throughout however it was the Tavai brothers that provided the biggest impact. Jonah Tavai lead the way with 2 sacks and was a disruptive force all night. Meanwhile brother Justice Tavai deflected a Illingworth pass up in the air to himself and made the INT that set up the Aztecs on Nevadas’ 25 yard line resulting in a Jack Browning field goal.
The defense demonstrated the kind of quarterback pressure the Aztecs will need in order to get where they want to be.
By The Numbers
In the end there are a few things to get excited about. A growing passing game and balanced offense that produced 16 first downs to keep the chains moving. In addition, the Aztecs put together a so-so 3rd down efficiency of 6 for 16. These two areas had previously been points of contention preventing this offense from doing much positive. Not enormous but improvement nonetheless.
The ability for SDSU to posses the ball at a controlling 34:27 to Nevada’s 25:43 allowed the defense to not be on the field all game long and not tire out in the 2nd half.
But there are enough mistakes to keep the fire burning in the coaches film room when they show the team where they need to improve. 11 Penalties for 91 yards is nearly ⅓ of the total offensive yardage from SDSU.
Did the Aztecs take the next step? Yes. But an even greater leap must be made next weekend against long time bitter conference rival Fresno State. Strides must be made to seize control of the West division with that win, but the path to a championship is all within this teams reach with Jalen Mayden and this defense.