SAN DIEGO (AP) — Standing in his own end zone, San Diego State’s Matt Araiza reached down for the low snap and — BOOM — lofted a punt that went over the head of the retreating San Jose State returner, landed at the 25-yard line and rolled to a stop at the 3.
The 86-yard punt was the longest in the NCAA this season.
A week later, again lined up in his own end zone, this time in the thin, mile-high air at Air Force, Araiza let fly with an 81-yarder. The returner lost track of the ball, which landed at around the 20 and rolled to the 12.
Araiza is unquestionably the best player for the No. 19 Aztecs (11-1, 7-1), who will host Utah State (9-3, 6-2) in the Mountain West Conference championship game Saturday at their temporary home in Carson, a Los Angeles suburb. With his powerful left leg, the junior from San Diego routinely flips the field for SDSU, which has a great defense but has often struggled on offense.
Araiza, a finalist for the Ray Guy Award for the nation’s top punter, leads all FBS punters with an average of 51.47 yards, putting him on track to break the record of 50.98 set by Braden Mann of Texas A&M in 2018. Araiza has already set single-season NCAA records for 50-yard punts (38) and 60-yard punts (18). He has six punts of at least 70 yards.
“He’s our most valuable player in my mind, obviously,” coach Brady Hoke said. “He’s done a tremendous job with his punting and his kickoffs have been incredible. He’s changed field position unbelievably.”
As the placekicker, Araiza’s highlights include a game-winning 35-yard field goal against Nevada three weeks ago, his third of the game, and bouncing a kickoff off the goalpost at Hawaii.
Although this is his third season as placekicker, it’s just his first season as the full-time punter. He started the abbreviated 2020 season as the punter but was replaced after punting five times in the opener.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Araiza said. “I’m a lot more involved. Games are a little bit more meaningful. I get to spend more time out there. I’ve been enjoying it.”
Asked if he’s surprised himself, he said: “I’ve always believed in myself but actually going out there and doing it is a whole new thing.”
The Aztecs rave about Araiza’s dedication and preparation during the offseason and at practice.
“I knew he had great leg strength, believe me,” Hoke said. “We knew that being around him. Punt time I’m usually down either with the punt returners or screwing around with the snappers because I long-snapped in college also. But It doesn’t surprise me, his work ethic, he’s incredible what he’s done.”
Araiza credits his punting prowess to “a lot of work in the offseason. We have a great strength and conditioning program here which our specialists are a complete part of. We don’t get any breaks basically to do something that the rest of the team doesn’t do. So I would put all that on our strength and conditioning program.”
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Araiza isn’t afraid to do some dirty work. He had three tackles during a 33-31 triple-overtime win against Utah, which won the Pac-12 South Division.
”Matt Araiza is a defensive player,” linebacker Caden McDonald said. “We claim him. And it is such a blessing to be able to have him on our team. We’ll be backed up on our 5-yard line and he kicks the ball and we down it on their 5-yard line and completely flip the field, which is unheard of.”
Araiza is one of only four players in the country handling all three kicking duties, punting, PAT/field goals and kickoffs. He is tied for first in punts inside the 20-yard line (36) and fifth in net punt average (44.64). He has two games with an 80-yard punt and a 50-yard field goal.
“I’m not sure that any of us have seen punters quite like this,” Utah State coach Blake Anderson said. “There are some really good punters in the league and we’ve seen some guys boom it. But just his consistency, hitting the long ball, makes him the best in the country in my opinion.”
Opponents have returned only 20 of Araiza’s 73 punts, for an average of 10.80 yards.
“It is tough to get returns on him because you literally just have to track the ball down,” Anderson said. The coach added that if Araiza outkicks the coverage, his punts are so long that opponents aren’t going to gain many yards even if they are able to return one.
“The main thing we don’t want to do, and I’ve seen him do this, kick the ball out of his own zone and pin it inside the five at the other end and flip the entire field with one kick,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to try to avoid the ball hitting the ground and rolling for 15, 20 yards at a time. That in itself is a challenge because you just can’t line up for an 80-yard punt. You just can’t do it.”