Saturday's New Mexico Bowl matchup in Albuquerque, New Mexico, between Central Michigan and San Diego State is a different kind of celebration for the two head coaches. For Central Michigan's Jim McElwain it’s the culmination of what has been an impressive turnaround for his program. For San Diego State's Rocky Long, it's a homecoming.
A year after going 1-11, CMU has improved to 8-5 and won the MAC West division title in McElwain's first season. The Chippewas came up short against Miami (Ohio) in the MAC Championship Game, but that one loss shouldn’t overshadow the vast improvement they showed from 2018 to this year.
On Saturday, Central Michigan has a chance to post its best season since going 12-2 back in 2009 while snapping a four-game losing streak in bowls.
For Long, this bowl game brings him back to his alma mater and where his college coaching career started. A quarterback for New Mexico from 1969-71, Long was an assistant for the Lobos from '78-80 before making stops at other colleges and a brief stint in the CFL. After serving as the defensive coordinator at Oregon State and then UCLA, Long returned in December 1997 to become the head coach at his alma mater.
In 11 seasons leading New Mexico, the Lobos went 65-69 and made five bowl appearances. He resigned after the 2008 season and joined Brady Hoke's staff at San Diego State as defensive coordinator. Two years later he was promoted to head coach following Hoke's departure for Michigan.
In 10 seasons with the Aztecs, Long has gone 80-38 with three Mountain West titles (2012, '15-16). SDSU has gone to a bowl game every season and is making a 10th straight postseason appearance overall. The Aztecs are 3-5 in bowl games under Long.
This year San Diego State went 9-3 in the regular season and 5-3 in conference play, finishing second to Hawaii in the Mountain West's West division. A victory on Saturday would give Long his fourth 10-win campaign, all with the Aztecs.
This is the first meeting between these two teams, although San Diego State has enjoyed quite a bit of success against MAC competition. The Aztecs are 12-1-1 in their history against the conference, the only loss coming last year, a 27-0 shutout courtesy of Ohio in the Frisco Bowl.
New Mexico Bowl: Central Michigan vs. San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21, at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Dreamstyle Stadium (Albuquerque, N.M.)
Spread: San Diego State -3.5
When Central Michigan Has the Ball
The Chippewas have a potent passing attack, but their running game is what sets this offense up. The proof is in the stats, since whenever CMU puts up at least 135 rushing yards, it wins. In all eight victories this season, the Chippewas have run for at least 135 yards. When they don't, they have lost.
The problem in this matchup is that only one team (Wyoming) has been able to run for more than 135 yards against San Diego State's defense. The Aztecs are second in the nation against the run, giving up a scant 72.3 yards on the ground per game. The Cowboys have the most thus far, gaining 157 on 39 carries (4.0 ypc) in a 26-19 loss back on Oct. 12. Otherwise, SDSU has held 11 other teams to 2.5 yards per rushing attempt this season.
But it's not like you can just beat the Aztecs through the air, though. Opponents managed just 12.8 points per game against them in the regular season. Cornerback Luq Barcoo has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks, as he's tied for second in FBS with eight interceptions and also has been credited with 16 pass breakups.
So it'll be up to the experience of seniors Quinten Dormady and Jonathan Ward — Central Michigan's sharp quarterback and top running back — to lead the way. Ward has already posted his second 1,000-yard campaign and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. His 16 rushing touchdowns are more than double the seven allowed by San Diego State's defense through 12 games.
Ward also has a capable tag-team partner in sophomore Kobe Morris, who needs just 23 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark. He's averaging 5.5 yards per rushing attempt.
Dormady has completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,148 yards, 14 touchdowns, and just six interceptions. He has a pair of first-team All-MAC wide receivers to throw to in Kalil Pimpleton (conference-leading 73 catches and 771 yards) and JaCorey Sullivan (54 rec., 14.4 ypr).
The Chippewas enter this game averaging 32 points per content but that will be tested going up against San Diego State's physical, stingy defense.
When San Diego State Has the Ball
Offense is certainly not the strength of this Aztecs team, but the unit gets the job done more often than not. SDSU is averaging only 19 points per game but when your defense is giving up fewer than 13, that's all the production that's needed.
But this offense will be tested a little more than usual in the New Mexico Bowl against Central Michigan because of some key injuries. Running back Juwan Washington is not expected to play because of a nagging ankle injury. That's a big loss since the senior has been a workhorse for three seasons, rushing for more than 500 yards every year during that span. His numbers are down this year, but his value to the offense is high.
Then there's the health of senior quarterback Ryan Agnew, who missed the final game of the regular season — a 13-3 win over BYU — with a calf injury. Freshman Carson Baker did yeoman's work in Agnew's place with a 19-of-24, 172-yard performance in the victory, even though the Aztecs managed just 269 total yards on offense.
Agnew is expected to be cleared to play against Central Michigan, and his experience will come in handy against a Chippewas defense that ranks second in the MAC against the run (115.1 ypg) and features a pair of first-team all-conference performers in linebacker Troy Brown and lineman Sean Adesanya. The duo ranks first and second in the MAC in tackles for a loss with a combined 31.5.
There's no doubt Central Michigan has the goods to test San Diego State's vaunted defense.
But those nine wins by the Aztecs on the season didn't come by fluke. They know a path to victory, and it begins by locking down prolific offenses and generating just enough offense themselves.
Meanwhile, the Chippewas, who are looking for their first bowl win since the 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, might simply be happy to be in Albuquerque after such an incredible turnaround season.
Prediction: San Diego State 23, Central Michigan 20
(Top photo courtesy of @SDSUFootball)