Eleven years ago, head coach Brady Hoke guided San Diego State to a 35-14 decision over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. The victory designated the school’s first bowl win since 1969 and its first 9-win season since 1977.
Since that fateful night in San Diego, the Aztecs program has evolved into a different animal, completing 12 consecutive seasons without a losing record. Despite all the winning, Tuesday night marked an unforeseen milestone in San Diego State history. The Aztecs knocked off C-USA champion UTSA, 38-24, in the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl to secure their sixth bowl victory since 2010. With its 12th win of the season, the 2021 iteration of San Diego State became the winningest team the program has ever fielded.
“It’s definitely special leaving that legacy, setting that benchmark for this program,” wide receiver and Frisco Bowl Offensive MVP Jesse Matthews said. “There’s so many great teams that have come through here. Being the first team to win 12 games is very special.”
UTSA was missing up to 25 players for a variety of reasons including grades, COVID, flu, and injuries per head coach Jeff Traylor. Although the Roadrunners initially overcame the hardships and stormed out to an early lead, the end result of the most productive season in program history was a dejected locker room.
“I’ve been a head coach 17 years. Unfortunately, I’ve only won my last game three times so I’ve had to give this speech quite a bit. They’re probably wondering why I’m their head coach if I had won my last game just three times,” Traylor said. “These are tough speeches but what I know about our kids, we’re going to continue to play great teams last because we’re a great team. And that was a really great team we played. We didn’t play someone slappy out there. That was a good football team.”
San Diego State doesn’t typically dice opponents through the air as suggested by its pregame status as the 119th ranked passing offense in the FBS. But a sudden commanding aerial attack carried the Aztecs to victory in Frisco. No quarterback on the roster eclipsed the 220-yard mark all season long, but Lucas Johnson shattered that threshold with 222 passing yards in the first half alone. The senior quarterback continued his surge in the second half and set Frisco Bowl records by posting 333 yards and three touchdowns with his arm.
“We were very committed to trying to stop (San Diego State’s) running game because (their) running back was so good, (their) offensive line’s very good, and (they) have a very good football coach,” Traylor said about the defensive strategy which opened up San Diego State’s passing game. “(Hoke) has been winning football games for a long time and he probably out-coached my butt to be honest with you.”
Wide receiver Jesse Matthews previously demonstrated his ability to rise to the occasion in big games by winning Co-Offensive MVP honors of the 2019 New Mexico Bowl. The Aztecs’ leading wideout was at it again Tuesday with Frisco Bowl records in receptions (11) and yards (175) to win his second bowl MVP. Whether it was finding openings in the UTSA secondary or fighting off defenders to make difficult grabs, Matthews was unstoppable throughout the night. He was the recipient of San Diego State’s first two touchdowns, including one which involved an acrobatic pylon dive to get the Aztecs on board in the first quarter.
“I couldn’t do it by myself,” Matthews said of his MVP performance. “Lucas had some great throws tonight, the o-linemen gave him protection to throw, and everyone in my receiver room helped me get open too. There’s so much camaraderie in that room and those really are my brothers, so I appreciate their support throughout the whole year.”
San Diego State’s rushing defense entered Tuesday night as the second sturdiest unit in the FBS. Only Georgia allowed fewer than the Aztecs’ 77 yards yielded per contest. Even without 1,400-yard rusher Sincere McCormick in the lineup, UTSA was able to inflict damage on the ground in the early going. By the end of the first quarter, the Roadrunners accumulated 79 yards on 10 carries and exceeded the per game total allowed by San Diego State.
However, UTSA’s offense quickly halted after recording two touchdowns in the opening stanza. San Diego State noticeably cranked up the run defense after a porous start, permitting just 38 yards on 14 attempts for the remainder of the night. The momentum definitively swung in favor of San Diego State’s defense after the Aztecs stopped two fourth and short attempts in the first half, including UTSA’s 4th and 1 from the 31-yard line in plus territory. Overall, UTSA converted only one third down in nine attempts, failing to move the sticks in critical opportunities.
“We knew coming in knowing that UTSA was a really good team and they love playing hard-nosed football, so we knew as a defense that we’d have to stop the run and open them up to passing,” strong safety C.J. Baskerville said. “We knew they weren’t gonna stop or back down. We had to keep going, keep hammering, and keep blitzing all we could to stop them.”
Baskerville claimed Defensive MVP honors in his native state of Texas, and the strong safety created the pivotal play to sustain the avalanche in San Diego State’s favor. While operating in zone coverage, Baskerville intercepted an underthrown ball by Frank Harris in the third quarter to signify the first turnover of the game. The Aztecs wasted no time in capitalizing on the UTSA miscue, as Johnson subsequently tied his season high with his third touchdown strike of the evening — finding Tyrell Shavers in the end zone on a 24-yard post route.
Once San Diego State opened the lead to a game-high 14 points in the third quarter, UTSA attempted to salvage its season with a comeback. Although the deficit was cut to seven points on the final play of the third quarter, San Diego State wrapped up the victory with a touchdown stemming from a Johnson QB keeper in the fourth quarter. Johnson’s final end zone appearance catapulted the Aztecs to 38 points — tying their season-high vs. FBS competition.
“It was good to see him do it. He’s had some snippets of games over the past two years where he looked just like he did today,” Hoke said of Johnson’s career night. “He was decisive, he was very aggressive in everything we asked him to do from the quarterback reads and the RPOs... and I think that aggressiveness helped us and helped him.”
Penalties ran rampant in the second half, and both squads were affected. The Aztecs were flagged repeatedly in the third quarter, but the flags began flying in the Roadrunners’ direction in the fourth. At the game’s conclusion, San Diego State had racked up 14 penalties for 124 yards while UTSA committed nine for 80.
“I made a statement at halftime that we were the most undisciplined team and that starts with the head coach,” Hoke said. “Our mistakes by penalties really helped keep UTSA in the game. We had some real bonehead penalties and you can’t hurt yourself like that. As far as a football team, you could just feel the momentum going just in the second half... I’m just proud of how both sides of the ball and the kicking game all played together, and that has been as gratifying as anything.”
Although it concluded with a bitter ending, the 2021 season was still a memorable one for UTSA. The Roadrunners won a program-record 12 games, captured their first-ever C-USA title, and captured more fan support than ever — as demonstrated by the sea of orange and blue blanketing Toyota Stadium on Tuesday night. While UTSA continues its quest for its first bowl win, returning members of the team believe a buildable foundation was constructed in 2021.
“Ending the season like this adds some fuel to the fire. Everybody’s gonna have a chip on their shoulder,” Frank Harris said. “I hate that we went out like this, but coach always says we set an expectation that young guys gotta follow, and next year I’ll be in that room as the older guy. I’ll try to bring everyone along with us so next time we come here, we’ll be victorious.”