Defense shines as Aztecs continue through offensive malaise
Wanting to forget last weekend's game was top of mind for coach Brady Hoke and his Aztecs. Forget the bad and focus on what works. The Aztecs needed to settle into a game that would allow them to take advantage of their strengths. Establishing defensive momentum early by pressuring the quarterback and creating turnovers would be the magic bullet. Fortunately, as scripted, this is what happened in the first half with fumble recoveries by Garrett Fountain and Dallas Branch coupled with a mediocre 7/12/56 passing performance by Doug Brumfield that helped to put the Aztecs in the early driver's seat. Neither team was able to generate much on offense but the Aztecs were content to break out first. Jalen Mayden hit Jesse Matthews with a nifty 28 yard catch and run to put the Aztecs up 7-0 in the 2nd quarter. On that play, Matthews made the catch along the sideline, made a cut and outraced two Rebel defenders. The score was bookended by defense on both sides and became a game of field position. Both lefty gunslingers had decent moments, keeping their cool against a sometimes torrid pass rush. Brumfield would finish 17/27 for 207 yards with one TD and two picks. His Aztec counterpart was nearly identical throwing 19/31 for 216 yards, two TD’s and one interception.
The second half featured a 75 yard, seven play drive culminating with a 24 yard backfield play action toss to tight end Mark Redman who was all alone behind he UNLV defenders and the Aztecs were up 14-0. The Rebels wouldn’t go away as Brumfield connected with wide out Nick Williams for a 70 yard catch and run with 5 minutes left in the third quarter. The Rebels added a 29 yd field goal from Daniel Gutierrez early in the fourth quarter to bring the game to 14-10. That was how the showdown ended, both teams showing brilliance on defense along with the occasional offensive play. Rebels running back Aidan Robbins, a transfer from Louisville, returned from injury and powered his way for 115 yards on 21 carries. Through the air, they were led by Nick Williams with 94 yards on four catches and Ricky White with seven catches for 62 more yards. The Aztec's ground game was basically by committee with 8 different runners touching the ball. This includes punter Jack Browning, who muffed a punt that gave the Rebels their field goal opportunity. Jaylon Armstead was the second-half workhorse, rushing six of the final eleven plays to end the contest. He finished with 72 yards on fourteen carries to lead the ground game which managed a net 99 yards. Fortunately, the passing game was a bit more on point as Mayden connected with seven different receivers. Jesse Matthews led the way with 84 yards on five receptions.
“They kept themselves on the field...and won the football game for us,” Coach Brady Hoke said after the contest. “Both teams played really hard, but the thing I liked about our team is we finished” he added, alluding to how the Aztecs were able to close this game out.
Aztec defense continues to show their dominance
The Aztecs signature defense was on constant display once again. During the first half, eight UNLV drives ended in six punts and two fumbles. All totaled, the Rebels would turn the ball over four times. One of the keys was to provide early and consistent pressure on Brumfield.
“We were going to have to affect the quarterback. The DB’s... played phenomenal getting all those turnovers for us,” said Aztec linebacker Caden McDonald. UNLV came into the game with only 10 turnovers on the year. The defensive efforts aren’t ignored.
“Our defense worked so hard for us and they come up with so many big plays,” said WR Jesse Matthews. “I think it’s a confidence boost we could take into the last few games of the season.”
The Aztecs held UNLV to 61 total plays and had a decided edge in time of possession, 34 minutes to 26, despite being outgained offensively 325 - 315. The turnovers would be a key factor as the Aztecs only had the one endzone interception. The pressure the Aztecs put on Brumfield resulted in six sacks on the day.
Aztecs look to be duelin’ with the Spartans for bowl eligibility
This is a dramatically improved Rebel team from years past. Coach Marcus Arroyo has stuck with his plan and has shown he has what it takes to continue to move the needle. They still remain two wins shy of bowl eligibility. Fresno State controls their own destiny, and appear to be strongly entrenched in first place. They dominated Hawaii last night 55-13 and are now 5-4 on the season, needing only one win to be bowl eligible. Looking ahead to two weeks from now, the Aztecs travel to New Mexico, which on paper looks to be a sure Aztec victory, ensuring a sixth win. The following week, to end the season, the Aztecs host Air Force, and it would be good to have that win already secured. Up next week is a pretty interesting matchup against San Jose State. The Spartans are bowl eligible and sitting at 6-2 on the year and 3-1 in conference play. They are fresh off last nights hard fought 28-16 win at home against Colorado State. They are led by Hawaii transfer Chevan Cordeiro who has passed for over 1,200 yards and 11 TD’s. He is a dual threat escape artist, giving the Spartans the opportunity to extend plays. The Spartan defense is led by a relentless defensive line and depth at linebacker and secondary. As a team, they lead the league in scoring defense, averaging 16 points given up per contest. This is a game with two teams who mirror each other on defense, yet the Spartans have an edge on the offensive side of the ball. The Aztecs will need to review some past game film to see what works against San Jose as they prepare for next weekends game.
Jack Browning was not his usual outstanding self. It is not known if he had lingering effects from last weeks game, but he was wearing a brace on his left leg. While his punting seemed on point, he did miss two long field goal attempts and had the muff. The Aztecs are 4-1 while playing at Snapdragon, something the team hopes continues to be a trend. Penalties weren’t too much of an issue, but a touchdown run by Kenan Christon was called back due to a holding call. Jordan Byrd managed only 18 yards, while Christon had 11 and Chance Bell only had one carry for two yards. The Aztecs netted 99 yards rushing. This is an area of continued concern. To start the season, the Aztecs had no passing game and now they struggle with getting a consistent ground game. Their 2.4 yard average certainly will give one pause. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister came in for one play at the end of the half and he scrambled but wound up taking a loss of five yards. One wonders what his ongoing role will be. The defense, led by LB Michael Shawcroft and committee, was consistent and made the plays when needed. In a season of plot twists like Game of Thrones, it looks like it will be settled like many predicted in the Mountain West Championship game with Boise State and Fresno State. There stilll may be some drama left as teams battle for the coveted bowl eligibility. It remains to be seen how involved some key players will be. Burmeister struggled and provided more questions than answers. A dominant running back failed to emerge. As a unit, the defense was as advertised. As a team, the Aztecs probably performed a bit below some preseason expectations. But hey, there are still three games left to play and a bowl game. Let's see how the Aztecs are able to handle the Spartans, Lobos and Falcons, oh my.