San Diego State may play in a region that is very close to paradise, but the Aztecs are enjoying the gift of a bowl game in place that, well, pretty much is paradise.
Capping their at-times tumultuous season, SDSU (7-5) will face Middle Tennessee State (7-5) in the EasyPost Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Quarterback Jalen Mayden called the game “the cherry on top of the season.” For some players, it’s is a chance to enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer, from water parks to luaus, even when it’s poignant, like the history lesson of seeing Pearl Harbor, now a memorial to sailors lost on Dec. 7, 1941.
But for others, like senior Alama Uluave, it’s a finale and a homecoming. Ending his time at San Diego State, “here, back home, I get to play in front of my family and friends. That’s a real big deal for me,” the center said.
The Aztecs practiced Thursday for the final time this season ahead of Saturday’s game.
“The last few days have been good for us,” senior linebacker Michael Shawcroft said. “Today was the main practice to really prepare us for the game and finish up the fine details.”
They have come a long way from the team that offensive coordinator Jeff Horton described as “pretty much dead in the water” after their first five games.
At 2-3, and with a sputtering offense, the Aztecs replaced former offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski with Horton, hired a new quarterbacks coach and had Mayden make the unlikely transition from safety to QB.
The team went 5-2 the remainder of the season – though the two losses, particularly to Fresno State, were stunners – and ultimately produced an All-American, defensive lineman Jonah Tavai, and a Mountain West Player of the Year, Jack Browning, on special teams.
“In some ways our seasons kind of were the same,” Hoke said of the Blue Raiders, noting “how good they are in their special teams.”
MTSU standouts include cornerback Decorian Patterson, whose six interceptions rank second nationally, and punter Kyle Ulbrich, sixth in the nation with a career-best 46.2 yard average.
A Mountain West team has played in the EasyPost Hawai‘i Bowl every year since 2012. Conference USA will send a representative for the 12th time in Hawaii Bowl history.
The Aztecs are playing in the Hawaii Bowl for the second time after beating Cincinnati, 42-7, in the 2015 bowl. They have a two-game bowl win streak after prevailing in the Frisco Bowl last year and the New Mexico Bowl in 2019.