LARAMIE — People like to say that the game of football is
not played on paper.

They are right. But it’s still fun to look.

Today, we will breakdown the defenses of the San Diego State
Aztecs (4-1, 1-1) and Wyoming Cowboys (4-1, 1-0). The two squads will meet
Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego.

So, who has the edge on defense?

Let’s break it down real quick.

DEFENSIVE LINES:
Wyoming’s defensive line has registered 15 of the team’s Mountain West leading 20 sacks through five games this season. Solomon Byrd, an up-and-coming star in the league, leads the team with 3.5 sacks. Garrett Crall has three and Davon Wells-Ross added two against the Rebels. The Cowboys had just 19 sacks total in 2018. These guys haven’t just been terrorizing quarterbacks either. They have played a major role in why the Pokes are holding their opponents to just 83.4 yards on the ground per game. That’s good enough for 13th in the country. The line has also forced two fumbles this season and has a pair of recoveries. Wyoming is also ninth in the nation with 42 tackles for loss. These guys are disruptive – to say the least.

Cameron Thomas leads the Aztecs’ front four with 19 tackles and a pair of sacks, and Keshawn Banks has racked up 16 tackles and 2.5 sacks through five games this season. San Diego State, like UW, loves getting to the quarterback. As a team, they have 14 sacks, eight of those have come from the line. Myles Cheatum also has 2.5 sacks, and Jalil Lecky and Sam Hines each have one. These guys have been scary good so far this season, plugging up running lanes and swimming to the signal caller. The Aztecs feature the No. 1 rush defense in the nation, allowing just over 45 yards per game on the ground. In a win over Colorado State last Saturday night, the Aztecs held the Rams to just 18 rushing yards. In fact, in 127 rushing attempts this season, only one Aztec opponent has a longer rush than 20 yards. Wyoming has the edge in tackles for loss, sacks and fumble recoveries, but boy, is this a close call.

ADVANTAGE: Wyoming

Kyahva Tezino/ goaztecs.com

LINEBACKERS:
His numbers don’t necessarily tell the tale, but two Saturdays ago inside War Memorial Stadium, no one on the field was better than Wyoming linebacker and Casper product, Logan Wilson. The senior captain was all over the field, running sideline to sideline. UNLV tailbacks and tight ends had nowhere to hide. Wilson also picked off his seventh career pass in the first half. Wilson has 45 tackles, six pass breakups and an interception through five games. Cassh Maluia joined him against UNLV, stepping in front of an errant pass and running down the sideline toward the Rebels end zone. Like Wilson, Maluia didn’t quite make it. But also like Wilson, Maluia has been a terror. Chad Muma has had a breakout season after spending much of 2018 on the Pokes’ special team’s squad. Muma is third on the team with 28 tackles. He also has a sack. Ben Wisdorf has been steady, too. This group was supposed to be a strength for the Cowboys this season. They have lived up to the billing and then some.

Kyahva Tezino might be the best linebacker in the Mountain West, if not the nation. The senior is the Aztecs only returning starter on defense this season. Tezino has 43 tackles, a pair of sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles already this season. Like Wilson, No. 44 in red and black will be all over the field. Troy Cassidy has 25 tackles, and Caden McDonald has 12. Andrew Aleki has 10 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. This group, like Wyoming, is solid across the board. Tezino puts them over the top. Their athleticism is also very much responsible for the Aztecs’ rushing defense being on of the nation’s best after five weeks. SDSU gets the edge here, but not by much. Their linebacking corps has been unbeatable with the run and stingy in the passing game.

ADVANTAGE: San Diego State


Luq Barcoo/ goaztecs.com

DEFENSIVE BACKS:
We have harped on this group all season in this space. They have given up way too many chunk plays and yards in the passing game. No one has been able to establish a running game against Wyoming but passing – that has been a different story. The Cowboys have surrendered 329 passing yards per game. That is 126th in the nation out of 130 teams. Not good. However, this corps took a gigantic step forward against the Rebels, allowing just 263 yards through the air. Most of that came with the game already in hand. And did I mention the Cowboys did that without their best corner, Tyler Hall, who missed the game with a concussion? The Pokes had no Hull, Antonio Hull has now left the program and didn’t play and CJ Coldon was on crutches on the bench. Most of that praise can be directed at true freshman Jordan Murry. The youngster finished with five tackles, including one that send UNLV’s star running back, Charles Williams, to the bench with a knee injury. Murry was really good. So was Braden Smith, who moved from his safety position to cornerback. Azizi Hearn stepped up, Rome Weber intercepted a pass, and – shocker – Alijah Halliburton led the team with 11 tackles.

SDSU’s pass defense is ranked 73rd in the nation. They are giving up 227 yards per outing but have allowed just two touchdown passes this season. If this defense has a weak spot, this is it. But don’t tell that to Luq Barcoo, who already has four interceptions this season, three of which came in the road win over CSU last week. He is the only guy in FBS to have three picks in a game this season. Safety Tariq Thompson has one of the Aztecs’ six interceptions this season, too. SDSU’s secondary is very active in the run defense. Dwayne Johnson is second on the squad with 36 tackles, and Barcoo has added 24 from his cornerback spot. Kyree Woods and Thompson both have 22 stops. Woods, however, was lost for the season with a torn ACL in Ft. Collins. So, what does it all means? These guys are aggressive and have a nose for the football. That aggressiveness can lead to big plays in the passing game. Wyoming, to this point, doesn’t have that in its arsenal. If the Cowboys can have some success on the ground, sucking up these safeties should leave some wide receivers wide open ala Tulsa. But can they run the ball?

ADVANTAGE: San Diego State

Matt Araiza/ goaztecs.com

SPECIAL TEAMS:
Bohl isn’t worried, why should you be? That’s when it comes to place kicker Cooper Rothe, who missed a pair of point-after attempts against UNLV. That is uncharacteristic of the senior, to say the least. He was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award last season. They give that to the nation’s best kicker. Bohl said to “read between the lines” as he described Rothe being just one part of the kicking game. I’m not a genius, but I think he is referring to the snapper and holder, who upon further review, did have an off night against the Rebels. Back to Rothe though. He has made just 8-of-12 field goals this season with a long of 47. If any game was going to come down to a field goal, this one might be it. Rothe says he’s still mentally strong. Bohl agrees. Let’s go with their word – for now. Austin Conway had a nice return day in the punting game against UNLV. And with Hall back from a concussion, the kickoff team just got that much better. Ryan Galovich will need to have a big night in San Diego, changing field position. Wyoming has punted the ball 34 times already this season. That’s third most in the nation.

Matt Araiza is putting up Rothe-like numbers so far in 2019. He has connected on 8-of-9 field goals and is a perfect 8-for-8 on extra points. The freshman has booted a long of 43. Juwan Washington and Jordan Byrd, a pair of Aztec running backs, handle the kick and punt return duties, respectively. They can be dynamic in space. Senior punter Brandon Heicklen has been a busy guy this season. He has punted 31 times for an average of 43.5 yards per kick. SDSU is getting solid production from its special teams all the way around. This could turn into a Heicklen-Galovich battle for field position. SDSU holds a slim lead in this category, too.

ADVANTAGE: San Diego State