Column: SDSU defense remains among best in nation in 2020

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Then-junior safety Dwayne Johnson Jr., then-junior linebacker Andrew Aleki and then-senior linebacker Kyahva Tezino combine for a tackle against a Central Michigan ballcarrier during the Aztecs’ 48-11 win over the Chippewas in the New Mexico Bowl at Dreamstyle Stadium in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

by Amber Salas, Senior Staff Writer

San Diego State’s defense could best be described as remarkable since 2019. Last season, the Aztecs produced a defense that ranked top four in the nation, and became known for allowing the fewest points in all of college football. 

In some instances, the Aztecs’ defense has literally kept them in the game. This season is no exception to the aggressive 3-3-5 defense that wreaks havoc on the field. 

In the two games the Aztecs have played this season, the defense has only allowed one touchdown per contest: 6 points from UNLV in the season-opener, and 7 points from Utah State this past weekend. 

“These guys have a lot of pride,” head coach Brady Hoke said. “I mean, we’ve been playing pretty good defense around here for a number of years, and there’s a lot of pride in how this group wants to play. Defensively, they know that there’s a standard in how we want to play.”

The mindset of the Aztecs’ defense is to aim for a shutout every game. Even allowing one touchdown is too much for their liking. 

“Our goal as a defense is to pitch a shutout, and anything less than that to us is unacceptable and that’s the motto we live by,” junior defensive lineman Keshawn Banks said. “If it’s not a shutout it’s a decent game, if it is a shutout we always got more to do and more to learn from. We’re never really content with what we do until we win the conference championship.”  

It’s still early on in the season, but the Aztecs’ defense leads the nation in numbers yet again. The defense currently leads the nation in scoring defense (6.5 points per game) and total defense (allowing just 200.5 yards per game). Since the start of the 2019 season, the Aztecs are ranked number four in total defense, allowing 12.8 points per game. 

Part of what makes the Aztecs’ defense so dominant is their cohesive style of play. There is no selfishness and team camaraderie is emphasized on every play. 

“We come together and play for each other every play,” junior cornerback Darren Hall said. “There’s nobody that’s jealous of each other, there’s nobody who just wants to be the main headline on the defense. We just go out there and play hard every play. That’s just our standard.” 

In the 38-7 victory over Utah State, the Aztecs’ defense held the Aggies to just 215 yards and 11 first downs. The defensive line’s dominance in all four quarters of the game allowed them to take control. 

In previous seasons, there have been moments when the Aztecs start the game with momentum, then slowly take the foot off the pedal around the second half. Some of the recurring mistakes we’ve seen through the years include missing tackles or not closing down the ball carrier quickly enough. We saw a glimpse of that in the third quarter against UNLV, when the Aztecs’ momentum slowed for a short time before regenerating momentum.

Hoke discussed the importance of playing consistently for 60 minutes. He said one of the Aztecs’ main goals is to play as a complete football team for all four quarters. 

“Last Saturday night (after the UNLV game), we talked about it after the football game and obviously, it was something that we wanted to be a more complete football team,” Hoke said. “(We) want to go out there and take every opportunity that we have to play the best we can individually and as a team, and I thought the guys went out there and did that (against Utah State).” 

The defense made multiple plays that fueled their momentum even more. A key highlight was junior linebacker Caden McDonald hitting Utah State junior quarterback Jason Shelley as he threw. Junior linebacker Seyddrick Lakalaka picked it off for his first career interception. 

In total, the Aztecs forced three turnovers — two interceptions and one fumble recovery. 

“Overall, I thought they played with a great physicalness at the line of scrimmage and then we’re fortunate to have guys at the back end that like to tackle and like to hit,” Hoke said. 

Since 2015, the Aztecs rank second in the most interceptions with 93, just two interceptions behind Appalachian State with 95. This places the Aztecs ahead of both Alabama (92) and Clemson (90). 

The strong performance from the Aztecs this past weekend is even more significant given the name of the field the Aztecs played on: Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium. Merlin Olsen was one of the most extraordinary defensive linemen in NFL history during his career with the Los Angeles Rams from 1962-1976. 

Olsen grew up in Logan, Utah and played college football for Utah State. He was the recipient of the 1961 Outland Trophy as the best linemen in college football. During his senior season, the Aggies’ defense gave up an average of 50.8 rushing yards, leading the nation. Olsen’s 1960 team only allowed 6.5 points per game. 

He went on to become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. 

Despite Olsen being an alumni of the Aztecs’ opposing team, the Aztecs performance on the field named after a true football icon is nothing but a tribute to his phenomenal game. 

With two games under the Aztecs’ belt, they continue to showcase their dominating defense. This momentum is a taste of what can be expected the rest of the season. 

“I feel like we have a great momentum right now,” senior safety Dwayne Johnson Jr. said. “(We’re) playing fast and physical and we’re trying to shut teams out. I mean, there ain’t nothing else to be said, to be honest.” 

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