MW Championship game notebook: Jemond Hazely’s career night aids SDSU conference title

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MW Championship game notebook: Jemond Hazely’s career night aids SDSU conference title

by Patrick Carr, Sports Editor

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For the senior wideout from Corona, Saturday night’s win in the Mountain West Championship game was his best.

Jemond Hazely had a career-high five catches for 78 yards, four of them coming on difficult out routes that required two things: a perfectly timed pass and perfect route running.

They had both.

The fact of redshirt-freshman quarterback Christian Chapman connecting with Hazely wasn’t the surprise. It was how close to flawless that connection was.

“I saw the off coverage and I was like, ‘Take Jemond if I have him,'” Chapman said. “I believed in him and he runs those routes pretty well.”

Head coach Rocky Long was impressed.

“It’s a pretty simple read when you know they’re in straight man coverage and the cornerback is seven or eight yards off, so you know right away where you’re going to go with the ball,” Long said. “The idea is to throw it before he makes his break and the timing’s right and the ball gets there to where he can catch it, and that was awesome.

“That’s a receiver running the right route at the right depth and the quarterback putting it right on the money. I’m not sure we expected that going into the game.”

Hazely had started twice this season prior to Saturday: Homecoming against University of Wyoming and on the road at UNLV. He came into the year with a total of…three starts.

Bad timing hurts both sides

Most of the fans hadn’t even filed into Qualcomm Stadium by the time San Diego State shot itself in the foot twice in the first quarter.

SDSU converted a fourth-and-1 with a run by senior fullback Dakota Gordon, but it was called back for an illegal motion penalty.

The next drive, Chapman, starting in place of the injured graduate-transfer quarterback Maxwell Smith, threw a 29-yard touchdown to sophomore wideout Mikah Holder.

It was called back for a 15-yard chop block penalty against Gordon and junior running back Donnel Pumphrey.

In the second half, AFA gained 32 yards on a fumble recovery after SDSU forced a fumble and the ball careened off a Falcons player downfield.

Senior defensive back J.J. Whittaker was first to the ball but couldn’t recover it because he didn’t time his scoop properly.

Air Force eventually scored a touchdown on the drive.

The untimely penalties weren’t limited to just SDSU. Early in the fourth quarter, Air Force had third-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The crowd of 20,959 was the loudest it had been all night and the Falcons were whistled for a false start.

The difference was Air Force knocked it in for a touchdown two plays later.

With the game tied 24-24, SDSU had second-and-16 at the AFA 31-yard line when the Aztecs were called for a holding penalty. It came after Chapman threw a 48-yard bomb to Holder with a play-action pass. SDSU settled for a 47-yard field goal from senior kicker Donny Hageman.

Chapman’s first start

With Chapman starting for the first time in his career, he brought a different set of strengths and weaknesses than Smith did. Chapman stands at 6 feet tall, compared to Smith at 6-foot-5. That meant Chapman couldn’t see over the offensive line as well as Smith could.

It didn’t matter.

He started a perfect 4-4 passing (5-5 if you count the touchdown throw to Holder that was negated). When he had to throw, he did so excellently. He threw for more yards than any SDSU quarterback had all season, and remember, it was his first start for the Aztecs.

His final stat line was 9-of-14, 203 yards and a touchdown, earning him the offensive MVP award for the game.

The Carlsbad High graduate was nervous, but not as much as one might expect.

“I’m always nervous until that first snap, and once it goes through I’m confident throughout the game,” Chapman said.

Unlike Smith, Chapman can run. He did on several occasions, although some of them were right up the middle, putting the young signal caller in more dangerous positions than the coaching staff would’ve liked.

That is, until the fourth quarter, when he ran 13 yards on a third-and-1 late in the fourth quarter with SDSU ahead 27-24 to help ice the game.

So, what did he do to prepare for the biggest game of his college career?

“Me and Max (Smith) watched Hunger Games,” Chapman said.

The defensive MVP

As he quietly has done all season, junior safety Na’im McGee patrolled the secondary and kept Air Force’s already-minimal passing game to an even more minuscule effort. McGee finished with 10 tackles and one tackle-for-loss.

He was named defensive MVP of the game, which he said was his first “real” MVP award.

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“It wasn’t nothing big like this, it was like P.E. and Pop Warner type,” McGee said.

“That still counts,” junior linebacker Calvin Munson said jokingly.

The Falcons run the ball more than almost any team in football. If executed correctly, that scheme can set up a very effective play-action, which Air Force used all year to the tone of 22.1 yards per completion coming into Saturday.

AFA senior quarterback Karson Roberts went 5-of-11 for 35 yards.

“They ran the ball, ran the ball, ran the ball, so in my head I kept saying, ‘All right, it’s going to come soon,'” McGee said. “They just kept the ball on the ground and we just kept playing physically.”

The mixed crowd

With under a week to sell tickets, it was going to be difficult either way for SDSU to attract a lot of fans to Saturday’s game. Even with the Chargers’ impending departure out of Qualcomm Stadium.

The announced attendance was 20,959, the second-lowest of the year, but the crowd was easily the loudest crowd for any SDSU game in the last two years.

“I didn’t hear the crowd, I mean I hate to say that, but I was so worried about trying to stop them on the last drive,” Long said.

At one point in the fourth quarter, a fan got on a microphone near the SDSU band and began the “I Believe” chant. The resulting cheer rang around the entire stadium, which is both a testament to the fans who stayed and showed up in the first place, and to Long’s focus.

“I was told (the crowd) was lively, I was told that the ‘I Believe’ chant started and went all the way around the stadium, which is really cool, really neat,” Long said. “I’m sure the crowd helped our team get over some humps, and that’s when you have a home-field advantage.

“I think the home-field advantage is crowds, I don’t think it’s the grass, I don’t think it’s the stadium, I don’t think it’s the comfort zone of being in the locker room. I think it’s the crowd that brings energy to the game when you most need it.”

Miscellaneous notes

With SDSU’s win over AFA, the Aztecs became the 20th team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to have 10 wins this season.

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