San Diego State football senior quarterback Ryan Agnew was supposed to start on Senior Night as an ideal send off for his final home game as an Aztec.
However, a calf injury following the loss at Hawaii last Saturday prevented that from happening.
Instead, much talk became about redshirt freshman Carson Baker, who was announced the starter Thursday as first reported by the Union-Tribune.
Baker acquitted himself – considering it was his first career collegiate snaps – well with 172 passing yards and one touchdown on 19-of-24 attempts during SDSU’s 13-3 victory over BYU on Nov. 30 at SDCCU Stadium.
“I thought it was ok. I didn’t know what to expect,” Aztecs head coach Rocky Long said. “For the first time out and never playing in a college football game, he probably played really, really well. Hopefully, that’s a sign that he’s going to be a really good quarterback.”
However, it might be that the bigger story was on the other side of the ball.
That’s because SDSU’s defense once again showed it has been the strength of this team all year.
Junior safety Tariq Thompson made three key plays to secure three extra possessions for the Aztecs (9-3, 5-3 Mountain West Conference).
With just over two minutes left in the third period, Thompson single-handedly stripped (literally) BYU of its ninth possession of the game.
Thompson sacked BYU sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson for a 10-yard loss and stripped the ball to force a fumble and recover the ball for SDSU – consider that a trifecta in completing the takeaway.
Earlier, the local product out of Saint Augustine High School also added a drive-ending tackle on BYU senior wide receiver Aleva Hifo, who was two yards short of the first down to give SDSU possession from its own 40 with over 10 minutes left in the second quarter.
Wait, there’s more.
Thompson appeared to record the game-sealing interception with under five minutes left to play and a 13-3 lead. On fourth-and-10, Wilson had his pass picked off, and Thompson secured possession for SDSU from its own 30.
“It feels great, but there’s 11 men on the field,” Thompson said. I’m just one person doing my job. The other 10 players did a great job every play. We held the team to three points. That’s a great defensive effort. I’m nothing without my teammates.”
Thompson, who finished with a team-high nine tackles, and the entire Aztec defense made key stops to keep the Cougars’ offense quiet throughout.
BYU came into Saturday averaging 42.7 points per game in its last four and 30.3 on the season.
The Aztecs gave them three, which brought their season average to allowing 12.8 points per game.
Head coach Rocky Long said this has been his best defense since being on the Mesa 10 years ago.
“Well now that the regular season is over, I think our defense played as well as any defense I’ve ever been around,” Long said. “In the 10 years I’ve been here, that’s by far the best defensive performance when you count from the first game to the last game.”
In the first half, the Aztec defense made multiple key stops – holding BYU to only three points. Aside from a field goal, the defense closed the door on numerous opportunities for the Cougars to score.
BYU’s ensuing drive, after its made field goal, ended in an interception by junior safety Dwayne Johnson Jr.
The Cougars’ next drive ended on a turnover on downs when Thompson took down BYU senior wide receiver Aleva Hifo two yards short of the first down. SDSU took over from its own 40 with over 10 minutes left in the half.
BYU’s next drive went as deep into SDSU’s 25-yard line, but the offense was stopped once again though some were self-inflicted. The Cougars committed a holding penalty and a delay of game infraction to push them back to SDSU’s 40-yard line – forcing a punt to the Aztecs.
Those were three key stops for the Aztecs’ defense.
Well, SDSU’s offense pretty much matched BYU’s in the first half.
SDSU had its first six drives end in five punts and a turnover on downs. Down three early in the second quarter, the Aztecs passed up a field goal attempt and went for it on fourth-and-1 from BYU’s 10-yard line – no gain by junior running back Chase Jasmin.
The Aztecs were approaching a scoreless half of offense… surprised?
Wait, not so fast.
With 2:23 left in the half, Baker showed signs of poise by leading the Aztecs to a touchdown drive to give them a 7-3 lead heading into the locker room. He led the offense from its own 39 and capped it off with a 25-yard touchdown strike to sophomore tight end Daniel Bellinger.
Aztecs 7, BYU 3 at the half.
Maybe nerves played a role for the Helix High School graduate early on, but Baker said the coaching staff helped him stay calm.
“I think the coaches did a really good job of keeping my nerves down, keeping me in the game and focused,” Baker said of his first career start. “It felt good to play football again, so it was really fun.”
While the Aztecs won’t be participating in the conference championship next weekend, they will await their bowl assignment next Sunday on Dec. 8.
SDSU now has a chance to notch a 10-win season, which would be its fourth 10-win season in five years.
“Yeah, it’s another win,” Long said of another potential 10-win season.