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Scouting Report: UCLA football vs. San Diego State

By Gavin Carlson

Sept. 7, 2023 8:37 p.m.

After UCLA football (1-0) opened its season with a win against Coastal Carolina at the Rose Bowl last Saturday, the Bruins will look to avenge their 2019 loss against San Diego State (2-0) in Week 2. Here is this week’s scouting report from staff writer Gavin Carlson, who will be at Snapdragon Stadium for the first time for the affair.

San Diego State’s offense
Offensive scheme: Spread
Run-pass percentage: 38.1% pass, 61.9% run
Strength: Weapons in the running game
Weakness: Weapons in the passing game
X-factor: QB Jalen Mayden

Typically when a team has only played a pair of games against a member of the Mid-American Conference and an FCS team, it’s challenging to get a true read on how it plays.

You would probably expect to see huge margins of victory and unusually high offensive efficiency.

But after San Diego State’s opening home games against Ohio and Idaho State, that’s not the case, especially offensively.

Instead of blowouts and inflated stats, the Aztecs won a pair of one-score games and showed the playing styles and tendencies that the Bruins should expect this weekend.

SDSU has a solid run game bolstered by four primary ball carriers. Quarterback Jalen Mayden – and his 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound frame – is one of them.

After a modest opening performance on the ground of nine carries for 34 yards against Ohio, Mayden showed why he’s a threat in the ground game by taking eight carries for 132 yards and a pair of touchdowns the following week, albeit against weaker competition.

The second outing was capped off with an electric 56-yard touchdown run, in which the dual-threat quarterback kept the ball on a read-option, bursted up the middle and broke through a pair of Bengal tacklers before taking it to the house. The play showed you everything you need to know about the former defensive back’s athleticism.

In addition to the threat of Mayden keeping the ball, the Aztecs’ ground game features three capable running backs who all offer different skill sets.

Jaylon Armstead is a 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound bruiser who ran through several tacklers in both outings so far this season. USC transfer Kenan Christon is a 190-pound speedster, while Martin Blake stands at just 5 feet, 6 inches tall but has an all-around skillset while clocking in at 205 pounds.

Mayden and the trio of running backs all rushed for at least 40 yards against Idaho State, with the team posting 304 total ground yards. Even in a sloppy, low-scoring season-opener against the Bobcats, the Aztecs reached 154 yards on five yards per carry.

SDSU’s 220.5 rushing yards per game ranks 26th in the country, so the Bruins should know what to focus on stopping.

In the same way SDSU thrives in the run game because of its multitude of productive weapons, it falters in the pass game because of its weakness at wide receiver.

In the two games against weak competition, the best performance of the season from an Aztecs wide receiver was Baylin Brooks’ three catches for 32 yards against Ohio.

Other than that already lackluster performance, SDSU has not had a wide receiver catch more than two passes, reach 30 receiving yards in a game or catch a touchdown.

With minimal talent out wide and Mayden’s inconsistencies as a passer, the Aztecs appear to be a bottom-half passing offense in every way.

SDSU ranks 113th in the country with 135 passing yards per game and ranks 86th in passing efficiency with a 121.42 rating. Despite their tendency to throw the ball short – highlighted by their 8.03 yards per completion, which ranks 120th in the nation – the Aztecs still only complete 64.6 percent of their passes, which ranks 65th.

UCLA should expect SDSU to target tight end Mark Redman and his 6-foot-6-inch frame, especially in the red zone, as well as running backs out of the backfield. That shouldn’t scare defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn, given the Bruins’ biggest weakness defensively is their secondary.

Despite a solid run game, the Aztecs rank 71st and 84th nationally with 28 points and 355.5 total yards per game, respectively. UCLA’s defense shouldn’t struggle too much in San Diego on Saturday.

San Diego State’s defense
Defensive scheme: Nickel 3-3-5
Strength: Forcing turnovers
Weakness: Occasionally giving up the big play
X-Factor: Cedarious Barfield

SDSU did not play against impressive offenses by any stretch of the imagination.

Ohio had its starting quarterback knocked out of the game with an injury in the first quarter, and its replacement, CJ Harris, had 581 career passing yards in his first three seasons prior to that game.

Idaho State also had two quarterbacks play against the Aztecs.

Thus, judging SDSU’s defensive strength may not be as easy after two games. Nonetheless, it showed some things that can be analyzed.

The Aztecs recorded six interceptions in the pair of games. Subpar quarterback play or not, that’s hard to do without talent in your secondary.

And it’s not like desperation heaves in a blowout were to blame for all of the takeaways. Two of the Bengals’ interceptions were in the first half, while two of the three Bobcats’ turnovers came while the game was within one score.

Safety Cedarious Barfield grabbed a pair of those takeaways. After transitioning from cornerback to safety in 2021, the 5-foot-11-inch defensive back possesses elite coverage ability that bolsters his defense’s backline.

SDSU has proven early on that it can intercept an opposing quarterback. With both redshirt junior Ethan Garbers and freshman Dante Moore throwing interceptions last week, that’s something to keep an eye on heading into Saturday.

While the Aztecs’ pass defense has taken the ball away, it hasn’t necessarily been lockdown.

Both Ohio and Idaho State averaged over 10 yards per completion. The Bobcats also threw for 279 yards in a low-scoring affair, while the Bengals threw for 322 yards, albeit in 63 attempts.

Nonetheless, you can move the ball through the air against SDSU. UCLA should do just that, especially with the quarterback-and-wide receiver duo of Moore and redshirt sophomore J. Michael Sturdivant – a combination that is beyond anything Ohio and Idaho State offer in terms of pure talent.

The most intriguing matchup of the entire game could very well be the Bruins’ run game against the Aztecs’ run defense.

SDSU has given up just 66.5 rushing yards per game on the ground in its opening two games, which ranks 25th in the nation, and it falls just behind UCLA’s 56 rushing yards allowed per game, which ranks tied for 21st.

Meanwhile, similar to how the Aztecs have a multitude of rushing options, the Bruins are no different.

Coach Chip Kelly has improved the Bruins’ offense every year in Westwood, in large part due to his team’s prowess running the football with several backs each game. With a starting quarterback still yet to be decided on, Kelly could once again look to the run game to establish the offense.

That matchup could ultimately decide who wins the game Saturday night at Snapdragon Stadium.

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Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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