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3 Things We Learned ... in the Aztecs' 26-21 loss at Nevada

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 11/23/2020 Kirk Kenney
a baseball player holding a bat: San Diego State quarterback Lucas Johnson passes against Nevada during Saturday's Mountain West game. (ASSOCIATED PRESS) © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune San Diego State quarterback Lucas Johnson passes against Nevada during Saturday's Mountain West game. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The San Diego State football team could easily be 5-0 this season and well positioned for a berth in the Mountain West championship game.

Instead, SDSU is 3-2 and its title game hopes are all but over because of losses to San Jose State and Nevada.

In each instance, the Aztecs made mistakes that cost them victories.

And so they press on into ever more uncertainty in the most uncertain of seasons.

“We’ve just got to stay strong,” SDSU offensive lineman Zachary Thomas said after the loss to the Wolf Pack. “I know we’re going to have a good week of practice.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a good game next week. Hopefully, we’ll have a game next week.”

Here are three things we learned Saturday afternoon from SDSU’s 26-21 loss at Nevada:

1. Johnson’s ups and downs

Lucas Johnson looked like the answer to SDSU’s questions at quarterback in the first half against the Wolf Pack, completing 10 of 14 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown while running for a 35-yard touchdown.

Johnson also looked like he may be one of those star-crossed players who can never stay healthy enough to realize his full potential, limping through the second half with a hamstring injury.

“He had a little bit of a problem in fall camp with it,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said. “I think he just tweaked it a little bit again.”

The hamstring was on top of a shoulder issue that limited Johnson during preseason practices.

This was supposed to be a fresh start for Johnson, the Mt. Carmel High graduate returned to his hometown as a graduate transfer from Georgia Tech.

Johnson’s career with the Yellow Jackets was overshadowed with injuries.

He was competing to be the starting quarterback two years ago, but his season ended before it started because of a foot injury that forced him to miss the season.

Last year, after starting the season’s second and third games, a shoulder injury knocked him out of the lineup.

Johnson made one other significant appearance later in the season against Pitt, but was injured then as well and did not appear in Georgia Tech’s remaining four games.

The extent of Johnson’s hamstring injury was not immediately known over the weekend.

An update is expected Monday when Hoke speaks with the media.

2. Second-half struggles

SDSU scored 28 points in the second half of its Oct. 31 win at Utah State.

The Aztecs offense has produced 20 points in the second half of its other four games combined.

That includes being shut out in the second half against the Wolf Pack, where eight offensive possessions led to seven punts before turning the ball over on downs from the Nevada 5-yard line in the game’s final minute.

The SDSU offense was limited by Johnson’s hamstring injury and running back Greg Bell’s ankle injury.

But, Hoke said, “We’ve got enough playmakers on this team that we’ve got to play better. We’ve got to coach better, too. I mean, it’s all together.”

The head coach didn’t have a particular explanation for the second-half struggles.

“Some of it people are adjusting a little bit, but I do think we have done a nice job at halftime also adjusting, from an offensive standpoint,” Hoke said. “As much as anything, it’s not a concern, but it is something we’ll address.”

3. Self-inflicted wounds

One of the biggest differences in SDSU’s performance this season compared with last year is that the Aztecs continue to make costly mistakes.

On SDSU’s opening drive, a backward pass by Johnson was mishandled by Bell and was fumbled away to Nevada. It was the team's seventh turnover in six quarters.

The Wolf Pack turned the turnover into the game’s first points on a field goal by Brandon Talton.

Later, SDSU linebacker Caden McDonald was call for a personal foul on Nevada quarterback Carson Strong after a third-and-10 pass fell incomplete.

Instead of punting, the Wolf Pack had a first down and was on its way — aided by two more SDSU penalties — to a touchdown.

As poorly as SDSU’s offense played in the second half, the Aztecs likely would have had the lead — or would have been within a field goal — down the stretch had they avoided some of those mistakes.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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