Hypothetically, if you were a coach in FBS football who was entering a year in which you had to replace a three year starting quarterback, your third leading running back of all time, an All American offensive lineman, and two starting cornerbacks, how would you design your schedule if you were allowed to? Most likely you would start the schedule with your easiest opponents and build one step at a time up to the more difficult teams in order to let your new starters grow into their new roles and let your team adjust to the newcomers. Somehow it seems that Troy Calhoun was able to do just that. This weekend the Falcons will face their toughest opponent yet, the San Diego State Aztecs, with all of the new starters seemingly fully adjusted to their new roles. The team is undefeated and can now start to prove that it’s not just because of soft opponents.
After some early stumbles, QB Zac Larrier has been executing the offense with confidence and precision while rushing for 288 yards at an average of 4.8 yards per carry and completing 8 of 12 passes for an average of 27.6 yards per completion.
The fullback position, led by starter Emanuel Michel, is producing Roberts-like numbers with 688 yards at 5.05 yards per carry and 8 TDs, which means that the offensive line is just fine.
Passing yards are up against the new cornerbacks, but that might be more because the Falcons have yet to face Navy, Army, and Wyoming, and have faced two Mountain West teams in the top half of the conference in passing yardage. Also, the Falcons are 12th in the FBS in passing yards allowed. Jerome Gaillard is the fourth leading tackler on the team and Jamari Bellamy has two pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
Let’s turn our attention to the Aztecs.
Scouting the Aztecs
The Aztecs have been known as a run-first, defense oriented football team for quite a while. Out of necessity, that has changed this year. The two main running backs, Jaylon Armstead and Kenan Christon are averaging only 80 yards per game between them and the leading rusher is QB Jalen Mayden with 55 ypg. The team has averaged only 4.1 yards per carry, which is not bad, just not up to Aztec standards. Mayden has improved as a passer this year and is averaging 188 yards per game. Mayden’s legs and arms have made him the first option on offense.
The Aztec defense has struggled at times this year, allowing 28 points to FCS Idaho State, 35 to UCLA, and 34 to Boise State. They are allowing 432 yards per game, which puts them at 121st in FBS. Some allowance should be made for the offensive prowess of their opponents, but it is still not what we expect from the Aztecs.
Last year the Falcon’s defense dominated the Aztecs, holding them to a net of -1 yard on the ground, picking off two passes, and not allowing a third down conversion all game. I wouldn’t expect that again this year, as Mayden appears more in command. The Aztec defense, on the other hand does not appear as effective.
Which brings us to asking what should we expect?
What to expect
Why should Coach Calhoun do anything other than challenge the Aztecs to stop his run game? The Diesels are paving the way up the middle with Michel, Burk (who will likely return this game), and Carson showing they have the vision and footwork needed for success. But at the same time Larrier has elite speed and Eldridge has the speed and athleticism to make things happen on the edge. Oh, and in case you forget, Jared Roznos has been money on the deep route the few times they need something to shake it up. At times, there has been nothing other than penalties and fumbles that have stopped the offense with this combination working.
While the Aztecs have the ball, they’ll be looking to Mayden to provide the kind of athleticism that Chevan Cordeiro provided to negate the Falcon pass rush. and find his receivers downfield. Payton Zdroik will still be out for the game, so the Falcons will be looking to Jayden Thiergood to beef up the pass rush on the inside. If the Aztec running backs don’t provide reliable yards, watch out for Alec Mock and Johnathan Youngblood on the blitz.
DraftKings currently has the Falcons as 10.5 point favorites at home with a 43.5 over/under. I think the Falcons can cover the spread, and since I’ve underestimated the Falcon offense the last couple weeks, I’ll say the Falcons win 34-20.
The game will be played at Falcon Stadium at 6 PM MT on Saturday, September 30th. It will be televised on CBS Sports Network.