Two years ago, this game was for the Western Athletic Conference championship--Brigham Young at San Diego State in a nationally televised meeting that ended the Cougars’ 10-season grip on the conference title.
Tonight at 7, the teams will be back in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium for the first time since that game, but the stakes will be quite different--at least for the Aztecs.
Instead of playing for a conference championship, SDSU will try to avoid joining the 1980 and 1983 teams as the only ones since the school fielded its first football team in 1921 to lose 7 games in a row.
To do so, the Aztecs will have to beat a BYU team that broke into the top 20 this week for the first time this season (tied for 20th with Indiana) and has won 7 in a row since losing its opener at Wyoming, 24-14.
Since the Aztecs joined the WAC in 1978, their only victory over the Cougars was that 10-3 game in 1986. Still, at least one Aztec sounds undeterred.
“It’s easy to get up for this game,” said Monty Gilbreath, SDSU’s league-leading receiver. “There is not a team in the conference I would rather beat than BYU. I love to win the WAC championship. That’s what I shoot for. But if I can’t do that, the next best thing is to beat BYU.”
While the Aztecs effectively were eliminated from the WAC race a month ago, the Cougars (7-1, 4-1) still have hopes of a bowl bid and an outside shot for at least a piece of the title. Their chances rest with Wyoming (9-0, 6-0) losing at least 1 of its 2 remaining conference games against either Texas El Paso today or at Hawaii Nov. 19.
A victory by the Cowboys against Texas El Paso would clinch a return trip to the Holiday Bowl. The national television cameras today are focused on Laramie, Wyo., not San Diego, where the Aztecs play the final home game of their fifth losing season in the past six.
“I don’t even talk to the kids about Wyoming,” BYU Coach LaVell Edwards said. “We lost to them a long time ago. There is nothing we can do about that. Something still might happen as far as getting a piece of the championship, but we’re not counting on that. We’re just going to be as good as we can be and let it go at that.”
Since the Wyoming game, the Cougars have played as well as any team in the conference and statistically have the best balance of offense and defense in the country. They are 10th in NCAA Division I-A in both total offense (467.4 yards per game) and total defense (262.4).
Sean Covey, who missed last Saturday’s 65-0 victory over New Mexico after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee 6 days earlier, will return at quarterback tonight, Edwards said. He had been replaced by Ty Detmer, a redshirt freshman who was 24 of 35 for 333 yards and 5 touchdowns against the Lobos.
“The only way we wouldn’t start (Sean) is if he couldn’t go physically,” Edwards said. “He probably could have played last week, but the doctors felt that it would be better if he had a little more time to get the leg stronger.”
While Covey’s return should make the Cougars even stronger offensively, it is their defense that has been the real surprise to Edwards. BYU returned only one starter (linebacker Bob Davis) among the defensive linemen and linebackers.
“Coming into the season I was a little concerned because we lost so many of our front seven,” Edwards said. “I figured we’d have a good secondary, and that has proven to be the case. But to have (the front seven) come along and play the way they have has been very gratifying.”
All this Cougar good cheer is of little help to SDSU Coach Denny Stolz as he prepares to face a top 20 team for the fourth time in a season filled with bad news. The latest blows came this week when nose tackle Brad Burton went into the hospital with an infected ankle, and it was ruled that outside linebacker Kevin Maultsby (neck) would miss the rest of the season. Earlier, SDSU lost defensive end Todd Coomes for the season with a broken ankle.
“It’s been that kind of year,” Stolz said. “One thing after another.”
The Aztecs can’t even take heart in that they might be the best 1-7 team in the country or even in the WAC. They lost that claim 2 weeks ago when they were beaten, 13-7, by Colorado State, the WAC’s other 1-7 team.
The Rams, by way of comparison, lost 4 weeks ago at BYU, 42-7, after leading, 7-6, at the half.
Scott Barrick, a redshirt freshman from Fallbrook High School, will make his second start at quarterback for SDSU, Coach Denny Stolz said. Barrick is 33 of 55 for 400 yards and 2 touchdowns with 3 interceptions since replacing Brad Platt in the second half at Colorado State Oct. 22. Stolz also said that Jim Jennings, a redshirt freshman from San Marcos High School, will start at fullback after being replaced by Kevin Macon, a sophomore from Patrick Henry High School, last week at Utah. . . . Sixteen seniors will make their last home game appearance for the Aztecs: kicker Tyler Ackerson, linebacker Lee Brannon, receiver Michael Broome, strong safety Casey Copeland, linebacker Emmett Flores, tailback Paul Hewitt, receiver Alfred Jackson, linebacker Kevin Maultsby, cornerback Mario Mitchell, tailback Lamont Parks, tight end Kerry Reed-Martin, receiver Dave Schlick, free safety Gary Triplett, offensive tackle Samida Tuiaana, offensive lineman Mike Vincent and center Kevin Wells.