No. 19 San Diego State wins the old-fashioned way — with ball control and great running backs

San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny had 107 yards in 25 carries against Northern Illinois on Sept. 30.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

A real football dinosaur.

The kind of guy who believes in running between the tackles and playing tough defense.

The term “ball control” is music to his ears and he doesn’t much cotton to newfangled rules that protect a scrambling quarterback.

“I really dislike when quarterbacks slide,” he says. “I think quarterbacks are football players, they shouldn’t be baseball players sliding into second base.”


If you suggest to Rocky Long that time has passed him by, he nods and smiles and says you might be right. But in this era of spread offenses and video-game scoring, the San Diego State coach has found a way to make his traditional views pay off.

His Aztecs have quietly strung together six winning seasons, becoming one of the top programs in the middle-tier conferences known as the Group of Five. This week, San Diego State travels to Nevada Las Vegas with an undefeated record and No. 19 ranking in the Associated Press media poll.

That puts them in contention to join the big boys at a New Year’s Day bowl game.

“When you go into a situation, you find out where you have the best chance to recruit good players,” Long said. “So many people are going to the spread and that type of philosophy now, you have find something that’s different or unusual.”


Heading into this season, San Diego State was supposed to be in rebuilding mode.

Eligibility ran out on a team that concluded 2016 by defeating Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl and finishing No. 25 in the polls.

Gone was running back Donnel Pumphrey, who set an NCAA career record with 6,405 yards in career rushing. Gone was most of a veteran offensive line and the core of a defense that ranked No. 11 in the nation.

Looking at the young players who remained, Long said: “They’re going to be good eventually. They just have to be good faster than they probably should be.”

So the last month or so has been a surprise, the team winning its first five games, including back-to-back victories over Arizona State and then-No. 19 Stanford.

San Diego State quarterback Christian Chapman tries to escape Stanford defenders during the second half of a game at SDCCU Stadium on Sept. 16.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images )

“This is a really good football team,” Stanford Coach David Shaw said.

It helps that San Diego State still has the dependable Christian Chapman at quarterback and another star running back in Rashaad Penny, who surpassed 1,000 yards as Pumphrey’s understudy in 2016.


“The players last year were so good,” Penny said. “All you had to do was watch those guys and learn from them.”

But the Aztecs needed something else to mature quickly — the work ethic and smash-mouth mentality on which Long had based the program.

The 67-year-old Southern California native first tested this particular brand of football during a stint at New Mexico. The Lobos had some good seasons, some not-so-good.

Taking over at San Diego State in 2011, Long stuck with an approach that focused on a versatile, aggressive 3-3-5 defense and lots of running out of the I formation.

This scheme might not attract big, active quarterbacks or fleet receivers, but that’s not the target audience.

“Good tailbacks want to be seven yards deep; they want a fullback in front of them,” Long said. “Even though you design a hole for them, they can break it where they want to.”

Pumphrey came to San Diego from Las Vegas and Penny from Norwalk. The current backup, Juwan Washington, hails from Texas.

“It doesn’t mean we’re getting four- or five-star guys,” Long said. “But the only other Division I school in California that tries to do this is Stanford, so it gives us a chance to get some good players.”


The tricky part is getting the right kind.

There isn’t a lot of glamour in pounding away from both sides of the ball. Off-season workouts can be brutal and the coaching staff encourages veterans to speak frankly with visiting recruits.

Think of it as an unofficial screening process.

“The older guys told me it wasn’t going to be easy,” senior safety Trey Lomax recalled. “You’re not going to get treated like a superstar like I’m sure some freshmen are at certain programs. You’ve got to be a blue-collar guy if you expect to play.”

Patience is another requirement. Though Lomax started as a freshman because the defense needed him, Long prefers to keep young players on the bench.

Penny stood in line three seasons behind Pumphrey. Washington, a sophomore, is currently playing second-fiddle.

“Some of those tailbacks would love to be in our system, but they’re impatient in this day and age,” Long said. “In reality, it’s good for them to come in and not play right away — they don’t start getting beat up as 180-pound freshmen. They wait until their third year and now they’re 205 pounds.”

If anything encourages players to stick around, it’s the winning.

The Aztecs went 8-5 in Long’s first season, earning one of the trophies that now line the football office lobby, commemorating six consecutive postseason appearances during his tenure.

The New Orleans Bowl, the Poinsettia Bowl, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and the Hawaii Bowl … not exactly New Year’s Day stuff, but enough to make Long the winningest coach in Mountain West Conference history.

“They’ve done a great job of building a program, building a physical brand over there,” said Tony Sanchez, coach at conference-rival UNLV.

The Aztecs — with that inexperienced offensive line — insist they have yet to play their best football. Their victories over Stanford and Air Force were close, and it took a goal-line interception to secure last week’s win against Northern Illinois.

But the toughest stretch is behind them as they enter the heart of a Mountain West schedule that includesHawaii, San Jose State and Nevada.

With erennial conference leader Boise State struggling at 2-2, there has been speculation about San Diego State running the table.

Long doesn’t care to look ahead, though he knows that only the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences will be invited to join the Power Five elite in the New Year’s Day bowl games. No. 18 South Florida and No. 25 Central Florida are also undefeated and in the running for that berth.

“They only way our team has a chance to get there is by winning every game,” Long said. “That is much more difficult than people think it is.”

The Aztecs have another incentive: The Chargers departure for Los Angeles has created an opening.

So far, being the biggest football show in town has resulted in more reporters and cameras at weekly news conferences, but not much more attendance at SDCCU Stadium.

“Most of the NFL fans are in denial or in mourning,” Long said. “I’m predicting it takes about three years until half of them switch over.”

This week, San Diego State will focus on a difficult road trip to UNLV. Long has warned his players to expect an emotional Saturday, with tributes planned for victims of this week’s mass shooting in Las Vegas.

“I’m sure there are a lot of things that are going to be different at the game,” Long said. “But we always try to keep everything routine because if you keep everything routine, usually the results stay the same.”

The coach likes to stay on course. It might sound old-fashioned, but it’s the best way he knows to keep his team plugging away.

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