McGrane: These Aztecs are That Good — Believe It
Sept. 17, 2017
2017 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: These Aztecs are That Good — Believe it
OK, enough. I surrender. I believe that we will win.
Maybe it was all those years of watching Aztec football in a light that painted it sickly green, that drove fans away in droves, that took unprecedented soundings from the depths of despair.
You began wondering if it was worth it all, that seeing big, tough football players sobbing in the wake of another waxing was absurd, that someone with any sense should simply throw in the towel.
If there was a moment that will forever remain in my mind, it was Oct. 18, 2008, and in the hallway leading to SDSU’s locker room at New Mexico, former linebacker Miles Burris, nasty enough to be a fourth-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders, sat slumped against the wall. Despite the efforts of teammates and coaches, he was inconsolable, crushed, much like his team, which had just been bludgeoned 70-7 by the Lobos.
At the time, I wondered how much more the program could take. In the previous two weeks, the Aztecs had been beaten 41-7 and 35-10. After a four-point loss at Colorado State the following week, SDSU’s next three losses came by an average of 34.3 points.
So as I sat watching approximately a billion students storm the field following Saturday’s win over No. 19 Stanford, it strained the imagination. Storming doesn’t happen at San Diego State, at least not on a football field. Storming is for Top 10 programs that square off in one of those game-of-the-century things that come along every year. Storming is for someone else.
Yet, suddenly, the storm was blowing everything away, ripping up the roots of the unattainable and replanting with seeds of the possible.
And in the midst of it all was head coach Rocky Long, the same man who had a hand in that 70-7 shellacking nine years ago as head coach at New Mexico.
Said Long of the storming: “I thought it was a little scary.”
Rocky Long doesn’t scare easily, doesn’t flinch, actually. His damn-the-torpedoes approach (punting is wholly overrated) has been firmly embraced by a city starving to embrace a winner. It also has been seized by a program once cowered in a corner that now comes out swinging. When you play these Aztecs, be advised against wearing your good clothes.
“The way we're trained is be the toughest team on the field,” said senior tight end David Wells. “That's our goal, every single game, to be the toughest team on the field. Stanford is known to be one of the tougher teams in the country. They're a Power 5 team. They run the ball just like us and everything like that. Now it's time for us to step out of that (Power 5) shadow, time to show everybody we're tough sons of guns out here. We're ready to play ball against anybody.”
On Saturday, that “anybody” was a Stanford team that in the last decade has won 75 games, second only to Alabama (82). But SDSU is no longer phased by pedigree, no longer paying homage to the Power 5. Their latest triumph was not only their first against a ranked Power 5 team in 36 years, but also just the third time since the program’s inaugural Division I campaign in 1969 that it has beaten two Pac-12 teams in the same season.
It was enough in the eyes of pollsters to reposition the Aztecs in the AP Top 25, where they’ll visit Air Force next week as the No. 22 team in the nation. They are No. 25 in the Amway Coaches Poll, where coaches spend considerably more time peddling cleaning products than watching games.
“No one gave us a chance,” said quarterback Christian Chapman, who at an iffy 6-feet and 200 pounds was an absolute nightmare for the Cardinal despite enduring a barrage of blows. “The guys in our room, the coaches, the people around us believe in us. Our expectation is that we don’t care who you are. We’re going to play smash-mouth football and compete with you. I think that shows the nation (the reason) we’re 3-0.”
It also shows why SDSU has won 24 of its last 27 and five straight dating back to last season. In the process, the Aztecs have beaten three straight teams —Cal, Arizona State and Stanford — from the Pac-12 while winning two straight bowl games.
You don’t accomplish that success without a leader like Long, who accepts excuses like a wolverine welcomes a poke with a sharp stick. He places discipline responsibilities in the hands of his seniors, relying on them to weed out problem players while serving as the team’s ambassadors. He also has enjoyed the uncommon fortune of keeping his staff almost entirely intact for four straight seasons, a staff that includes three assistants — Jeff Horton, Bobby Hauck and Kevin McGarry — who are former head coaches.
Nonetheless, he thoroughly despises accolades. Mention his name as being the hub that makes the wheel go ‘round and his reaction is as dismissive as it is demonstrative.
“All I’ve done is facilitate in giving these kids a chance to be successful,” he said after becoming the first coach in SDSU’s Division I history with two victories over nationally-ranked opponents. “I don’t make one play. In fact, one (of Stanford’s) long touchdown runs was because I called a lousy defense. If I’d called the right defense, they might not have scored as many points as they did.
“All I do is let players play and point them in the right direction and give them a scheme that gives them a chance to win. Players win games; coaches do not. That’s why I’m proud of them and I’m happy for them.”
“I think both teams were equally physical,” Long continued. “I thought we outplayed them. And (despite) the three long (touchdown) runs, I think we would’ve beaten them, anyway.”
You go to battle with Rocky Long, don’t leave your backbone in the backseat.
Said tailback Rashaad Penny, who posted his third straight 100-yard game: “I know everybody’s going to try and make a big deal about it, but it’s just another game.”
Just another game against a team that had won nine straight non-conference games, three of them against nationally-ranked opponents. Just another take down of a nation’s blue-blood. Ho hum.
“We’ve been doing this going on three years now,” senior cornerback Kameron Kelly, whose interception brought the curtain down with 48 seconds left. “As much as we say the rest of the country shouldn’t be surprised, they’re always going to be surprised because we’re just little ol’ San Diego State.
“We take it to heart, though. Most of the time, when we play in big games, the only people that believe we’re going to win are the ones in the locker room.”
Oh, far from it, Kam, far from it.
After all, I believe that we will win.