Aztecs start fast against the Blue Raiders but fail to find consistency on offense, losing 25-23 in the season finale
While much of the country was covered in cold, snow, and ice, San Diego State and Middle Tennessee State were enjoying the warm, tropical vibes of the Hawaiian Islands in the latest installment of the Hawaii Bowl. While the atmosphere was one of laid-back surf and sun, the game turned out to be offensively frigid and defensively stifling. Struggling all season to find a consistent offense, San Diego State continued that theme as they struggled to gain traction despite starting fast. Quarterback Jalen Mayden found tight end Mark Redman on a 9-yard TD pass halfway through the first quarter. A little more than two minutes later, Mayden tossed a screen pass to running back Kenon Christon and he outraced his pursuers nearly untouched for a 73-yard touchdown. This put the Aztecs up 14-0. The Aztecs had hoped to shed the memories of earlier fast starts against Boise State and Fresno State which ended in disaster. This game ended the same but took a much more circuitous route. After MTSU got on the board with a 44-yard field goal by Zeke Rankin, the Aztecs immediately turned the ball over on a Mayden interception. They then held MTSU on downs which included a back-breaking 4th down loss of sixteen yards. The Aztecs took over but managed only 21 yards and Jack Brownings 43 yard field goal attempt was wide left. The Blue Raiders took over, and after another futile attempt and punted the ball away. The first play from scrimmage resulted in a loss of three yards and a Mayden fumble at their own 17-yard lie. It took MTSU four plays to reach paydirt, an 8-yard pass from Cunningham to defensive end turned wide receiver Jordan Ferguson. The Aztecs could do nothing as their backward momentum continued to take over, resulting in a punt and the Blue Raiders took over at their own 48 with two minutes to play. They could do nothing either as their second play was intercepted by Aztec Dezjhon Malone at their own 32. With a minute and a half on the clock until halftime, the Aztecs merely needed to run out the clock to take a 14-10 lead into the lockers. Instead, a series that will be scrutinized took place. After a gain of nine on a pass from Mayden to Darius De Los Reyes, a second down pass went incomplete and a third down run up the middle to Jordan Byrd went for no gain. Fourth and short from their own 41 and the Aztecs came out to go for it. Most teams would probably try to power the ball with a quick handoff to a large back, but instead, what is becoming an all too familiar theme with teams in the Mountain West, Mayden lined up in the shotgun with Jordan Byrd deep with him. A handoff up the middle resulted in no gain. To add insult to injury, Byrd decided to have words with the officials and drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The Blue Raiders offense continued to be inept, losing six yards, but were able to settle for a 49 yard field goal making it 14-13 at halftime.
The second half was more of the same offensive struggles for both teams. The Aztecs showed an uncharacteristic ability to turn the ball over, having a total of 2 fumbles and 3 interceptions on the day. These were drive-stoppers and the Aztecs had to settle for three Jake Browning field goals in the second half. The Blue Raiders scored at the start of the 4th quarter after an Aztec interception. Two plays and a 16 yard TD pass from Cunningham to Jaylin Lane made the score 22-17. A two-point attempt failed. The Aztecs countered with two field goals, taking a brief 23-22 lead with over five minutes left to play. This would have been the time for the Aztecs defense to put a stop to the Blue Raiders, but several pass completions and a 4th down penalty, gave MTSU life and resulted in a 37 yard field goal with two minutes left to play. With the Aztecs trying to find a miracle, Mayden was sacked twice and finally with under a minute to play, tried a hook and lateral on 4th and 24, but the ball was fumbled and recovered by the Blue Raiders. Game and Season over.
The Aztecs defense played well, but gave up big plays and untimely penalties allowing drives to continue. They held MTSU to a -66 rushing including 7 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. They did have one interception and held MTSU to a total yardage of 170. Ordinarily, this would have won the game, but in a season straight out of The Twilight Zone, it wound up being wait till next year. The Aztecs managed 364 total yards on offense, but failed to establish a rushing game, accounting for only 55 yards on the ground. A strange stat is Jordan Byrd carried 11 times for 1 yard. Too many up-the-middle plays resulting in losses. One player who really stood out on the stat sheet was running back Kenon Christon. He had only one carry for zero yards, but had two receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown. Logic might have dictated getting him the ball more often. Jesse Matthews had seven catches for 99 yards and Tyrell Shavers had four more for 62 yards. For the Blue Raiders, it was Jaylin Lane with ten catches for 111 yards, and Izaiah Gathings with 69 yards on seven receptions. So many questions linger about the Aztecs heading into the offseason, but probably the story of the year was the emergence of Jalen Mayden as the quarterback. Starting the season as the third-team safety, he took advantage of injuries to Braxton Burmeister and the departure of Will Haskell to emerge as the leader on offense. Mayden has already acknowledged he will be returning next season but will need to have off-season work done with his mechanics and decision-making. While a talented player, he needs to do what he can to maximize repetitions. Many Aztecs will be lost to graduation and rebuilding will be in order. The early signing period shows the Aztecs addressing many of those needs, securing a strong early recruiting class. Offensive Coordinator Jeff Horton might have better success if he used more strategic situational play calls. Please eliminate the 4th down shotgun tailback dive play from any consideration. With a quarterback the size of Mayden, it should be a quarterback sneak in most plays. Of serious concern, are issues raised by fans about the ability of Coach Brady Hoke to manage a game more effectively. Questionable clock management and game-time decisions have led many to speculate that he may be on the hot seat. A disappointing 7-6 season this year following last year's 10-2 campaign is a punch to the gut of the Aztec faithful. With a successful 5-2 home record in new Snapdragon, a better road record should have been expected. The Aztecs will be in the backseat listening to the Pac 12/Big 12 over the offseason. Most pundits are expecting the Aztecs to be invited to either of these conferences during their expansion mode. This will certainly raise the expectation level of people towards the Aztecs and will require the Aztecs to reevaluate and retool as needed to be competitive.
Its been a fun time writing for the Aztecs on the MWC Connection website. Please continue to follow us as we transition to basketball. Must remember that the basketball is the large, round, orange ball and not the oval which looks like Stewie Griffith or Dora’s heads. Happy new year everyone.