Chilly nights crackle with anticipation. Bowl scouts are out like bats on Halloween. Cheers reverberate through the football stadium. And certain teams are thinking about winning conference championships.
Whoa . . . Geography check. Are we in San Diego? Are we talking about guys in red and black? Are we talking about the same thing Aztec Coach Al Luginbill has been dreaming of and pacing toward for two years?
All true. Traditionally, football games in November are played for one reason at SDSU--after all, the Aztecs need someplace to bring their football recruits on Saturday nights. This year, things are different.
When the Aztecs (6-2, 4-1) play host to Wyoming (4-4-1, 2-3-1) at 6:05 tonight, scouts from the Freedom and Copper bowls will be in attendance and the Western Athletic Conference championship remains a possibility for SDSU.
Indeed, the Aztecs, who have won four in a row and who have not won more than six games in a season since 1986, are still getting a charge out of each day. When was the last time, in November, you heard an SDSU coach talking like this:
“When you’re in it, it’s exciting every week,” Luginbill said after a practice earlier this week. “There’s just an air of excitement. That’s the great thing about getting to this point.”
Having Wyoming in town is a nice bit of symmetry, because to figure out how the Aztecs have reached “this point” this season, you have to flip back 13 months, to last October, to Laramie, Wyo.
To a 52-51 Wyoming victory.
It was the day all hell broke loose for SDSU. The Aztec defense was shredded for 38 points in the second half. SDSU yielded 648 yards in total offense. A late touchdown with about two minutes remaining brought the Aztecs to within 52-51, but they failed on a two-point conversion.
It was the day quarterback Dan McGwire said--in all seriousness--that the offense just didn’t put enough points on the board.
Didn’t put enough points on the board?
“I will never forget that experience,” Luginbill said. “That one was the turning point for our program.”
After a loss to UCLA the following week, Luginbill and his coaches revamped SDSU’s defense during a two-week bye period. They decided there was an attitude problem and they weeded a few defensive players out of starting roles.
“There are certain things that have happened to me in my life in this sport that have had a tremendous effect on my thinking,” Luginbill said.
He paused. He didn’t have to say the 1990 Wyoming debacle was one of them.
“You better be playing with people who have strong characters,” he continued. “Young men who believe what you’re teaching, young men who will learn from mistakes.
“I learned that and I will never go away from it. That (Wyoming game) truly hurts deep inside.”
Luginbill said he has not brought up the game to this year’s team. Not this season, not this week.
“I’ve never ever brought it up once to this football team,” he said.
But they remember. How can they forget?
“Ooooohh,” Patrick Rowe said. “What do I remember about the Wyoming game? High-scoring. I like that type of game. I think that was almost the WAC at its best. The thing that sticks out most was the last two-point conversion that we didn’t convert.”
He talked a little more. The guys who worked out all summer together--Rowe, defensive backs Gary Taylor and Robert Griffith, and a few others--talked about it often, Rowe said. Talked about how that one game wrecked the season, ruined a bowl chance for SDSU.
“It was painful,” Rowe said. “The locker room after the game was very quiet. And it’s a long bus ride to the airport from Laramie, and then to fly all the way home . . . that’s about the saddest trip I’ve ever been on as an Aztec.”
Now, they are anything but sad. A couple of bowls seem genuinely interested in SDSU, and here comes Wyoming. . . .
“What it does is give us a barometer,” Luginbill said. “It will show how far we have come.”
Said defensive lineman Eric Duncan: "(Last year’s game) is in the back of our minds, I’m sure it is. It’s something to build on. We’re definitely better now than we were at that part of last season.”
Indeed. Since last year’s Wyoming game, SDSU has a 10-4 record. The defense, while still not reminding anybody of the Purple People Eaters, has come up big several times this season. David Lowery, since taking over at quarterback four games ago, has not lost.
And the Aztecs are off to their best start since 1979.
And next week, star running back Marshall Faulk returns.
Yes, the Aztecs are a different team this season. Wyoming Coach Joe Tiller said earlier this week that he normally views the year-old Wyoming film for whomever the Cowboys are playing in a given week, and that sometimes he goes back two years.
This week, though, he said he didn’t pay much attention to the tape of last year’s 52-51 Wyoming victory.
"(The Aztecs) are a much different football team than a year ago, and we’re much different,” Tiller said. “Wyoming has not matched what we did last year, and San Diego State is ahead of it.
“They’re an explosive football team, extremely talented. We’ve had some problems defensively. When we take the field, it’s anybody’s guess.”
The phrase Luginbill has been repeating all season is this: Championships are won in November.
Beginning tonight, and continuing over the next two Saturdays when Colorado State and Brigham Young come to San Diego, the Aztecs will have a chance to see if they are championship material.
It is homecoming at SDSU, and there will be a five-year reunion today of the 1986 Holiday Bowl team. . . . A crowd of 30,000 is expected. . . . The Aztecs trail the Wyoming series, 8-5.