Three observations: SDSU stifles UNLV, 34-6, in season opener

Junior+linebacker+Caden+McDonald+sacks+UNLV+quarterback+in+the+Aztecs%27+34-6+win+over+the+Runnin%27+Rebels+on+Oct.+25+at+Dignity+Health+Sports+Park+in+Carson%2C+Calif.+The+sack+was+one+of+McDonald%27s+2.5+on+the+night.

Courtesy of Derrick Tuskan, SDSU Athletics

Junior linebacker Caden McDonald sacks UNLV quarterback in the Aztecs’ 34-6 win over the Runnin’ Rebels on Oct. 25 at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. The sack was one of McDonald’s 2.5 on the night.

by Kyle Betz, Sports Editor

At last, San Diego State football returned to action against UNLV in a 34-6 win at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif.

The Aztecs won their season opener for the sixth time in seven years and the second time of head coach Brady Hoke’s career, as the team was able to capitalize on the Runnin’ Rebels lackluster offense by scoring 27 unanswered points to begin the contest. The Aztecs’ defense also held UNLV to 25 total first-half yards after gaining 313 on offense.

SDSU also outscored UNLV in the second half, 7-6, even though the Aztecs’ offense did not have as much prosperity as it did in the first 30 minutes.

Here are three observations from the Oct. 25 season opener.

1. Establishing the ground game early

Following the departure of Juwan Washington, the Aztecs spent the offseason evaluating their remaining running backs to find a replacement.

Try four of them.

Greg Bell, the Nebraska transfer who sat out last season due to injury, made his debut wearing the Scarlet and Black.

Although the Aztecs were already planning to utilize several running backs, Bell received the majority of the touches (19) and finished with 111 yards and a rushing touchdown.

“It’s been 25 months since Greg has played, so I know how excited he was to get out there,” Hoke said of Bell. “He had shown us some things during fall camp, if you want to call it, that he was going to be one of the guys that we wanted to get the ball to.”

His first collegiate touchdown was a 3-yard rushing score that put the Aztecs up by 21 with 7:51 left in the second half. The Bonita Vista High product’s longest run of the game (40 yards) occurred on the fourth quarter drive following the UNLV turnover on downs.

Bell said the offensive line and coaching contributed to his success.

“I was just going out there trying to run the hardest I can,” Greg Bell said. “My (offensive) line opened up a lot of holes for me and the coaches called very good plays. Everything worked out well.”

Although Greg Bell stole the show in terms of production, three other junior running backs did their part to help the offense.

Chance Bell totaled seven carries for 40 yards, scoring two touchdowns.

Kaegun Williams tallied 10 runs for 81 yards.

Jordan Byrd had three attempts for 40 yards.

287 total rushing yards.

“It felt good to have four, five running backs out there all contributing and doing good,” Greg Bell said. “It took the load off everybody.”

Williams and Byrd were also involved in the passing game, reeling in a catch for 19 yards and two for 13 yards, respectively.

2. Special teams holds importance

Leading up to gameday, Hoke said special teams was a main concern entering the new season.

“I think that’s always in the first game, you see a lot of games lost by poor performance on special teams,” Hoke said in a press conference earlier this week.

Turns out that was the case, as the Aztecs experienced both breaks and misfortunes due to special teams play.

Byrd’s first punt return of the night went into UNLV territory, but it was nullified by a holding penalty, moving the football back to the SDSU 15-yard line.

“That ticks you off,” Hoke said. “We had field position, we really were in good shape.”

After a second three-and-out, the Rebels were forced to punt again but got possession right back after Byrd muffed a punt at his own 23-yard line. Fortunately for the Aztecs, the drive resulted in a missed field goal attempt by UNLV kicker Nathan De Jager.

With 9:29 left in the second quarter, Trenton Thompson blocked a punt to give the Aztecs’ possession in the red zone. The drive was capped off by a three-yard touchdown run by Greg Bell.

Special teams even played a part with less than a minute before halftime. UNLV punter Evan Silva gave the Aztecs possession at their own 49-yard line, and in 37 seconds the Aztecs were able to kick another field goal to extend their lead to 27-0.

SDSU sophomore kicker Matt Araiza was able to build off his 22-for-26 field goal record from last season, making both of his attempts Saturday.

In addition to kickoffs, PATs and field goal attempts, sophomore kicker Matt Araiza is assuming the punting duties.

“I think Matt did a nice job,” Hoke said. “I think he struggled a little bit on a couple punts in there, but he hit the ball well.”

3. Defense looks strong yet again

Everyone knew the Aztecs were nationally ranked second in points allowed per game (12.7) and second in rushing yards allowed per game (75.4) last season.

The Aztecs’ defense made a name for themselves yet again Saturday night, allowing only six points and 186 total yards.

Led by senior safety Dwayne Johnson Jr. in tackles (10), the Aztecs’ defense only forced one turnover — a fumble from UNLV quarterback Kenyon Oblad — with 1:12 left in the game. The Aztecs, however, did more than just create a not-so-desirable stat in the box score.

The Aztecs also forced eight three-and-outs and five sacks contributing to the lack of UNLV offensive production.

A big part of UNLV’s quarterback struggles had to do with SDSU junior linebacker Caden McDonald, who finished second on the team in total tackles (9) and 2.5 sacks.

“He takes a lot of pride in playing the game of football and being as good as he can,” Hoke said of McDonald. “I was glad to see him have that productivity. He brings some energy that we needed.”

McDonald and senior safety Tariq Thompson combined on one of the Aztecs’ biggest stops of the game. The duo swarm-tackled junior wide receiver Tyleek Collins on a 4th and 3 in the red zone with 10:44 left to play, forcing a turnover on downs and giving the Aztecs the ball back with a three-score lead.

Although the Aztecs were able to contain the Runnin’ Rebels, Johnson Jr. said the defense should have played a better second half to keep the shutout.

“It was good to come out in the first half and do what we did, but like coach Hoke said, in the second half we came out lackadaisical,” Johnson Jr. said. “We went into halftime, we spoke as a defense and we wanted to pitch a shutout against a very good football team and it’s kind of upsetting that we didn’t. But we’ve got a lot to grow from and learn from, so moving forward, we just want to correct those mistakes.”

This story was updated on Oct. 27 at 12:38 p.m.

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