It’s fair to say San Diego State’s football program was eager and excited to play its first game of the 2020 campaign.
The Aztecs certainly played like a team hungry to make some noise as they absolutely dominated UNLV in the first half en route to a 34-6 victory last Saturday in Carson, California. Case in point: SDSU enjoyed a whopping 313-25 edge in total offense and took a commanding 27-0 lead into the half.
“It was great to get out there and compete against someone and, obviously, great to get a win,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke, whose team will square off against Utah State on Saturday night at 7:30 at Maverik Stadium.
The Aztecs should be excited about this season, inasmuch as they welcomed back most of their starters from last year’s squad, which went 10-3 and demolished Central Michigan 48-11 in the New Mexico Bowl.
SDSU routinely has one of the top defenses in all of college football, and this fall should be no different. The Aztecs ranked second nationally in scoring defense a year ago and fifth in total defense, and they returned nine players on that side of the ball who started at least five games in 2019.
Headlining that impressive list of returning starters is senior safety Tariq Thompson, who garnered second-team all-Mountain West honors in each of his first three seasons with the Aztecs. As a junior, Thompson contributed with 55 tackles, four interceptions, eight pass broken up and three fumble recoveries.
“Well, he plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played from an effort standpoint,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said when asked about Thompson. “He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s a long kid (and) they put him in a spot to be able to go make plays, and he makes those plays and has continually done that year after year. You have to know where he is every single snap.”
Thompson anchors what is a very talented and experienced SDSU secondary. Junior cornerback Darren Hall was named to the all-conference honorable mention team a year ago after breaking up 16 passes, while safety Dwayne Johnson Jr. was also a HM selection after racking up 92 tackles and breaking up five passes.
Two other SDSU defensive backs who were in the starting lineup multiple times last season are safety Trenton Thompson and corner Tayler Hawkins.
Another returning starter, linebacker Caden McDonald, played lights out against UNLV last week and, for his efforts, was selected as the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week. The junior finished with eight tackles, including 3.0 for a loss, and 2.5 of SDSU’s 5.0 sacks.
McDonald and company limited the Rebels to 186 yards of total offense last weekend. SDSU completely frustrated UNLV in third-down situations as the Rebels only converted 1 of 15.
“I know they played their tails off in that game as a defense as a whole,” Andersen said.
The Aztecs have two gifted, veteran defensive linemen in junior defensive end Keshawn Banks and sophomore defensive tackle Cameron Thomas.
Thomas earned first-team all-league honors last season, while Banks was tabbed to the second team. Thomas finished with 49 tackles, 9.0 TFL and 5.5 sacks last season, while Banks chipped in with 13.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks.
SDSU also returns plenty of talent and experience in the offensive trenches, and the Aztecs have a rich history of developing standout offensive linemen. Right guard William Dunkle, left tackle Kyle Spalding and right tackle Zachary Thomas started multiple games for SDSU a year ago.
Dunkle, a 6-foot-5, 330-pound sophomore, was a one-time Utah State commit before flipping to SDSU. Dunkle was a honorable mention all-MW honoree as a freshman.
“This offensive line is extremely physical (and) I think much more so than they were a year ago up front, quite frankly,” Andersen said. “(It’s) a lot of the same players and they’re big, they’re big dudes when you see them out there. They’re big, physical guys.”
Andersen also raved about San Diego State’s two seasoned tight ends in senior Nolan Givan and junior Daniel Bellinger. Givan and Bellinger are big and physical, and Bellinger caught three touchdown passes last season, to boot.
Per usual, the Aztecs are loaded at the running back position. Nebraska transfer Greg Bell sparkled against UNLV as he amassed 111 yards on 19 carries.
“It’s been 25 months since Greg has played,” Hoke said. “I know how excited he was to get out there. He had shown us some thing during fall camp ... that he was going to be one of the guys we wanted to get the ball to.”
Bell is one of four current SDSU tailbacks who have rushed for more than 100 yards in a game as an Aztec. The others are Jordan Byrd, Chase Jasmin and Chance Bell, who scored a pair of TDs last weekend. Additionally, Keagun Williams gained 84 yards on 10 carries against the Rebels.
The Aztecs accumulated 213 yards on 31 attempts in the first half alone against the Rebels.
“They say they’ve got five (running backs) that they could roll through there and play ... and they probably do,” Andersen said. “... They have tremendous running backs, a lot of skill on the outside that can really run, and kind of the punch with the running backs is they’re all fast, but a couple of them are blazing fast. But they’ll put it on you. They like to run angry like we like our running backs (to do).”
The Aztecs don’t traditionally have a high-powered passing attack, but they do have a pair of proven playmakers at the wide receiver position in junior Kobe Smith and sophomore Jesse Matthews. The duo combined for 1,324 yards and six TDs on 106 receptions last fall. Smith hauled in seven passes for 102 yards against USU last September.
San Diego State’s signal caller is sophomore Carson Baker, who completed 12 of 25 passes for 137 yards and one TD, vs. zero INTs, against UNLV. Baker, who quarterbacked SDSU to a home victory over BYU a year ago, completed passes to nine different targets last weekend.
SDSU has a very good placekicker in Matt Araiza, who broke the single-season school record with 22 field goals a year ago. Araiza, a honorable mention all-MW selection, was successful on 22 of his 28 field goal attempts, plus 51 of his 65 touchbacks last season resulted in a touchback.
Araiza, a sophomore, is also the team’s starting punter this season. Long snapper Turner Bernard is a four-year starter for the Aztecs, whose primary return specialists are Byrd, Williams and Matthews.