Aztecs will be tested by Mountain West's top passers over second half of season

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If there’s a switch to flip, now is the time for San Diego State’s defense to find it.

Aztecs will be tested by Mountain West's top passers over second half of season
© Provided by San Diego Union Tribune San Diego State safety Cedarius Barfield discusses SDSU’s game this week against Fresno State.

Coming off a victory over Air Force, the nation’s top rushing team, No. 21-ranked SDSU now heads into a stretch where the Aztecs face the Mountain West’s top three quarterbacks over a five-week period.

“The meat of our schedule is ahead of us when you look at exactly what you’re talking about,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said. “(You) look at quarterbacks who are very capable of throwing for over 400 yards and all those things. It will be a challenge every week.”

If there is any consolation, the Aztecs get all three QBs at “home” in Carson’s Dignity Health Sports Park.

First up is Fresno State (6-2, 3-1 MW) and quarterback Jake Haener, who play the Aztecs (7-0, 3-0) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

To follow are Nevada and Carson Strong (Nov. 13) and Boise State and Hank Bachmeier (Nov. 26).

The matchups come in between road games at Hawaii (Nov. 6) and UNLV (Nov. 19).

Strong (216-for-307, 2,466 yards, 20 TDs/4 INTs), Haener (205-for-302, 2,582 yards, 22 TDs/6 INTs) and Bachmeier (161-for-248, 1,951 yards, 12 TDs/5 INTs) rank 1-2-3 in the Mountain West in passing and are among the nation’s top quarterbacks statistically.

SDSU’s defense was ranked No. 1 in the nation (61.2 ypg) coming into the Air Force game. It’s still No. 4 (79.9 ypg) after limiting the Falcons to 192 yards, 144 yards below their average.

The Aztecs rank 31st in pass yardage defense (199.6 ypg), are tied for 14th in interceptions (7) and sixth in pass efficiency defense (102.79).

Now those numbers will be put to the test.

Starting with Haener, who had a four-game stretch from Weeks 3-6 in which he averaged 400 yards a game passing.

He accounted for six TDs (four passing, two rushing) in a win over Cal Poly, passed for a career-high 455 yards in a win over UCLA and had a career-high five TD passes in a win over UNLV before throwing a career-high four interceptions in a loss at Hawaii.

SDSU junior safety Cedarious Barfield called Haener “a gunslinger.”

“It’s definitely something different,” Barfield said. “It’s going to be a great task, though. I feel like we’re prepared for it.”

Aztecs will be tested by Mountain West's top passers over second half of season
© Provided by San Diego Union Tribune The top three quarterbacks in the Mountain West.

Haener’s success is no surprise. He was the top passer in the Mountain West a year ago. He is new to SDSU, however, because the teams’ game last season was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Bulldogs program.

Barfield, a junior from El Paso, Texas, seems to know all about Haener, though.

“He’s done it all,” Barfield said. “There’s times where he scrambled against Hawaii. He scrambled against UCLA. Picked up critical (first) downs against UNLV. He had a hurt ankle and he was running around.

“He’s also a guy who likes to roll out. He’s able to make all the throws on the run. He’s able to step back and make throws.”

The Aztecs have faced one quarterback in particular — San Jose State’s Nick Nash — who has given them fits the past two years, and Hoke drew some parallels between the two players.

“You look at Haener, he runs around,” Hoke said. “At times he reminds me of freaking Nash, and I really didn’t want to think of that kid anymore. He was a doggone good football player.”

Hoke noted that all the QBs can extend plays with their legs and have been coached up to make the right decisions against opposing defenses.

Asked if there’s any one thing to focus on, Barfield said, “Doing our part. Just doing our job. Every single person trusting each other.

“Like our offensive coaches say with the offensive line, ‘Five as one,’ our DBs think the same, ‘Five as one.’ ”

Given the circumstances, Hoke still seems more comfortable with the task ahead than the one just completed: “It’s better than playing another triple-option team, I’ll say that.”

Matt Araiza honored again

SDSU’s Matt Araiza has been honored as Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week for the second straight week and third time this season.

Araiza had field goals of 22 and 51 yards against Air Force while punting five times for an average of 54.8 yards, highlighted by an 81-yarder.

That, just a week after a personal-best 53-yard field goal and 86-yard punt at San Jose State.

While commenting about the honor, Araiza referenced a new phrase that could improve the image of kickers and punters:

“Fourth-down quarterbacks.”

“That’s one of the nicknames I like to give kickers and punters,” Araiza said. “It sounds a little bit better. … Whatever it takes to help the team win. When we go out there on fourth down, it means we didn’t get the first down.

“Hopefully, if we flip the field and our defense comes out strong, we can get the ball back on offense.”

Flipping the field has been Araiza’s specialty this season. Not to be lost is his field goal kicking, however.

This nugget was unearthed by the SDSU media relations department:

Since 1996, only three players have had a punt of 80-plus yards and a field goal of 50-plus yards in the same game.

Utah’s Louie Sakoda did it in 2008.

Araiza has done it twice.

In back-to-back games.

Greg Bell’s status

Hoke was asked Tuesday in his weekly Zoom press conference if senior running back Greg Bell will be able to start this week.

“We’ll see,” the coach said. “It’s early in the week.”

Bell carried 10 times for 42 yards last week against Air Force, although he didn’t get his first carry until the fifth play of the second half.

There were those who wondered if Bell did not play in the first half against the Falcons perhaps as punishment for being late to a meeting or some such thing.

“Nope, nope, nope,” Hoke said. “You’ve just got to practice. Got to make sure we’re practicing.”

Bell missed practice time last week with what was alluded to as an (undisclosed) injury.

He has practiced both days so far this week, although the veterans worked out Monday without helmets or pads.

Recruiting update

The ranks of SDSU’s 2022 recruiting class swelled with the addition of Norco High quarterback Kyle Crum, who tweeted his commitment on Oct. 21.

The 6-foot-4 Crum has completed 125 of 180 passes (69.4 percent) this season for 2,255 yards and 20 touchdowns with four interceptions while guiding Norco to a 7-2 record.

Crum also has rushed 55 times for 369 yards (6.7 ypc) and seven touchdowns.

SDSU now has commitments from 16 players toward its 25-man class. The early signing period is Dec. 15-17.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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