McGrane: As Fervor Grows, Aztecs Affix Poker Faces
Sept. 15, 2017
2017 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: As Fervor Grows, Aztecs Affix Poker Faces
Among the many attributes of San Diego State tight end David Wells are his ability to match up with ornery defensive linemen, to track virtually any throw coming out of the hand of Christian Chapman and to make Rashaad Penny look like, well, Rashaad Penny.
But if doing impressions is also a strong suit, it’s long been ignored in his media guide biography.
Less than 10 minutes after head coach Rocky Long left the room after saying this week that beating Stanford would mean only that the Aztecs were 3-0, Wells was given his opportunity to take a crack at the same question.
If Long wasn’t physically present, his spirit clearly lingered.
Said Wells: “Obviously, it’s a big game, but (if we win) all that it means is that we’re 3-0.”
The next time a San Diego State player provides bulletin board material will be the same time said player finds himself running gassers until winter yields to spring’s thaw. It’s the Long Way.
Yet in an age where instant gratification is the order of the day, where hopes have been hoisted by a program that last season garnered an AP Top 25 ranking for the first time in nearly 40 years, the next step must necessarily be ever higher, ever bolder.
Which brings us to Saturday, when SDSU will get a visit from No. 19 Stanford, the highest-ranked opponent to appear at Aztec Warrior Stadium since No. 15 Fresno State held on for a 35-28 overtime win on Oct. 22, 2013.
Inside the Fowler Athletics Center, of course, mum’s the word. If the prospect of beating Stanford —whose 75 wins in this decade rank second only to Alabama (81) — is generating unrestrained emotion and riotous tumult, it’s taking place in a vacuum. Under Long, the Aztecs have become so business-like in their approach that being brought down by a player in a three-piece suit would seem well within the realm of possibility — assuming a hard hat was an acceptable accessory to a three-piece suit.
In time, however, you find yourself powerless not to buy in, that simply because an opponent sports a Power 5 pin on its lapel doesn’t mean diddly. After all, it’s football, not a discourse on the day’s Dow Jones.
“I don’t think our players believe there’s any difference between us and any Power 5 team,” Long said. “That’s an accomplishment, and it’s a credit to our players. Because the way they’re treated (as opposed to Stanford) isn’t even close to being the same. The facilities aren’t the same, the resources aren’t even close to being the same. But our kids believe they’re as good as anybody. They’ve just got to play that way.”
Which brings us to Saturday, where an SDSU team that has won 23 of its last 26, a stretch in which it has outscored the opponent by an average of 18.4 points per game, will be given ample opportunity to play that way.
Like it as not (and I know one coach who passionately abhors it), fans take over where the practice-field fences end. And if there’s been more pregame chatter surrounding an SDSU home game in recent decades, I was left out of the conversation. A win over the Cardinal would give the Aztecs three straight victories Pac-12 programs. SDSU also would necessarily be included in the conversation as the top Group of 5 program in the nation.
And if that’s not a particularly weighty priority for Rocky Long, it matters much to Aztec followers, who, having tasted national recognition, are salivating over the prospects of the next course.
This has much to do with Long, of course, a man who would consider a mountain in the middle of the road as merely in need of additional dynamite. While he would blanch at the very suggestion of it, he has become a fan favorite, the face of a program that has risen from wretched to widely respected.
Even if he’s tossing the occasional wet blanket on a growing fire.
“Every game that we play seems to be the most important game in the history of our program,” he said. “Last week, when I called (Arizona State) an opportunity game, it became the most important game in history as to whether we could beat a Power 5 team on the road.
“Well, we won that one, so now it’s, ‘Oh, can you fathom how important this (Stanford) game is to the program and to our national reputation?’ Well, guess what? If we don’t win this game, we’ve got a very important game (at Air Force) next week. So, the media can hype it all they want, but we’re guaranteed to play 12 games this year. And, to be honest with you, the one after this one is hell of a lot more important. That’s the truth. Now, that’s not what the media wants to hear, but it’s the truth.”
It’s also the truth that last week’s win at ASU snapped a 23-game road losing streak against Power 5 teams that dated to a win at Kansas 18 years ago. It’s also the truth that with last season’s win over Cal, SDSU has beaten a Power 5 team in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1982-83.
And it’s also the truth that trying to stymie the spirit of a fan base itching for more is no small task, particularly one that detests playing patsy to its big brother up the road. While the Aztecs have posted three straight 11-win seasons as the two-time defending Mountain West champion, they’ve beaten teams from the current Pac-12 configuration only twice in the same season since becoming a Division I program in 1969.
Regardless of whether it’s reasonable, success is the soulmate of expectation. It’s not that fans don’t share Long’s vision of improving to 3-0, they simply want 3-0 to come at the expense of a national player while envisioning their own program in the same light.
Alas, if one is straining their ear in hopes of catching even the slightest bit of bravado issuing forth from the Aztec camp, count on a long wait.
“Each week is a big week,” Wells said. “Our goal is to be a Top 25 team at the end of the season, and to do that we have to be 1-0 each week. UC Davis was a big game for us. Arizona State was a big game for us and Stanford is going to be a big game for us. Every game for the rest of the season is going to be a big game. All that matters to us is to be 3-0 at the end of the week.”
And to beat Stanford.