Perhaps the best bowl game experience San Diego State has ever enjoyed came seven years ago when SDSU played Cincinnati in the 2015 Hawaii Bowl.
SDSU players were occupied with a week of memorable activities, then went out and posted a 42-7 victory over Cincinnati.
The Aztecs spent another memorable week in Honolulu on this visit, which included a traditional luau, trip to Wet ‘n’ Wild water park and a somber tour of the Pearl Harbor Memorial.
Now for the business at hand — SDSU (7-5) against Middle Tennessee (7-5) in the 2022 EasyPost Hawaii Bowl.
The Aztecs are 7-point favorites in the game, which kicks off at 5 p.m. PT (ESPN) at the University of Hawaii’s Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex.
Here are five things to watch:
1. Aztecs offense
SDSU’s offense came to life following a midseason staff change, coupled with Jalen Mayden’s move back from safety to starting quarterback.
The Aztecs’ hovered around 100th in scoring average and were 131st — last — in passing yards among FBS teams when Mayden (122-for-194, 1,721 yards, 10 TDs/7 INTs) made his starting debut against Hawaii.
SDSU improved greatly in both areas, highlighted with a season-high 43 points in a late-season win over San Jose State, while Mayden averaged nearly 250 yards a game passing.
That, before the Aztecs finished with a resounding thud in a 13-3 loss to Air Force in the regular season finale.
So which SDSU offense shows up against Middle Tennessee?
SDSU head coach Brady Hoke noted that one thing Air Force did was limit the left-handed Mayden from rolling to his left side, preventing the QB from being as effective outside the pocket as he had been.
That, one would think, has been addressed in the four weeks since.
SDSU also will need to do a better job converting on third down. Can’t do any worse. The Aztecs were 0-for-10 against Air Force.
2. Get after Middle Tennessee’s QB
Middle Tennessee quarterback Chase Cunningham (283-for-420, 2,920 yards, 19 TDs/9 INTs) needs only 81 passing yards against SDSU to surpass 3,000 yards for the season.
That’s barely one quarter of work for Cunningham, whose passing performances this season include 408 yards in a win at Miami and 448 yards in a victory against Florida Atlantic.
It helps that Cunningham has several receivers on which he can rely, led by Jaylin Lane (59 catches, 829 yards, 4 TDs), Izaiah Gathings (53 catches, 490 yards, 2 TDs) and DJ England-Chisolm (22 catches, 359 yards, 4 TDs).
SDSU defensive end Jonah Tavai (team-leading nine sacks), linebacker Michael Shawcroft (5 1/2 sacks) and Co. will have to get after Cunningham, disrupting his rhythm and pressuring him into mistakes.
Virginia Tech, which picked off three passes against Cunningham while limiting him to 136 passing yards, is the only opponent that had much success against him.
SDSU will have to pay particular attention to Cunningham in the red zone — and not just for his passing.
Cunningham has six rushing TDs for the Blue Raiders, which is second only to running back Frank Peasant (165 carries, 747 yards, 9 TDs).
3. Block party
Middle Tennessee may be most notable for its special teams, which rank third in the nation this season with six blocked kicks (four punts, two field goals).
SDSU special teams coordinator Doug Deakin is no doubt mindful of this statistic and has game-planned to avoid the Blue Raiders continuing their block party.
SDSU has allowed one block this season — on a first-quarter punt in the season opener against Arizona.
The punting and kicking of SDSU’s Jack Browning has been one of the team’s biggest strengths.
Browning, who earned Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year, is averaging 46 yards per punt (third in school history) and is 17-for-21 on field goal attempts.
4. Final game for Jesse Matthews?
This could be the final college game for SDSU wide receiver Jesse Matthews.
The senior from Christian High could return next season, using his “COVID year” of eligibility, although embarking on a potential professional career is a consideration.
Matthews has said his focus is on the bowl game and he will make a decision on his future shortly thereafter.
Matthews leads SDSU receivers with 38 receptions, is second with 409 yards and tied for the team lead with three touchdown catches.
For his career, Matthews ranks eighth in school history in receptions (167), 14th in receiving yards (2,010) and tied for 14th in receiving touchdowns (15).
Matthews has been at his best in bowl games, totaling 14 receptions for 286 yards and four touchdowns in two games.
He was selected offensive MVP both times, shared the award with Jordan Byrd at the 2019 New Mexico Bowl and earning it outright at the 2021 Frisco Bowl.
5. What a win means
A victory would give SDSU an eight-win season for the 10th time in the past 12 full seasons.
For context, the Aztecs had only three eight-win years in the three decades that preceded the current run.
SDSU has been bowl eligible 13 straight seasons and this is the Aztecs’ 12th bowl appearance during that run (they withdrew from consideration during the 2020 COVID-truncated season).
It is the 20th bowl game in program history. A win would make the Aztecs 11-9 overall in postseason contests.