The Aztecs are needing four wins in their next six games to achieve bowl eligibility. The path is full of obstacles but with a second half resurgence, the Aztecs should accomplish another bowl appearance.
A well-timed mid-season break should provide the means, methods, and motivations for the Aztecs to retool their, until now, anemic offense. Facing Hawaii, also coming off of a break, the Aztecs might see an opportunity to have a breakout game. With the running game of Air Force in the rearview mirror and with the offensive possibilities of the close Boise State loss, the Aztecs should feel they can both move the ball as well as stymie Hawaii’s offense. Through the first five games, opponents records were 22-6. Heading into the last half of the season, current records are 13-21. The Aztecs played a tough schedule to open the season, but have winnable contests on the backside. On defense, the Aztec pass rush should be able to pressure Hawaii QB Brayden Schager, himself a victim of six sacks against UNLV two weeks ago. With that pressure, the Aztec secondary should be able to rise to the occasion and resume their sticky-fingered thievery. Cedarius Barfield leads the team with three picks, followed by Noah Tumblin with two and several others with a single interception. The defensive has only accounted for eight sacks, but expect them to add substantially to that number. Linebacker Zyrus Fiaseu leads the team with two sacks and 39 total tackles. He has also accounted for two forced fumbles and one recovery. Expect the Aztecs to return to a defense-first mindset in Alohaland. On the other side of the ball, the offense looks to establish a run game early and often. Aztec QB Jaylen Mayden should be able to manage the game without too much fear of Hawaii. They have only one interception on the year and have been pretty liberal in allowing points, having given up an average of 33 points a game, including 44 against UNLV. This is the week that freshman Baylin Brooks will return to relevance after having been shut down by Air Force. Mayden will establish himself as the field general he is and contribute to a well-balanced offensive approach.
The Warriors behind 2nd year coach Timmy Change have attempted to revitalize their Run and Shoot offense.
The Warriors head into the contest against San Diego State off of a 44-20 loss to UNLV. They are obviously on a rebuilding mission behind coach Timmy Chang. Hawai‘i has scored 20 points or less in each of its last three games, averaging 16.7 points per game during that span. In contrast, the Warriors averaged 27.7 points per game in their first three games of the season. Offensive consistency has been a challenge. The Warriors are led by QB Brayden Schager who has completed 155 passes on 243 attempts for 1,661 yards, 14 TD’s and 7 interceptions. The downside is that his offensive line has done a poor job of protecting him as he has been sacked 25 times. Expect the Aztecs to apply copious amounts of pressure. Their running game has been impotent, averaging less than 60 yards a game. They rank last in the country in rushing. The mainstay there is Jordan Johnson with 192 yards on 31 carries. The only rushing TD’s have come from the quarterbacks. The true strength lies in the passing component. Schager has thrown to 18 different receivers on the season. He has distributed passes to five different running backs as well four completions to offensive lineman Solo Vaipulu. Highlighting the receiver corp is standout Steven McBride with 30 receptions and 469 yards and 6 TD’s. He is complemented by freshman Pofele Ashlock who has grabbed 38 balls for 465 yards and 3 TD’s.
San Diego State (2-4, 0-2 MWC) vs. Hawaii Warriors (2-4, 0-2 MWC)
Location: Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex and Les Murakami Stadium (Conferences longest named athletic complex?) Honolulu, HI. (Capacity 17,000, a short drive to Waikiki Beach) Ready the sunscreen.
Date/Time: Saturday, October 14 @ 7:00 PM PST
Betting Line: The Aztecs start as a 6-point favorite despite being the visiting team. The over/under is 53.5 points according to Draft Kings. The score has a projection of 30-24 in favor of San Diego State. Air Force. ESPN analytics predicts a 54% chance of a Hawaii victory. Bettors are placing 60% of bets for Hawaii to beat the spread.
TV: CBS Sports Network
RADIO: San Diego Sports 760
History: This is the 38th meeting between the Aztecs and Warriors. The Aztecs own a 24-11-2 overall record including last year's closely contested 16-14 victory. Interestingly enough the Aztecs are 11-7-2 in their games in Honolulu. The first game of the series was in San Diego in 1939, a 13-0 Hawaii victory. The following year, the Aztecs traveled to the islands and suffered a 33-7 loss. Ironically, the game was on December 7, 1940, exactly one year before Pearl Harbor and World War II would cancel the series until 1950. The Aztecs sported a 9-game win streak and have won 8 out of the last 10 contests.
Keys to the Game
- Will special teams continue to perform? Jack Browning heads into the Hawaii game, as owner of a 61-yard field goal against Air Force. He is 4/5 on field goals of 50+ yards. He is only 8/12 on field goal attempts but has connected on all 12 of his PAT attempts. Since he also doubles as the punter, he gets to see a lot of activity. While his punting average of 41.4 yards per kick is subpar, he has been timely in providing good field position. I expect Hawaii will need to punt about 6 times, which might give the Aztecs to gain some quality return yards. Of interesting note, Browning and Hawaii kicker Matthew Shipley are the only kickers in the Mountain West Conference who handle both the punting and place-kicking duties.
- Will the offense set the tempo and control the game? The Aztecs are set up perfectly in this game to control the tempo, time and plays. Expect the defense to get frequent stops, but with caution on the long play. Hawaii receivers have gone for insanely big plays. For example, 55, 53, 38, 34, 33, 29, 24, and 23 are the long plays of eight of their receivers. Teams that live by the sword can die by the sword as well. With the Aztecs running game ready to break out, expect time of possession and number of plays to be in the Aztecs favor. The Aztecs are a -1 on turnovers while the Warriors are a -6. I would anticipate the Aztecs to be a +3 on the game with several interceptions to add to their ongoing total. If Mayden can avoid the rush, he should be able to pick apart the Hawaii secondary. Linebacker Isaiah Tufaga leads the team in tackles with 40 and has 2 sacks. This game should be the precursor to a successful second half of the season, with Wolfpacks, Aggies, Rams and Spartans to follow, oh my.
- Coaches Comments: Coach Brady Hoke is on the hot seat, with many fans taking to social media to voice their displeasure. Fortunately, this article does not quote many comments as they are not suitable for a family-friendly blog environment, but needless to say, Aztec AD John David Wicker will be weighing his coaching and financial options come the end of the season. A deep-pocketed donor may be needed to oust Hoke, otherwise, expect him to be running the show for the next few years. Some of his comments from the weekly presser include, “Take each game one at a time and we want to play more than our six guaranteed games...Some of our adversity is self-inflicted. Part of that helps with your mental toughness. One thing we do during a bye week is to self-scout, look at what we’re doing and correct the performance we don’t want.” On Hawaii, Coach Hoke adds, “They have a really good QB, as well as gifted wide receivers. On defense, they will try to create negative plays. They will try to run the ball (so far it has proven mostly unsuccessful) and I think we’ve got to do a good job of shutting the run game down and focus on the QB.” Read into this, the game centers on the quarterback and we will do everything we can do to contain him. He hasn’t shown a propensity to run, basically sitting back in the pocket. Pressure is the key. Expect blitzes and different looks on defense to try and hurry his throws.
Analysis/Prediction: This game is pretty much a strong opportunity win for the Aztecs. Both teams are struggling at 2-4 on the season. While the Aztecs could continue their four-game losing streak, it seems this will be a game that shapes up well to play to the Aztecs strengths. My pre-season pick was a 27-21 Aztec victory. I’m revising the final score to be more along the lines of 32-17. This would beat the spread, but fall slightly short of the over/under. The Aztec defense will prevail over the Warriors offense and control most aspects of the game. Their offense should find more of their run-oriented personality against an average Warrior defense. The Aztecs could easily look at winning their next five games before heading into a showdown against Fresno State at Snapdragon Stadium in November. Fortunately, their road does not go through Wyoming, who look to be the current conference darlings after taking down Fresno State last week. The conference has shown quite a bit of mediocrity this year, whether through parity or lack of talent. On the bright side, it does look as if the conference might have the driver's seat to having the top group of 5 team for a New Year's 6 bowl game. Both Air Force and Wyoming are in charge as they both meet this weekend in a titanic mid-season matchup. Wyoming will have two meaningful games in a row. It will be interesting to see how this game plays out. Boise State and UNLV are not out of the picture yet. Both are undefeated in conference play. Boise and UNLV both still have to play Air Force, Wyoming and Fresno State. The muddied waters will be a bit clearer after the Cowboys and Falcons meet in Colorado Springs. That game has Air Force as a 10.5 point favorite. If Air Force wins, their path looks very winnable heading into the season finale in Boise. If Wyoming loses that puts them at one conference loss, still in contention for the league championship, but probably not a NY6 bowl. If Air Force loses, the chances of a NY6 bowl getting convoluted with several one-loss teams. The MWC does seem to have better talent than other group of 5 conferences, but it seems as if many teams are either running on empty or on flat tires. Who will make the necessary pit stops and establish the momentum to make the run for the coveted NY6 bowl. One must also begin to wonder if six teams will be eligible. That bears some watching. In all likelihood, the team that wins the conference may not have a guaranteed slot. The madness continues and it’s not even March yet.