Late game heroics from Matt Araiza lift Aztecs over Nevada 23-21

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Andrew Finley

Daniel Bellinger (88) celebrates with his teammates after a first quarter touchdown catch.

by Adam Correa, Staff Writer

The San Diego State Aztecs (9-1-0, 5-1-0 Mountain West Conference) overcame adversity, coming back to defeat the Nevada Wolf Pack (7-3-0, 4-2-0 MWC) 23-21 Saturday night. 

The game started with an SDSU three-and-out. The Wolf Pack went nine plays for 34 yards but were kept out of the end zone on the ensuing drive.

SDSU’s second possession started on their one-yard line. 

The Aztecs were in the midst of an 11 play drive, which included a 50-yard run from senior running back Greg Bell, and found themselves in a 3rd and goal situation. Senior quarterback Lucas Johnson’s pass to senior wide receiver Elijah Kothe was just out of reach and the team settled for a field goal attempt.

As the field goal unit set up and snapped the ball, the kick was blocked by Nevada. However, a holding call on the Wolf Pack gave the ball back to SDSU.

The following play, Johnson threw a two-yard pass to a wide-open senior tight end Daniel Bellinger for a touchdown. Junior kicker/punter Matt Araiza kicked the extra point to make it 7-0.

The Wolf Pack looked to answer back. Nevada junior quarterback Carson Strong completed five passes to put the ball on the SDSU 37-yard line.

Strong threw a 28-yard touchdown pass on the following play to sophomore wide receiver Tory Horton which tied the score at 7-7 after the extra point.

The Aztecs then started on their own 34-yard line and got up the field with a combination of Johnson’s passes and Greg Bell’s rushes.

On third-and-one, Greg Bell couldn’t get the first down. The Aztecs called on Araiza, and he delivered. The 48-yard field goal gave the Aztecs a 10-7 lead.

SDSU kicked off to Nevada, and forced them to punt in the ensuing drive. The Aztecs went on to drive all the way to Nevada’s five-yard line. Senior running back Chance Bell took his fourth rush of the drive into the endzone for a touchdown, putting SDSU up 17-7.

Two Nevada drives later, the Wolf Pack started on their own 20-yard line and played hurry up football down the field. 

Strong completed seven passes en route to SDSU’s five-yard line. His eighth pass of the drive went to senior wide receiver Romeo Doubs for a touchdown, cutting the deficit to 17-14.

The Aztecs were looking to take a bigger lead two drives later when they started on the Nevada 37-yard line.

Senior running back Kaegun Williams carried the ball four times for 14 yards to set Araiza’s 39-yard field goal, giving the Aztecs a 20-14 lead.

On the ensuing drive for Nevada, Strong completed a 54-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass to Doubs which gave the Wolf Pack their first lead of the game making it 21-20 with 9:57 left in the fourth quarter.

Head coach Brady Hoke said the team has learned from experience with close games and was not going to let up.

“I really do think the Utah game and the San Jose game, those games where we’ve been through some overtimes and had to be resilient and had to count on each other, we’ve learned from that,” Hoke said.

After five minutes were chewed off the clock, Johnson completed two long passes to Kothe and junior wide receiver TJ Sullivan to get SDSU in Nevada territory.

Hoke said Johnson looked comfortable in the pocket and it was his best performance of the season.

“It looked like he (Johnson) didn’t struggle with anything within the offense,” Hoke said. “When he had to do another read he did a really nice job there. I think overall, he was pretty decisive more so than he had been.”

On a third-down play from the Nevada 17-yard line, Johnson passed to junior wide receiver Tyrell Shavers but the Wolf Pack defense broke it up, forcing a fourth down.

Johnson said on the last drive they had to stay collected as a group and have a winning drive mindset.

“We just knew that we had to get the ball into field goal range for Matt (Araiza). He’s a huge weapon for our team,” Johnson said. “We knew we just had to get it almost probably to the 40 and it would be good.”

Araiza came out for a 35-yard field goal try and — despite the loud Nevada fans that came out to the stadium — put it right through the posts to give SDSU a 23-21 lead with 1:21 left.

Nevada had their last chance of the game on their own 25-yard line. 

Even with Strong getting his team to midfield, the Aztec defense pressured and denied Strong to force three incompletions which put down the Wolf Pack.

Junior defensive end Cameron Thomas was impressed with how the defense held Nevada to only 21 points.

“We knew we had to fight the quarterback and I think the defense that I saw coming together didn’t back down,” Thomas said. 

SDSU moves up to first place in the west conference and will be playing at UNLV (2-8-0, 2-4-0 MWC) on Friday, Nov. 19.   

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