Saturday's games threw the conference championship picture into disarray, but one thing is sure... the Aztecs are tied for last place. With their remaining games, it's a race to the bottom with New Mexico.
For all intents and purposes, the Aztec season has ended with a mighty thump. Repeating the season-long theme of lack of offense, the Aztecs struggled to sustain drives and gain momentum. Down 22-6 in the fourth quarter, they did find temporary life support with two scores, but they would wind up short, eventually bowing 22-19 in front of an announced crowd of 22,033 in Fort Collins. Needing a win to retain any bowl eligibility, the Aztecs (3-7, 1-5 MWC) started slowly against the Rams (4-6, 2-4 MWC). A safety and a Rams field goal left the first quarter with a 5-0 Rams lead. The Aztecs mustered just 17 yards of offense. They would continue the offensive futility going into halftime down 15-0. Again, the defense played a decent game, holding the Rams to 22 points, but the unenviable task of the defense to carry the game and score for the offense is just too much to ask. Time and again, the Aztecs were forced to punt, with Jack Browning punting five times for a 49.4-yard average. The Aztecs chose twice for field goals in the third period, which many feel was too conservative After three quarters, the Aztecs were down 22-6 and looking like it would be ‘fait accmpli’. To their credit, they made it a game with two scores in the last quarter. First, Jalen Mayden found the endzone with an 8 yard run with 11:37 remaining in the game. The ensuing two point conversion failed. Later, with 2:04 remaining, Jaylon Armstead managed to score on fourth down from one yard out to make it 22-19. The Rams then ran out the clock, effectively ending the Aztecs post-season.
Down 15-0, the Aztecs still hung tough, managing a spirited comeback.
It would have been easy for the Aztecs to just roll over, but they found pride and effort to claw back to make the last quarter entertaining. Quarterback Jalen Mayden managed to complete 19 of 25 passes for 128 yards. He also contributed 10 carries and 16 yards and a score. They were led on the ground by Cam Davis with 67 yards. Kenan Christon added 44 more yards on five carries. Jaylon Armstead contributed another 13 yards and the final score. The Aztecs again tried to establish the passing game, in hopes it would open the running game. The struggle to throw deep continues as nearly all throws were short crossing and out routes. Tight end Mark Redman led the receiving corp with 53 yards on four catches, Mekhi Shaw had 27 more. He also was returning punts and inadvertently touched a punt, which was ruled a fumble and recovered by the Rams. This would turn into a Rams field goal in the second quarter. On defense, Josh Hunter hit the stat sheet with 15 total tackles.
The Rams meanwhile rode behind quarterback Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi who was an efficient 17/30 for 202 yards and one interception. The key was the Rams run game. Known to be proficient passing, the Rams turned the tables on the Aztecs and accounted for 183 yards and two scores on the ground. They were led by Justin Marshall who had 119 yards on 18 carries and a score. Vann Schield added an additional 55 yards in a winning effort. The Rams accounted for 427 total yards while running 75 total plays.
Mountain West Conference in a frenetic free-for-all heading into the final weeks of play.
The Rams did not beat the four-point spread and the winning was the under, with the teams scoring 43 points against a 47 over/under. The score projection of 26-22 was pretty close. This was also the first time that the Rams had beaten the Aztecs at home. With the game talk done, the attention turns to coach Brady Hoke. Will the Aztecs follow the example set by Texas A&M and Boise State and fire him this season? True, donors don’t have the deep pockets the Aggies do, or the deep passion the Broncos do, but can the Aztecs and their community honestly deal with another season of failing to meet expectations? Don’t expect anything to happen until after the season, but it’s extremely likely the clock is ticking on Hokes' remaining tenure. One team who is flying high is the Aztecs next opponent, San Jose State. Their head coach Brent Brennan is riding a four-game winning streak, having dispatched Fresno State 42-18. The Spartans find themselves one game away from being bowl-eligible and expect them to look at this game to reach that goal. The Spartans have beaten their last four opponents by an average score of 42-16. They are led by pre-season all-conference quarterback Chevan Cordeiro and near 1000-yard rusher Kairee Robinson. On the receiving side, Nick Nash has eight scores and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Spartan tight end Dominick Mazotti. He was a former student of mine at Amador Valley High School. He has added 287 more yards on 20 receptions. The Mountain West has four bowl-eligible teams and three more knocking on the door. The Conference championship is far from set as both Fresno State and Air Force lost last week. UNLV is in the picture and with some help, Boise State and San Jose State could also be making some noise. While there is still some excitement around the league, the Aztecs will have to be content to settle into a role as spoiler. Heading into the game Saturday in San Jose, the Aztecs have a 14% chance to win. The following week is against Fresno State. Things aren’t easy, but most people thought that the season would have wound up better than it did. Look to see if any backup players get playing time and what happens with coach Hoke. It’s been a year of ‘Misery on the Mesa’.