San Diego State is happy it doesn’t have to go very far for another bowl game, and the Aztecs will also be reacquainted with an old rival.
BYU is looking to remind them which team has dominated the series.
For the second time in three years, San Diego State won’t have to travel for a postseason game as it welcomes the Cougars to Qualcomm Stadium for the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 20.
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The Aztecs (9-3) are back on their home turf after beating Navy 35-14 in this bowl two years ago, and being in familiar surroundings is giving them a sense of comfort.
“When we got to the point that we were bowl eligible, we were hoping we were going to get to stay here at home for a lot of reasons,” second-year coach Rocky Long said. “We wanted to stay home and play in front of and give our fans a chance to see us in a bowl game.”
Those fans are getting an added bonus with a meeting against one of San Diego State’s historical rivals. Until BYU (7-5) became independent last season, it had shared a conference with the Aztecs since 1978.
They’ll meet for the first time since the Cougars won 24-21 in 2010, improving to 27-7-1 in the all-time series and 9-1 in the last 10 matchups.
Long, though, is downplaying the rivalry.
“I guess I haven’t been here long enough to know if the Aztecs versus BYU is a big rivalry or not,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people that were in the old (Western Athletic Conference) and Mountain West Conference that thought BYU was the rivalry.”
He also has personal reasons to avoid any negative feelings.
“I was born in Provo,” Long said. “My mom and dad both graduated from BYU. My dad played football and ran track at BYU. What makes you think I could hate them?”
Long was named Mountain West coach of the year after the Aztecs won their first conference title since 1986, sharing this one with No. 20 Boise State and Fresno State.
San Diego State has a chance for its first eight-game winning streak in a single season since 1975, and this seven-game run came after a rocky 2-3 start that drew questions about the team’s direction.
“We knew at 2-3 that we needed to win games, and we prepared hard every week,” senior offensive lineman Alec Johnson said. “We got better each week and that’s a testament to the coaches.”
Quarterback Adam Dingwell has kept San Diego State rolling since replacing injured senior Ryan Katz (ankle). The sophomore came off the bench to spark a win at Nevada then led the Aztecs to victories in all four of his starts, including a 21-19 upset at then-No. 19 Boise State on Nov. 3.
Dingwell has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 767 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions since Katz’s injury.
Adam Muema will help carry the load offensively after finishing the regular season with 1,355 rushing yards and 17 total TDs. The sophomore had career bests of 255 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries in the Aztecs’ most recent game, a 42-28 win at Wyoming on Nov. 24.
He’ll encounter a stout Cougars defense that ranks third in the FBS overall (266.3 yards allowed per game) and second against the run (84.3). BYU’s opponents have averaged just 14.7 points.
BYU is making an eighth consecutive bowl appearance, winning the last three. Riley Nelson found Cody Hoffman for three touchdowns, including a 2-yard score with 11 seconds left to clinch a 24-21 victory over Tulsa in the 2011 Armed Forces Bowl.
Hoffman, who has 16 catches for 259 yards and six TDs in two career bowl games, finished the regular season with 90 receptions, 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns. He set a school record with five TD catches among his 12 receptions for 182 yards in a 50-14 win at New Mexico State in the regular-season finale Nov. 24.
That came with James Lark at quarterback, as Nelson sat out with a rib injury that continues to put his status in doubt. Lark’s performance against the Aggies potentially created a tough decision for coach Bronco Mendenhall, as the senior completed 34 of 50 passes for 384 yards and six touchdowns in his first collegiate start.
If he’s under center again, finding success through the air versus the Aztecs should be tougher since they’re allowing an average of just 164.0 passing yards in their last four games.
This game has special meaning for Mendenhall, who was an assistant under Long at New Mexico from 1998-2002.
“It’s a unique chance to have a chance to play against kind of a mentor and a friend,” Mendenhall said. “Rocky, I worked with for six years – five at New Mexico and maybe not a full year at Oregon State – but a lot of what I learned coaching-wise and especially on the defensive side has come from him.”