Aztecs start the season 3-3. Obviously not what fans wanted, but was this a realistic expectation?
Quarterback controversy? Check. Coaching change? Check? Highly touted player transfer out? Check? Key injuries? Check.
Seems like the Aztecs are checking all the boxes for what looked like a stellar season, into one that leaves the Aztecs sitting at 3-3 at the midway mark. The season has been not been smooth sailing on the Mesa. Snapdragon has been a fairly friendly home for the Aztecs, going 3-1 so far. The Aztecs have yet to win a road game. The last six games of the year are evenly split between home and the road. Can the Aztecs manage to win at least three more games to become bowl eligible?
The season started with high anticipation and expectation, building upon last years dynamic 12-1 run. Transfer quarterback Braxton Burmeister rode into town expecting to help propel the Aztecs offense with a consistent level of play. Not knocking his effort, but his performance has been subpar. Granted he has been knocked around like a pinball and has had to leave several games. He is a tough kid and one can only hope his physical health is ok after taking multiple beatings. His passing statistics show a serious breakdown leading to one of the worst passing offenses in the country. He was 36/72 for a 50% completion percentage for 263 yards, 2 TD’s, 3 picks and a 7.3 yard per catch average. Glaring is the longest pass play of only 26 yards. In fact, three rushes accounted for longer gains than the longest passing play. His rushing was spirited to say the least. It seemed every time he ran the ball he was mugged. He carried 38 times for a net 188 yards, a 4.9 yard average including 1 TD, a 47 yard run.
Enter Jaylen Mayden. Little was expected from the Mississippi State transfer when he filled in for Burmeister in the Hawaii game. The tale of the tape showed there is a controversy brewing that might see a quarterback change. Mayden led the Aztecs to a come-from-behind victory against the Warriors which included a 24/36 passing performance for 322 yards, 1 TD and zero interceptions. He also added a few yards rushing, providing the possibility of a running threat. More importantly was his confidence, can-do attitude and his desire to help the team. This week will see competition between these two quarterbacks. Popular sentiment is going with Mayden. This is on top of highly touted prospect Will Haskell leaving the team and entering the transfer portal. Granted the quarterback position will be up for grabs. One wonders if Mayden gets the nod, perhaps Burmeister can move to safety.
The Aztec passing game finally came to life with key receivers Jesse Matthews, Tyrell Shavers and Brionne Penny getting touches. If the Aztecs can continue to build upon this momentum, they may be able to capture an extra win or two. The rushing game has not reached expectations either. Injuries to Chance Bell and disruptions to the offense has led to wondering who is going to step up and lead this group. At this time, Jordan Byrd is forefront with 52 carries for 307 yards and 3 TD’s. Following him is Jaylon Armstead with 18/190 and a nice 10.6 yard average, Chance Bell with 105 yards on 22 carries, Cam Davis with 104 yards and one score, and Kenan Christon adding 98 more. As a team, the Aztecs have 1059 yards for an average of 176.5. Not too bad, but with an anemic passing game, one can immediately spot the problems.
To address these issues, coach Brady Hoke, fired offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski and promoted Jeff Horton (a lot of Jeffs in the news) and hired former Aztec great Ryan Lindley as quarterbacks coach. These improvements produced immediate results in the tight 16-14 win over Hawaii. These changes have not had much time to gel quite yet, but could have the makings of a resurgence in the Aztecs offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Aztecs have given up an average of 23.8 points per game and 394 yards in total offense. Michael Shawcroft leads the team with 35 tackles despite missing the last game with an injury. The Aztecs desperately need his leadership. Following him is CJ Baskerville with 32 tackles, Patrick McMorris with 31 and Caden McDonald with 30. The three Aztec losses were pretty definite, with the defense giving up 38, 35 and 35 points. Sometimes it seems the defense gives up when they are overmatched. It could be a sign the team is quitting, or just frustrated that the offense isn’t doing their share of the work. Last week's game against Hawaii really showed a concerted team effort. The offense was performing, albeit with understood baby steps. The defense played stout against a very improved Hawaii team and special teams won it with a last-second field goal. I believe that the Aztecs may have turned the proverbial corner. They will use this time off to heal and recuperate, reestablish some key players and work to develop their offense playbook to include Mayden as the quarterback. If the coach decides to retain Burmeister, expect a quick exit stage left if he does not perform. After all, there is a star waiting in the wings.
Looking ahead to the Aztecs remaining games.
As the Aztecs navigate their own internal issues, they will be encountering the meat of their 2022 schedule. Awaiting them on October 22 are the Nevada Wolfpack who are currently bringing up the rear in the Western division. After a quick 2-0 start, they find themselves victims of four losses in a row, including a heart-breaking loss to Colorado State. Nevada will play at Hawaii this weekend, which the lser will probably occupy the cellar. Nevada was given a bum hand to start the year with the departure of the coach and players en masse. Their schedule after Hawaii doesn’t get any easier as they host San Diego, travel to San Jose, host Boise State, host Fresno and travel to UNLV to end the season. It looks like Hawaii might be the last opportunity for them to win a game and 3-9 might be the eventual lotto numbers for them. I predict an Aztec win.
Next up for the Aztecs is is a road game against Fresno State. This had divisional championship written all over it to start the year. Injuries have depleted Fresno State and relegated them down from the high shelf it held at the beginning of the season. The Bulldogs tangle with the Spartans this week (This Spartan alum is excited to see them put a neutering on the dogs this year after last year's humbling beat down). Fresno then travels to New Mexico and then home for the previously stated matchup against the Aztecs. They then host Hawaii, and travel to UNLV and Nevada (back-to-back trips to Nevada, I’m sure someone wanted an extended casino vacation) and finishing up with a home contest against Wyoming. The season hinges on when Jake Haener returns. He is the engine that drives the Bulldog machine. I think the Dogs can win 4 of their remaining 7 games, leaving them short of bowl eligibility. San Diego State should be able to handle Fresno State, but it might be close.
After Fresno State, the Aztecs are home against the UNLV Rebels. The Rebels started fast, then had a dose of reality against San Jose State. They play Air Force and Notre Dame before traveling to San Diego for their game on November 5. They then play Fresno State at home, travel to Hawaii and back home for the rivalry showdown versus Nevada. The Rebels lost their starting quarterback Doug Brumfield so nailing that position down will be key. They are the feel good story of the year, having previously been like a Hoover vacuum. Kudos to Coach Arroyo and staff for the great turnaround. I think they will win at least 3 of their remaining games putting them at 7-5. I think the Aztecs will run into some problems with UNLV and would not be surprised to see them lose a close one at home.
Next is a home game on November 12 against the upstart San Jose State Spartans. Expected to finish 4th in the division and maybe make a bowl, the Spartans are rallying around coach Brent Brennan, a dominating defense and an exciting offense that centers around quarterback Chevan Cordeiro. He has won the MWC offensive player of the week twice in a row, and looks to be the hands-on favorite for the conferences offensive player of the year. His dual-threat ability are leaving teams wondering what to do. Cordeiro has a compliment of three wide-out transfers from Nevada and a newly utilized tight end Dominick Mazotti, (a former high school student of mine) who had a breakout game. The Spartans have continued to get stronger and their schedule includes this weekends big game in Fresno, followed by a road game against New Mexico State, home against Nevada and Colorado State, then to Snapdragon for the game against the Aztecs. They finish up on the road against Utah State and then home against Hawaii. Barring any substantial injuries and a complete meltdown, it is conceivable this team has what it takes to run the table. As a Spartan alum, we always tend to be over-optimistic when it comes to the football team, as we have experienced so few moments of brilliance. This might be one of them. The Aztecs barely beat the Spartans last year in double overtime in San Jose and I think this year the Spartans return the favor with a convincing win in regulation.
Following this game is a match in Albuquerque against the New Mexico Lobos. This should be an Aztec win despite some improvements for the Lobos. Prior to San Diego State, New Mexico plays New Mexico State (win), host Fresno State (loss), travel to Utah State (loss) and Air Force (loss). Then home against the Aztecs before finishing the season at Colorado State (win). New Mexico is still a few years away from being competitive.
Finally, the Aztecs close out the regular season at home against Air Force. The Falcons had been flying high before two conference losses. Currently, at 4-2, they look to be a lock for a bowl game having games against UNLV, Boise State, Army, New Mexico and Colorado State before their showdown in San Diego. I expect the Falcons will be 8-3 when they play their season finale. This is always a hard test for most teams to handle the Falcon option, but the Aztecs seem to have their number, winning the last 9 contests. This will be a fantastic ending to the season, which I think the Aztecs will win and will send them bowling with a 7-5 record. Again, this is the Mountain West Conference and everything is not as it seems. There always seems to be a little man behind the big green curtain pulling levers and pushing buttons. There’s no telling what will wind up happening but rest assured, this is most definitely not Kansas.