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Nevada football 2021 offseason opponent preview: San Diego State

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Colorado State at San Diego State Photo by Justin Fine/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nevada football begins less than a month away!

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, there are three Saturdays until the Wolf Pack season kicks off.

This is our second annual offseason opponent preview. Each Thursday leading up to the season, I will be previewing each Pack opponent on their 2021 schedule — starting at the beginning.

This week, we preview Nevada’s 10th game against San Diego State, who Nevada beat in a thrilling 26-21 victory last year. Here’s a look at Nevada’s full 2021 schedule:

Nevada Football 2021 Schedule

Date: Opponent: TV: Time (all time PT)
Date: Opponent: TV: Time (all time PT)
Sept. 4 at California FS1 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 11 vs. Idaho State TBA TBA
Sept. 18 at Kansas State ESPN+ 11:05 a.m.
Sept. 25 BYE ---------
Oct. 2 at Boise State Fox Networks (specifics not yet announced) TBA
Oct. 9 vs. New Mexico State CBS Sports Network 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 16 vs. Hawai'i CBS Sports Network 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 23 at Fresno State Fox Networks TBA
Oct. 29 vs. UNLV CBS Sports Network 7 p.m.
Nov. 6 vs. San Jose State Fox Networks TBA
Nov. 13 at San Diego State CBS Sports Network 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 19 vs. Air Force FS1 6/7/7:30 p.m.
Nov. 27 at Colorado State CBS Sports Network 6 p.m.

Without further ado, let’s get into it!

Week 11: San Diego State Aztecs

2020 record: 4-4 (4-2 MWC)

When: Saturday, Nov. 13

Where: Dignity Health Sports Park in San Diego, Calif.

Matchup History: SDSU leads 7-6

San Diego State 2020 season-in-review

San Diego State began the season by winning three of its first four games — against UNLV (home), Utah State (road) and Hawai’i (home) — all coming by at least three scores. It’s average margin-of-victory in such games came by 26.7 points per contest. After a heartbreaking loss against the Wolf Pack in its fifth game, SDSU’s following game against Fresno State was cancelled due to COVID-19 issues. Injuries with inconsistent quarterback play toppled its season, falling in two of its final three contests against Colorado and then-No. 14 ranked BYU.

San Diego State on offense:

The Aztec quarterback race will be one to follow as the season approaches.

The odds-on-favorite starter is Lucas Johnson, though transfers Jalen Mayden and Jordon Brookshire plus freshman Marshall Eucker could steal the spot.

Johnson, the former Georgia Tech transfer, played in two games last season — though accumulated all of his passing stats against Nevada.

He went 14-of-24 for 184 yards and a touchdown, plus five carries for 29 yards and a score. He dominated the first half, but struggled after halftime and alternated drives with Carson Baker in the second-half while fighting a leg injury.

Johnson would not play for the remainder of the season.

He also couldn’t stay healthy in 2019 with Georgia Tech, limited to four games. He went 21-for-37 (56.8 percent) for 187 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Greg Bell, who also suffered a season-altering injury against Nevada, returns for his senior season.

Bell tallied 637 yards on 113 carries (5.6 ypc) with six scores last year. He became the first player in program history to record four-straight 100-yard rushing performances to begin the season, tallying 537 combined yards (on 85 carries; 6.3 ypc) and five scores across the four aforementioned outings.

After his foot injury against Nevada, where he finished with 10 carries for 28 yards and a touchdown, he was limited throughout the rest of the season. The former Nebraska transfer did, however, finish the season on a decent note — totaling 17 carries for 68 yards against BYU.

Bell added 11 catches for 114 yards and a receiving touchdown in 2020.

Chance Bell and Jordyn Byrd also return to the Aztec backfield. Chance Bell, unrelated to Greg, tallied 56 carries for 273 yards (4.9 ypc) and a touchdown with three catches for 26 yards. Byrd finished with 35 carries for 225 yards (6.4 ypc) with two touchdowns.

No Aztec hauled in more than 25 receptions last year.

Jesse Matthews led the way with 24 for 326 yards and a touchdown. All-Conference tight end Daniel Bellinger had 21 catches for 203 yards — finishing top-5 in the Mountain West amongst tight ends in both categories.

Kobe Smith added 13 catches for 122 yards, tallying a team-high two receiving touchdowns.

San Diego State returns three of its five starting offensive lineman from last season, led by All-Conference second-team tackle Zachary Thomas.

Thomas, who has started 17 combined games at right tackle over the last two seasons, transitions to left side to replace first-team tackle Kyle Spalding, who graduated.

Alama Uluave returns at center, while William Dunkle returns at guard. Dominic Gudino, who missed all of last year due to a hand injury, returns and is projected to start at the other guard spot.

San Diego State on defense:

The Aztec defense placed top-15 nationally in total defense (283.5 ypg; 3rd), scoring defense (17.8 ppg; 11th), rushing defense (98.2 ypg; 7th) and passing defense (185.2 ypg; 14th).

They return their entire front six, including two-time first-team All-Mountain West defensive lineman Cameron Thomas. He was the second Aztec — joining Alex Barrett (2015-16) — to earn multiple first-team All-Mountain West honors.

Thomas finished with 35 tackles, ranking second on the Aztecs in sacks (4.0) and tackles-for-loss (9.5).

SDSU’s three man-front also features nose tackle Jonah Tavai and Keshawn Banks. Tavai tallied 27 tackles and tied a team-high 4.5 sacks, adding seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Banks, an All-Mountain West honorable mention honoree, added 14 tackles with five tackles-for-loss and one fumble recovery.

Though last year’s counting statistics may not indicate as such, Banks is a force to be reckon with along the defensive line. He is two years removed from making second-team All-Mountain West, tallying a team-high 13.5 tackles-for-loss — fourth-most in the Mountain West — with 4.5 sacks in 2019.

Its three-man linebacking unit is led by Caden McDonald, who totaled a team-most 10 tackles-for-loss and tied Tavai for the team-lead in sacks. McDonald added 34 tackles with three pass breakups.

He is flanked by Michael Shawcroft and Andrew Aleki.

Shawcraft also finished with 34 tackles, adding four tackles-for-loss, a half-sack and a team-most two fumble recoveries. Aleki tallied 30 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and two pass breakups.

Where the struggles — or regression — may take place in the secondary.

All-Conference defensive backs Darren Hall, Tariq Thompson and Dwayne Johnson Jr. all elected to go to the NFL, though Hall was the only one drafted (Atlanta Falcons: 4th round, No. 108 overall).

Taylor Hawkins and Trenton Thompson come back as two of the team’s top returning tacklers. Hawkins added 38 tackles with one interception and three pass breakups. Thompson had 36 tackles with 4.5 tackles-for-loss, in addition to three pass breakups as well.

Will that experience be enough? Time will tell.

My thoughts:

If the Aztecs find consistent, reliable quarterback play, it should have a strong season. The Aztecs will also need to rely on a healthy Greg Bell to produce points, with or without a strong quarterback. The offense — and season — took a nose dive after Bell’s and Johnson’s injuries against Nevada. The offense couldn’t replicate it stout rushing attack to wear down teams in the second half, nor could it couldn’t convert in the red zone when it got there. Despite re-vamping the secondary, SDSU’s defense still projects to be a top-5 defensive team in the Mountain West. Its success will coincide with its offense, for better or for worse.