McGrane: Aztecs' Resolve Won't Be Slowed in Midst of Streak
Oct. 1, 2017
2017 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Aztecs' Resolve Won't Be Slowed in Midst of Streak
The same team that last year rushed for more yards than only six teams in the country had minus-4 yards in the first quarter.
The same team that purposely places its cornerbacks on an "island" because they are trusted to be that good, surrendered 13 receptions -- to one player.
The same team that routinely controls games by running you down before running you over was forced to watch its defense stay on the field for 86 plays.
And the same team that once upon a time rolled over like a pampered puppy proved one thing: If you think intimidation is going to work, you'd better be packing a serious punch.
San Diego State's football team is 5-0, something that hasn't happened in 42 years and something that has never happened to Rocky Long as a head coach.
Nonetheless, this is no longer about navigating uncharted waters or savoring the potency of rarefied air. This is about resiliency, resolve and refusing to yield. This is about opponents frantically trying to figure out how to pierce the heart before the beast grows another two heads and six new arms.
This is about a legitimate Top 25 program that, if need be, will play you on a field of broken glass and revel in the bonding experience. And for any team interested in baiting them into an alley fight, rest assured this team will gladly accommodate you.
"I think we're a team that believes we're going to win," head coach Rocky Long said in the aftermath of Saturday's win over a game Northern Illinois team. "There are a lot of teams that would wilt or give up in those kinds of (tight games). Our team isn't like that. It has a really good spirit. They go into every game thinking they're going to win."
Clearly, that train of thought is fast reaching full speed with the throttle wide open. Even in a scrum where SDSU was forced to play a true freshman (Dominic Gudino) at guard alongside four other first-year offensive linemen, the Aztecs won for the 26th time in their last 29 games.
And maybe it's time to stop being surprised. Regardless of the next hurdle, this is a program that now seems oblivious, that the only thing standing between it and its next appointment with winning is the preceding Saturday. It no longer cares who it plays and what's at stake. It's the next item on a to-do list.
The Aztecs' win over Northern Illinois was their seventh straight dating back to last season and marked the first time since 1981 that they won all of their non-conference games in the same season. This isn't a fluke, this is a football team. One deserving of every ounce of the national attention it's garnered and one that Long claims hasn't reached its potential -- just in the event the remainder of the MW was curious.
"I've said from day one that by the middle of the season we'll have a really good team," said Long, whose team reaches the midway point next week at UNLV. "We're 5-0 and we've got a long way to go. It's nice to be 5-0. I've been 5-0 as an assistant coach, but I've never been 5-0 as a head coach. I only see bright things from that, because I don't think we played very well (against Northern Illinois). I don't think we've played very well the last two games, but guess what? We won. What's that tell you? We've got a chance to be really good. We're not right now, but we've got a chance to be really good."
And a chance to prove that its talent pool is growing deeper by the day. Few true freshman impact a game the way safety Tariq Thompson did Saturday. Thompson, a product of nearby St. Augustine High, not only returned an interception 83 yards for a touchdown, his interception with 1:42 left sealed a game that left many -- Long included -- emitting a serious sigh of relief. And while you'll never convince Long that players coming straight from high school are more ready than ever for the college game, Gudino merely stepped in for Antonio Rosales, the team's only senior offensive lineman. Moreover, he played right guard after having served the last two months as the backup at left guard to sophomore Daishawn Dixon.
Regardless of rank or time served, the Aztecs in 2017 seemingly are getting contributions from everywhere.
"We have great kids in the program," Long said. "They're team players, they're not individuals. They like each other, which is fun to be around. I've been a part of good teams, but the players hated each other. The kids in this program like each other, they do things for each other. They're enthusiastic, they're energetic and they're good kids. Good kids don't ever quit. Good kids don't ever give up. If you just hang in there, you might not win them all, but you might win some you're not supposed to."
Of course, there's also the chance that you just might win them all. Nobody's pushing that notion, mind you, but clearly part of the conversation. Since Oct. 3, 2015, SDSU's run of 26 wins in 29 games trails only Alabama (30-1) and Clemson (30-2). If talking about the winning streak is taboo, ignoring it is becoming increasingly difficult.
"I feel like we're beginning to have an obsession with winning, that we can't lose at all, we just can't," said senior cornerback Kameron Kelly, who once again turned in late-game heroics with his second interception of the season with 2:23 left and Northern Illinois positioned at the SDSU 20. "We have to keep that going. We can't ever get this close to losing again. Life is all about learning from your mistakes. Last year, we went into South Alabama nonchalant and got our butts kicked. But now we have guys who can make plays, guys who are out there giving it their all.
"Last year, this team was mostly about (Donnel) Pumphrey and (Damontae) Kazee. This year, it's about everybody. Anybody is capable of making a big play for us, and I that's the best thing about this team. I think it's why we've made it this far. We've got a whole bunch of guys that love each other, that love this team and love winning."
Said tailback Rashaad Penny, who recorded his fifth 100-yard game of the season and 10th in his last 15 despite an incident in which he appeared to be intentionally poked in the eye after being tackled on a kickoff return:
"The stats, the eye-gouging, none of that means anything. I'm just happy we came out 5-0. We fought through adversity when it was hard on us. We just kept pushing. But we can play better than this. We know what we can do."
And after the first five weeks of the season, so does the rest of the country.