San Diego, CA – Familiarity seems to be the theme of the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, which features the San Diego State Aztecs playing in their own stadium against the BYU Cougars, a program that used to clash with SDSU on a regular basis.
Now led by head coach Rocky Long who is in his second year at the helm in San Diego, fourth overall with the program, the Aztecs began the 2012 campaign with two wins in five chances. However, following a 52-40 setback against Fresno State at the end of September, the program went on an unprecedented run with seven consecutive victories, which means it enters the postseason tied for the fourth-longest win streak in the country.
Long, who has had plenty of personal experience going up against BYU since he was also the head coach of the New Mexico Lobos of the Mountain West Conference, which is where the Cougars resided before becoming a FBS Independent, is not only the all-time leader in coaching victories in the league, but he was also named the MWC Coach of the Year in 2012 for the second time in his career.
Long's counterpart on the other sideline is Bronco Mendenhall, who has watched his team put together some enigmatic efforts this season, after posting a 10-3 mark a year earlier. Mendenhall, who served on the same staff as Long when the two were at Oregon State back in 1995, and when the latter was the head man at UNM and Mendenhall was the defensive coordinator between 1998-2002, has had to deal with quite a number of key injuries this season just to get his program into position to earn a bowl berth.
The Cougars went from one extreme to the other during the regular season, in one game pummeling Hawaii at home, 47-0, near the end of September, and the next week barely hanging on for a 6-3 win versus Utah State. The program did close out the campaign on a positive note with a 50-14 romp over New Mexico State on the road, giving it three wins in the last four outings.
San Diego State, which took part in this particular bowl just two years ago and used the opportunity to post a 35-14 win over Navy, has a record of 5-5 in the postseason dating back to 1948 when it was crushed by Hardin-Simmons in the Harbor Bowl, 53-0. More recently, the program clashed with Louisiana last year in the New Orleans Bowl, an outing that left the Aztecs with a 32-30 setback.
Bowl history for the Cougars stretches back less than four decades to the 1974 Fiesta Bowl, which was a 16-6 loss to Oklahoma State, yet this is the 31st postseason appearance for BYU already. Adding an extra game to their schedule for the eighth consecutive year, the Cougars are riding a three-game postseason win streak thanks to a 24-21 victory over Tulsa in the 2011 Armed Forces Bowl, which moved the squad to 12-17-1 in bowl action over the years.
In terms of the all-time series between these two programs, BYU owns a commanding 27-7-1 advantage, although the most recent encounter two years ago was decided by just three points in a 24-21 win for the Cougars in Provo. However, unlike that most recent matchup where SDSU kept things interesting, the team has been outscored on the average by more than two touchdowns per contest.
BYU, which has played in a total of 11 Holiday Bowls in the city of San Diego previously, has won five in a row in the series, including a 38-28 final in this same building in the most recent encounter.
The biggest issue for the Cougars this season has been the team's varying styles at the quarterback position. The squad has had three different players fill that role in the starting lineup this year and while he wasn't the starter versus the Aggies in the final game of the regular season, the hope is that Riley Nelson will be ready to go for this outing.
"It's hard to say at this point because he's not healthy and taking all the reps," coach Mendenhall said of Nelson after a recent practice. "At this point, we have to plan on James Lark working and going forward and then just wait to see where Riley catches up. We've got time, but Riley's not healthy enough right now to be considered as the starter yet."
When healthy, Nelson gives the Cougars their best chance at success. On the 2012 watch lists for both the Davey O'Brien and Maxwell Awards, Nelson completed just under 60 percent of his pass attempts for 13 touchdowns, but he was also picked off 12 times due to his gambling nature. Should the Cougars need to go with Lark, the youngster did produce some significant numbers in his first career start versus NMSU, throwing for 384 yards and six touchdowns.
No matter who lined up under center for the Cougars, the outlet down the field will still be the same as Cody Hoffman stands as the primary target every time he lines up. Hoffman has reeled in 90 passes for 1,134 yards and 11 TDs this year alone.
Coming out of the backfield, Jamaal Williams should balance the attack on offense as someone who is averaging close to five yards per carry and landed in the end zone a total of 12 times, once on a reception.
On the defensive side of the ball, the name that will be mentioned the most is linebacker Kyle Van Noy who leads the team with 18.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. Because of his efforts and those of his teammates, the Cougars finished the campaign third in the nation in total defense with just 266.3 ypg allowed, and fifth in scoring defense (14.7 ppg).
When starting quarterback Ryan Katz was lost for the season with an ankle injury in October, it seemed as though all might be lost for the Aztecs who were just starting to get rolling. But in stepped Adam Dingwell who proved to be a solid game manager, and he was more than capable of keeping the squad on point.
Dingwell has completed close to 62 percent of his pass attempts for eight touchdowns against four interceptions, but he has averaged just 66.2 ypg through the air in 12 total appearances. Obviously, his average on passing yards has been reduced considerably since he only made brief appearances in the first half of the campaign, but he is a very capable passer who can catch defenses napping.
Dingwell has several capable receivers at his disposal in Gavin Escobar (41 receptions, 519 yards, six TDs) and Brice Butler (23 catches, 343 yards, four TDs), but clearly this is an offense that is spearheaded by the running of Adam Muema and Walter Kazee.
Muema has had a fantastic campaign with 1,355 yards and 16 touchdowns, his average of 112.9 ypg on the ground placing him fourth in the MWC and 17th nationally. When Muema takes a break, Kazee steps in and continues to pound opponents for another 68.5 ypg and eight TDs. As a group, the Aztecs are producing a hefty 229.2 ypg on the ground.
Attacking the line of scrimmage on defense, a key player to watch for SDSU is Jake Fely who is first on the unit with 11.5 TFLs and seven sacks, adding two forced fumbles and a couple of recoveries. Leon McFadden has been a star defending the pass, recording not just 10 breakups but also three interceptions which he has returned for a total of 124 yards in 2012.
"I think it's a special deal for our team to be playing in front of a home crowd," notes coach Long of the home environment for this game. "Now, I also know how well BYU is followed. So I'm guessing that if anybody thinks there's a home field advantage, I'm guessing that's going to be wrong. I think that half that crowd will be for us and half the crowd will be for them. I think it's a neutral site, other than we have played in that stadium more than they have, but I hope we outnumber them. It would be really nice if we outnumber them, but I've been in these games before and it's usually a 50/50 stadium."