No. 24 UTSA (12-2), despite being hamstrung by missing top players – just as SDSU (12-2) was in their Mountain West title-game loss – kept the contest within reach in large part due to Aztec miscues.
But they overcame them to achieve a cherished team goal – their 12th win on the season, a first for the San Diego State football program.
To do so, though they had to get past a slew of penalties – 14, including five personal fouls, that cost them 124 yards. Their vaunted defense took time settling in as well, but UTSA ended up with penalty trouble of their own.
Johnson, a Mt. Carmel High alum, though had a career night, as did favored target Matthews, another local. The senior, who had been battling a bad knee, finished with 333 yards and three touchdowns, while Matthews had 11 receptions for 175 yards. The duo connected on two touchdowns and Johnson dove into the end zone for another.
Head coach Brady Hoke praised Johnson for his composure, saying he “he was very decisive. He was aggressive in everything that we asked him to do.”
For his part, Johnson spread the credit around.
“It was awesome to see the offense click at such a high level,” he said.
But the Roadrunners struck first, finding holes in the Aztecs defense early. They scored less than three minutes into the game when quarterback Frank Harris found De’Corian Clark to go up 7-0.
San Diego State answered on a six-play drive – aided by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty – as Johnson threw a 20-yard pass to Matthews, who carried it nine more yards, making a diving reach for the corner of the end zone to score.
UTSA struck back on the next drive, aided by a pass-interference call on Tayler Hawkins, making it to the 2-yard line. One play later, Brenden Brady rushed up the middle to give his team a 14-7 lead.
But the Aztec defense stopped the Roadrunners in the 2nd quarter, giving the team the chance to take the lead.
Johnson saved a drive marred by two penalties by William Dunkle that erased gains, first by completing a 30-yard pass to Matthews. The junior then scored on an 11-yard toss to tie the game.
The Aztecs took their first lead, 17-14, as the clock ran down, settling for a Matt Araiza field goal after a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call against Kaegun Williams set them back at the 16-yard line instead of the one.
“Our mistakes by penalties really helped keep UTSA in the game,” Hoke said. “We had some real bonehead penalties. You can’t hurt yourself like that.”
But after the break, SDSU’s running game re-asserted itself, as the Aztecs put a fast seven on the board, on a six-play drive dominated by Greg Bell, who scored on a one-yard run.
The Roadrunners followed with a field goal, but two drives later, after a Harris toss was intercepted by Texas native C.J Baskerville, Johnson threw a 24-yard pass to Tyrell Shavers to give the Aztecs a commanding 31-17 lead.
Yet San Diego State penalties again opened the door for UTSA, which narrowed the gap on an eight-play, 75-yard drive to close the 3rd quarter at 31-24.
The Roadrunners, though, turned around and opened the 4th quarter by incurring big penalties of their own – roughing the passer and unnecessary roughness. The Aztecs took advantage, with Johnson capping the nine-play drive with a 2-yard run to go up 38-24, while the defense held the Roadrunners scoreless the rest of the way.
“We had to keep going and keep hammering and keep blitzing, and doing all we could to stop them,” Baskerville said.
Hoke said he could see that effort, combined with the re-emergence of the running game, “taking its toll” on a depleted UTSA.
Johnson said Hoke, in the days leading up to the Frisco Bowl, often noted the team’s chance for 12 wins. Matthews, who was named the game’s offensive MVP, was glad to see his 2021 team achieve the milestone.
“We’ve had so many great teams to go through here, and to be the first team to win 12 games is very special,” he said.