Following this past Saturday’s loss to Ohio State, the Toledo Rockets (2-1) head west to conclude their non-conference schedule against the San Diego State Aztecs (1-2) of the Mountain West. These two conferences are often compared to each other, so it’s always interesting when two of their member schools meet in non-conference play.
A familiar face patrols the sideline for the Aztecs, as former Ball State and Michigan coach Brady Hoke is in the third year of his second stint as head coach in San Diego. Coming off of a 12-win season in 2021, expectations were high for the Aztecs entering this year, though things have not gone according to plan thus far.
San Diego State opened the brand new Snapdragon Stadium in Week 1 with a highly anticipated match up with PAC 12 foe Arizona. The Aztecs were almost a touchdown favorite in the game, but things quickly went off the rails, as the Wildcats raced out to a 10-0 first quarter lead en route to a 38-20 victory.
A victory over FCS foe Idaho State temporarily righted the ship in Week 2, but last weeks’ 35-7 loss at Utah showed that this San Diego State squad still has some deficiencies to address.
Toledo certainly has some areas to improve upon as well, after giving up almost 800 yards of offense to Ohio State a week ago. This is an interesting non-conference match up between two teams who should compete for their respective conference titles. A competitive game against a solid Group of Five foe should provide a solid measuring stick for both squads as they prepare to begin conference play.
- Time and Date: Saturday, September 24th, 3:30 PM EST
- Network: FS1 (a valid cable subscription is required for viewing)
- Spread/Total: Toledo -3, O/U 45
- Series History: First all-time meeting
When Toledo has the ball
If you didn’t know before last week, you should know by now: for the Toledo offense, it all starts with Dequan Finn.
Finn accounted for over 70 percent of the Rockets offensive output against Ohio State, and he is the catalyst that makes everything go for this offense. Through three games Finn has been effective through the air (58.9 percent completion, five touchdowns, two interceptions) while also leading the Rockets ground game with 208 rush yards on only 26 carries. His 208 rush yards rank him fourth in the MAC, while his 8.0 yards per carry leads the conference.
One would like to see the running backs get more involved here, because they have been effective when given the opportunity. Peny Boone has 27 carries through the first three weeks, from which he has produced 114 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and two scores. Jacquez Stewart has been similarly effective, averaging a healthy 5.6 yards per tote on his 18 touches. Both of these backs have shown that they are capable of more.
This San Diego State defense has struggled somewhat this year, and the Toledo rushing attack should be able to take advantage of this match up. Arizona rushed the ball 39 times for 162 yards (4.2 yards per carry) in week one, and Utah racked up 177 yards on 4.4 yards per carry this past Saturday. Neither of those teams have a dynamic dual threat like Finn at quarterback, and it does feel like the Rockets will be able to move the ball on the ground in this one.
While the run has caused the Aztecs defense some issues, the real problems for this unit have been through the air. San Diego State currently ranks 98th in the FBS in pass defense, allowing 260.3 yards per game and 12.2 yards per completion. Arizona was especially effective in Week 1 against this defense, with Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura throwing for 299 yards and four scores against the Aztecs secondary.
The interesting thing is, the Aztecs have good individual talent across this defense. Along the defensive line, Jonah Tavai and Keshawn Banks combined for 13.5 sacks last season. Brothers Cooper and Caden McDonald provide the nucleus for a veteran linebacking corps, and senior safety Patrick McMorris provides similar veteran leadership in the secondary. In fact, along with McMorris, fellow seniors Dallas Branch at corner and Cedarious Barfield at strong safety form one of the most veteran secondary trios in the country.
For whatever reason, the whole has not been greater than the sum of the parts for the Aztecs through three weeks. The struggles are especially confounding in the secondary, as this veteran unit has struggled to tackle in the open field and has not had much success against opposing passing offenses. Devin Maddox has had a slow start to the year for Toledo, but it feels like this may be a game where he can break out and show some of his big play ability. This Aztecs secondary has given up 10 passing plays of 20 yards or more thus far this year. Toledo flashed big play ability last week, evidenced by Finn’s 50-yard touchdown strike to Thomas Zsiros in the first quarter. This feels like a game where opportunities for the big play may present themselves.
When San Diego State has the ball
For most of the past decade, San Diego State has been a ball control, run based offense, with the main goal of running clock and complimenting their stingy defense. That formula appears to be in place once again this year.
The Aztecs currently rank 24th in the FBS in rushing offense, averaging 221 yards per game and a very healthy 5.6 yards per carry. Four backs have seen significant action thus far this year. Jaylon Armstead has been the best of the bunch thus far, averaging an absurd 10.7 yards per carry through the first three weeks. Freshman Cam Jordan has impressed, and fifth year senior Chance Bell has rushed for over 1,000 yards over the course of his career. All three will see action, and all three can cause the Rockets problems.
Only two starters returned along the offensive line this year, making the Aztecs rushing prowess somewhat surprising. Center Alama Uluave and right tackle Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson are multiple-year starters, with their veteran presence no doubt helping to solidify this rushing attack.
As good as the rushing offense is for San Diego State, the passing game leaves a lot to be desired. Through three weeks, the Aztecs rank 128th in the country in passing offense, averaging a paltry 76.7 yards per game. In case you were wondering, even Army and Navy, two schools which utilize the triple option run offense almost exclusively, are faring better through the air so far in 2022.
A big reason for that has been uncertainty at the quarterback position. Former Oregon and Virginia Tech QB Braxton Burmeister transferred in this offseason and was installed as the starter, though he has been largely ineffective through three games. After an uninspiring 5-of-10 performance in the season opener against Arizona, Burmeister was only able to produce 108 yards through the air against FCS Idaho State. This ground game is great, but the Aztecs struggle to reach even 100 yards through the air is a serious problem.
Burmeister left the Utah game in the first quarter with an eye injury, but it is expected that he’ll play against the Rockets. Should he be unable to go, true freshman Kyle Crum will be under center. Crum led the Aztecs offense against Utah after Burmeister’s injury, completing 5-of-16 passes for 53 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
The shame of this is that the Aztecs actually do have a decent wide receiver room. Senior Jesse Matthews is the leading returning wideout, having caught nine touchdowns in 2021 and having compiled over 1,500 yards receiving in his career. Former Alabama wide receiver Tyrell Shavers is in his second year in the program, and is tied with Matthews as the leading receiver through three games. Both have recorded six catches on the season.
Obviously, last week was a bit of a step back for the Toledo defense. Giving up almost 800 yards is never ideal. With that said, I think this Toledo defense is much closer to the unit we saw in the first two weeks than it is to what we saw last Saturday in Columbus. The run defense was especially stout against Long Island and UMass, and that will be tested again this week.
Here’s the thing: the Ohio State offense that Toledo faced last week currently leads the FBS in total offense, averaging 565 yards per game. This San Diego State offense is not in that stratosphere. The Aztecs are one of only 16 teams in the FBS averaging less than 300 yards per game on offense (SDSU checks in at 116th nationally, averaging 297.7 yards per contest).
This Toledo secondary won’t be tested this week like they were by CJ Stroud. The front seven will have their hands full, but they have proven themselves capable of stopping the run. Overall, this game will be the first true test of how good this defense really is. If the Rockets can bottle up the Aztecs rushing attack, it will bode very well for their chances come conference play.
Analysis and Prediction
This feels like the first true litmus test for Toledo this season. After facing overmatched opponents in the first two weeks, and being overmatched themselves last week, San Diego State is the first team on the schedule that has a comparable talent profile to the Rockets. The Rockets have the more dynamic offense here, without question. The matchup that will determine this game will be if the Toledo front seven can slow down the San Diego State rushing attack.
Overall, San Diego State has not shown me anything through three weeks that would lead me to believe they can handle Dequan Finn. I think the Rockets bring a victory back from the west coast and head into MAC play with a head full of steam.
Toledo 21, San Diego State 13