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Film Study: Behind a swarming D, San Diego State beats UCLA in Pasadena

Aztec offense turns Bruin turnovers into points

San Diego State v UCLA Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In this Mountain West Connection Film Study, we’ll detail how the San Diego State Aztecs, fresh off a 6-0 win in Week One over Weber State, managed to pull off a 23-14 victory on the road at UCLA, which is the fist win in school history over the Bruins.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned are some of the numbers:

  • San Diego State outgained the Chip Kelly-led UCLA offense in total yards, 373-261.
  • San Diego State controlled the clock, with 37 minutes, 16 seconds worth of possession while UCLA only had the ball for 21:44.
  • San Diego State, known for its physical run-oriented offense and 1,000-yard backs, gained just 80 yards on the ground against UCLA, averaged just 1.7 yards per carry, and still won the game.

So, how’d the Aztecs do it? By doing what they always seem to do: playing tough defense. And, at least against UCLA, capitalizing off turnovers.

After UCLA went up 7-0 on their first drive of the game, San Diego State answered with a 14-play drive, which is exactly what it needed to do — sustain a drive and not put an offense that just scored back on the field.

That game-tying drive featured this crafty play from quarterback Ryan Agnew to freshman Jesse Matthews on third-and-2 deep in Bruin territory. The Aztecs come out in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends), with tight end Parker Houston lined up in the traditional fullback spot behind Agnew. They fake a power, pulling the right guard, with a two-man route streaking to the boundary.

Agnew did a great job realizing the situation: The UCLA defender completely bypasses Matthews, who ends up getting some open grass to make the catch:

Two plays later, San Diego State hits paydirt with a 2-yard outside zone stretch run from Chase Jasmin out of 13 personnel. Check out the blocks thrown by Houston, who’s your fullback on the play, and the strong-side tight end, Dan Bellinger (88):

What followed that touchdown was something that will make any defensive coordinator happy: a takeaway.

On the second play of UCLA’s ensuing drive, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson finds Mike Martinez for a nice gain, but San Diego State’s 6-foot-2, 215-pound roving safety, Dwayne Johnson Jr., is right there to lay a hit and dislodge the ball. Tariq Thompson scooped it:

San Diego State’s offense turned that into a Matt Araiza 43-yard field goal seven plays later to give the Aztecs a 10-7 lead, which stayed until halftime.

That swarming Aztec defense caused more havoc in the second half, which its offense then turned into points.

This strip-sack by 6-foot, 235-pound linebacker Kyahva Tezino led to an Aztec recovery. To be honest, UCLA does a great job of not getting out of position to pick up this blitz. Tezino simply beats the Bruins’ center up the A gap in a one-on-one.

Two plays later, Agnew throws a 34-yard touchdown to Kobe Smith, as you can see in the GIF below. San Diego State comes out in 12 personnel with a pistol look in the backfield, with running back Jordan Byrd lined up directly behind Agnew.

If you want to manipulate linebackers to go to an area where you want them to be, running a play out of the pistol is a great way to do it. Watch how the two linebackers get drawn up the field on the play-action — that movement, however small it may be, creates that much more room for Smith to work with.

And Agnew did an incredible job of leading the defenders to think he’s going to pull it down an run, which helped keep the boundary corner (who you can’t see in this GIF) from getting depth.

The rest was all want-to from Smith, who kept churrning those legs until he crossed the goal line:

That was the last touchdown San Diego State would score, but the Aztecs would end up kicking two more field goals of 31 and 25 yards to seal the win.

The following two GIFs are a couple of throws from Agnew that I thought were really crucial to getting the offense in field-goal range.

On this play below, San Diego State is yet again in 12 personnel with a pistol look. The play-action, again, draws the linebackers towards the line of scrimmage. Those linebackers do a nice job of getting depth, however they’re doing it with their backs turned at Agnew, who fires a 15-yard strike to Smith. Smith runs a simple dig route towards the middle of the field, and since the UCLA linebackers don’t turn their heads soon enough, Smith sneaks in and finds a pocket of open grass. The drive stalled after that, but the Aztecs pumped their lead to 20-14 with a 31-yard field goal:

On this play below, San Diego State is faced with a third-and-3. The offense comes out in tight 13 personnel. With another hard play-action to draw the linebackers toward the line of scrimmage, Agnew finds Matthews for an 18-yard first-down completion.

Matthews runs a wheel route and gets man-to-man coverage. UCLA’s Elijah Gates has great coverage on the play, but never turns his head to locate the ball. Agnew’s pass is slightly underthrown — maybe on purpose? — and Matthews makes the acrobatic catch. Araiza connected on a 25-yarder soon after that:

That stout Aztec defense forced the UCLA offense to turnover the ball on downs twice after this catch, and San Diego State went home with a win.

This is going to be fun defense to watch this season. San Diego State head coach Rocky Long has that unit humming through two games, which is bad news for New Mexico State (0-2), which hosts the Aztecs this Saturday.

Granted, New Mexico State has faced two high-powered Power Five offenses in Washington State and Alabama, and have scored 17 combined points. But make no mistake about it: San Diego State will be wanting that shutout this Saturday. I’m interested to see if it’ll get it.