Playing for pride, what do the Aztecs do to finish off this season? They need an offensive game plan to win games. With Coach Hoke retiring, will the players rally around their departing leader? Will they also get their young players valuable game experience?
The Brady Hoke era is coming to a close. The Aztecs (3-7), (1-5 MWC) are 14.5 point underdogs on the road against a San Jose State team (5-5), (4-2 MWC) that is firing on all 220 volts. They have won four games in a row in convincing fashion including a 42-18 victory over Fresno State that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates. The Spartans dominated every facet of play, rushing for over 300 yards, holding the Bulldogs to 83 yards rushing, and forcing six punts. The Spartans had a 28-3 lead in the second quarter and cruised to a convincing victory. The Aztecs will need to contend with a rejuvenated Spartan defense that has clamped down on the rush and throttled the pass. They will also need to contain running back Kairee Robinson, the conference's second-leading rusher and a scoring machine with 15 rushing scores so far. They also have to manage quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, who will meticulously slice and dice as he picks apart defenses. There seem to be many areas of concern that the Aztecs must find a way to navigate. First and foremost is scoring. The Aztecs are 115th in the country averaging 20 points a game. They rank #112 in total offense with 318.8 yards per game and 115th in passing yards at 175.7. On the defensive side, they are 114th giving up 417 yards a game. The Spartans are also 3rd in the country in turnover differential with a +11. It’s hard to imagine there will be much of a seismic change come Saturday, but California has been known to shake a few times in the past. Quarterback Jalen Mayden comes into the game with 1,725 passing yards (167/264) with 9 touchdowns but 7 interceptions. The Aztecs have struggled with the big play this year. Their two biggest are a 69 yard reception by Mekhi Shaw and a 62 yard run from Lucky Sutton. This will be a point of concern moving into the next season. The big play capability took a drop off this year and will need to be addressed under new coaches. Mayden is also the teams leading rusher with 411 yards. Behind him are Kenan Christon with 336 and Jalen Armstead with 273. They will need to find a new back of the future. Perhaps Lucky Sutton or Sheldon Canley Jr. should get some opportunities. Tight end Mark Redman has carried the team in receptions and yards with 32 catches and 353 yards. The passing game has been nearly as much a disappointment as the running game has been. No real consistent playmakers have emerged, forcing Mayden to check down to short routes or to a back out of the backfield. Running backs have accounted for 53 of the total receptions, sign receivers are unable to get open downfield. On defense, Sophomore Zyrus Fiaseu has been a bright spot at linebacker, leading the team with 62 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Cody Moon is right behind him with 58 stops.
San Jose started slow with expected losses against USC and Oregon State, but then suffered three losses which caused the coaching staff and players to recommit to themselves. Since then they are 4-0 and the hottest team in the conference.
After back-to-back losses against Air Force and Boise State, many Spartan loyalists (myself included) were lamenting that the coaching staff needed a shakeup. Both of these games saw large Spartan leads evaporate into the mist and result in losses. The bye week after the Boise State game recharge the Spartans into the machine they are now. They are led on the ground by the two-headed rushing tandem of Kairee Robinson and Quali Conley. Robinson was selected the MWC player of the week for his 200 yard performance against Fresno State. Between the two of them, they have accounted for 1,511 rushing yards, 22 touchdowns on the ground and have contributed another 447 yards and two scores on receptions. As these two go, so go the Spartans. Pre-season conference player of the year quarterback Chevan Cordeiro has settled into a nice groove where all the responsibility is not on his shoulders. That was evident earlier in the year when he felt he had to carry the team on every play. The game looks like fun now. He has thrown for 2,135 yards on 173-287 attempts and 16 touchdowns. His favorite target is converted quarterback Nick Nash. He has burst onto the scene with 8 scores on 568 yards and 41 receptions. He started the year with three TD receptions in the loss against USC. The Spartan receiving corp had to deal with the loss of their number one target, Justin Lockhart who has missed the entire season. Capable backups have emerged with Charles Ross, Malakhi Miller and tight end Dominick Mazotti (a former high school student of mine). On defense, many question marks were posed with the loss of several all-league performers. Tre Smith and Soane Toia have anchored the defensive line, while Bryun Parham and Matthew Tago have filled in as linebackers. The secondary is a tough unit with Tre Jenkins, Chase Williams, DJ Harvey, Michael Dansby, and Kenyon Reed rerouting receivers. But all the Spartan's success goes through head coach Brent Brennan. He has turned the program into one that believes in themselves and instills a sense of community and life and success after school. While his record might not show it, (31-47) he has the Spartans on the verge of another bowl game appearance. If the Spartans play their game and do what they have been doing, this game should be over by halftime.
San Diego State (3-7, 1-5 MWC) vs. San Jose State Spartans (5-5, 4-2 MWC)
Location: CEFCU Stadium, San Jose, California. (Old capacity 30,456. New construction capacity of around 22,000 in this 100-year-old structure). The weather forecast clear, 58 degrees).
Date/Time: Saturday, November 18 @ 6:30 PM PST
Betting Line: The Spartans are a 14.5 point favorites. The over/under is 50 points according to Draft Kings. The score has a projection of 37-13 in favor of the host Spartans. ESPN analytics predicts an 85.5% chance of a Spartan victory.
TV: CBS Sports Network
RADIO: San Diego Sports 760
History: This is the 47th meeting between the Aztecs and Spartans with the Aztecs holding a 24-20-2 lead in the series. Rams. The last meeting was in 2022, a 43-27 Aztec win at Snapdragon. The Aztecs are 9-1 in the last 10 games. The last SJSU win was in 2020, their MWC Championship season, a 28-17 win at Dignity Health Sports Park. The teams first played in San Jose in 1935, a 24-9 Spartan win. Of interesting note, from 1938 to 1946, the teams played six times and the Aztecs were shut out each game. The last Aztec shutout was in 1966, a 25-0 win. Will the Aztecs manage to avoid a shutout?
Keys to the Game
- Will the players play for Hoke one last time on the road? Will they be spirited or toss in the towel? Last week's game against Colorado State was seriously lacking in passion, excitement, and intensity until the fourth quarter. They will need to start quicker if they are to hang with the Spartans. A conservative, slow start will doom the Aztecs against the high-powered Spartans. Last week, they seemed to be content to settle for field goals. If they get into a game trading field goals for touchdowns they will dig a hole that they cannot climb out of. It will pain them to go for it on fourth and short, but they need to realize they are playing with nothing to lose. That can be a bit scary, but this season has been full of frights and haunts. Mix up the expected. Blitz. Throw deep. Go for it on fourth down. Play substitutes. See what happens. At least it might revive some fans who have checked out as comatose.
- Offense. Buehler, Buehler. Nothing yet to speak of. Give one of the youngsters a try to break this roadblock of monotony. Leadership starts at the top and much of the season it has been Head Coach Brady Hoke on the hot seat. Now that Hoke is on his last two days, what messaging is being transferred to the players? Play for each other? Have fun? Why not throw out expectations and just go out and play and see what happens? Fans are finally going to see the swan song of their coach and much will be discussed until a replacement happens. Until then, let’s see who the young Aztecs have waiting in the wings. I’d like to see Tobin O’Dell run the offense for a few series to see how he does. Maybe a few throws mixed in. Josh Nicholson and Baylin Brooks have raised some hopes in a limited capacity as wideouts. Anything to shake up the known expectations, especially in personnel. The biggest knock against the Aztecs this year is their high level of predictability, ineffectively executed. A new look, much like a new haircut might do wonders.
Analysis/Prediction: The Aztecs can either throw in the towel or get a look at what their future holds. The last two games will be tough, first with San Jose, and then in the season's home finale, against Fresno State. Can the fans see the light for next year and give this year's team that last emotional push across the finish line? Early in the season, this game looked to be an Aztec victory. This writer had this game circled and in the pre-season review, had the Aztecs losing 31-28. That’s looking to be more of a reality now. Considering the emotional roller coaster the Aztec players must be on and the momentum the Spartans have been building, I am revising the score to be 45-15 in favor of the Spartans. For obvious disclosure purposes, I am a Spartan alum, cheering and crying (mostly crying) for the Spartans ever since my undergrad days. I was in school during the Elway & Elway battles, so yes I’ve seen my fair share of games. This team has made an amazing turnaround behind their coach Brent Brennan who brings a culture of maturity, accountability, and responsibility to the San Jose State campus. The Aztecs will need to find a way to stop the Spartan's much-daunted rushing game while containing Chevan Cordeiro. The Spartans defense has bent but not broken lately and has come up with the big play. Jalen Mayden will need to keep his composure, which he usually does. He will need to eliminate turnovers, as the Spartans capitalize on other teams' mistakes. Expect the coaching staff to pull out all the stops since there isn’t anything to risk. Maybe a flea flicker, but definitely some of the younger players gaining valuable experience.
The MWC still sees Air Force in the top position, despite their devastating loss at Hawaii. A loss to UNLV could derail those plans. UNLV is in strong contention as is Fresno State, Boise State, and San Jose State. What does the luck of the draw hold for the remaining two weeks of the season? Hawaii travels to Wyoming. The Cowboys, already bowl-eligible look to move forward for bowl consideration. Nevada travels to Colorado State. The Rams are still in bowl contention but could be the last team looking in. UNLV goes to the Springs for a much-anticipated game against the Falcons. Could UNLV jump into first place? Utah State is at home against Boise State, with both teams needing a win for the magical sixth victory. Fresno State is at home against New Mexico. Expect the Bulldogs to bounce back and convincingly win. One can say the Mountain West has seen its shares of highs and lows. From the peaks to the valleys, there is no lack of surprising results. That’s why the Mountain West is at the peak!