When San Diego State head coach Rocky Long came to the program as defensive coordinator on Brady Hoke's staff, the Aztecs were in the midst of a roughly 30-year drought. Sure, Marshall Faulk's contention for the Heisman Trophy brought attention to Montezuma Mesa in the early 1990s, but the magic of the Don Coryell era disappeared, and San Diego State never approached the success of Claude Gilbert's time as head coach.
Long's since started to rouse this sleeping giant, claiming at least a share of three Mountain West Conference championships since 2012, and winning at least 10 games in each of the past three campaigns. The success San Diego State enjoys today bares similarity to the era in which a "not cocky, but confident" defensive back named Herm Edwards donned the red-and-black.
Edwards played for a 10-1 San Diego State team in 1976 before embarking on an NFL career. The turns inevitable in 42 years took Edwards all across the football nation, and Saturday, brings him back to America's Finest City as head coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils.
"It's always fun to go back to San Diego when you're a California native and you ended up getting your college degree and playing there," Edwards said. "Even when I was in pro football, coming back with the Eagles and playing the Chargers, or coaching against the Chargers obviously was a lot of fun."
The Chargers are gone, moving north about 90 minutes to Carson, but San Diego State has more than adeptly filled the city's football void. The Aztecs have thrived in the 2010s, rolling out one elite running back after another. Last year it was Rashaad Penny, who accrued 216 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns in San Diego State's win at Arizona State.
In Penny's place this year is Juwan Washington, currently second in the nation in rushing yards per game. The Aztecs' prolific running game has not slowed, and neither has the stout defense that always feeds San Diego State's methodical offensive approach.
If any head coach knows how effective the Aztecs' zone pressures out of the 3-3-5 odd-stack can be, it's Edwards; he hired one of its overseers to his Arizona State staff, coordinator Danny Gonzales.
"We're not as far as Rocky and those guys, with what Danny and those guys built over the last five, six, seven years," Edwards said. "But the defenses are similar. The personnel are a little bit different ... but the philosophy is about the same. It will be a unique contest."
Arizona State comes in off a defensive struggle, besting Michigan State in Week 2's nightcap on a last-second field goal. The Sun Devils held the Spartans to just 63 rushing yards in the 16-13 victory, and vaulted into the AP Top 25 at No. 23. San Diego State's shown similar dominance against the run, holding 2017 Heisman Trophy finalist Bryce Love to just 29 yards on the ground in Week 1.
A perhaps key takeaway from San Diego State's loss to Stanford is in how the Cardinal adjusted to the closed-off running lanes, and instead targeted wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to the tune of six catches for 226 yards. That bodes well for a pass-heavy attack with Manny Wilkins finding big-play standout N'Keal Harry, whose touchdown reception in the fourth quarter against Michigan State keyed the 13-0 fourth quarter.
But the Sun Devils must also be cautious of San Diego State's talented secondary. Just like in the Gilbert era, when the Aztecs had a Muhammad Ali-inspired defensive back in Edwards who exuded swagger before swagger was cliche, San Diego State has a difference maker in Tariq Thompson. His five interceptions a season ago were tied for 11th-most in college football.
A narrow, Week 1 defeat in hostile territory narrowed No. 10-ranked Washington's College Football Playoff margin for error to basically nothing. Just two weeks removed from playing Auburn a stone's throw from its campus, the Huskies again face an unwelcoming environment for their Pac-12 opener at Utah.
Rice-Eccles Stadium will be rocking — which isn't out of the norm, in and of itself. The Mighty Utes Student Section, MUSS, has earned a reputation as one of the loudest bunches in the Pac-12. But with a night kickoff, Utah is upping the ante with a blackout.
The Utes are rolling out some slick threads for Washington's visit.
Blackouts have gone well for Pac-12 home teams on this very young season; Arizona State blacked out Sun Devil Stadium for its upset of Michigan State. Utah also has had success with the gimmick. The Utes beat USC in thrillers in 2014 and 2016, blasted UCLA in the 2017 blackout, and won perhaps the most important regular-season game in program history under blackout conditions.
Mission accomplished in Week 2.
Shenault caught 10 passes in Colorado's 33-28 win for 177 yards, 40 of which came on his game-winning touchdown grab off a beautifully thrown Steven Montez pass. In keeping true to his word about maximizing Shenault's touches, the receiver also operated as a ball carrier.
"He plays tight end for us, he plays wide receiver, he plays running back for us in the Wildcat," MacIntyre said. "We expect him to have a lot of big games this year, just like that one."
For as outstanding as Shenault was against the Cornhuskers, national honors coming out of the win in Lincoln belonged to another Buff on the opposite side of the ball: linebacker Nate Landman.
Landman earned the Bronko Nagurski Award National Defensive Player of the Week for his 13-tackle effort, which included a fourth-quarter interception and a blown-up play on fourth down to stall two Cornhuskers possessions.
"Us beating our two biggest rivals in the school's history, [Colorado State] and Nebraska back-to-back in the opening two weeks, neither one played in our home stadium, it's a significant accomplishment for this program and this team," MacIntyre said. "Not many times has Colorado gone to Nebraska and won."
Indeed, Colorado's last victory there came in 2004, and the 1990 national championship season marked the last such win for the Buffs in the series before that. Saturday's was also just the eighth Colorado all-time in Lincoln.
While Colorado does not take away a rivalry trophy — the long-ago defunct Bison Head Trophy would have qualified as one of the more unique in college football — the Buffaloes head into their non-conference finale against FCS opponent New Hampshire with a 2-0 record, and positive momentum before Pac-12 play.
Colorado's great weekend did not end with Saturday's victory. The celebration continued into Sunday, when Buffaloes alum Phillip Lindsay made a splash in his NFL debut for the Denver Broncos.
A product of Denver's South High School, Lindsay stayed close to home for college and was a key part of the Buffs all four of his years in Boulder. He went undrafted this past spring, but the hometown Broncos gave him a shot.
It paid off. Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, Lindsay rushed 15 times for 71 yards and, showing off the same versatility that made him a vital weapon in the Colorado offense, caught two passes for 31 yards and a touchdown.
Lindsay's the where-did-he-come-from story of the NFL's Week 1, but his immediate success comes as no surprise to those in Boulder.
"All the guys knew Phillip would do it," MacIntyre said. "It's not a surprise, it's not a miracle. It is inspirational, but he was inspirational to us here. All of us just know, that's Phillip."
A Fitting Debut
From an undrafted Pac-12 star to the first taken in the 2018 draft, former USC quarterback Sam Darnold made his own splashy debut on the pro stage in Week 1. Darnold went 16-of-21 for 198 yards with two touchdowns in the New York Jets' rout of the Detroit Lions.
Among the millions tuned in were the Trojans football team, gathered for what head coach Clay Helton calls their weekly "family dinner."
"We watch some 'Monday Night Football' together ... and just have a meal together as a football team," Helton said. "There's Sammy on TV. It was special for all of us to see such a great guy, such a great player, someone who's done so much for this university have the opportunity to go out and perform like he did last night."
Darnold throwing a pick-six in the first quarter did nothing to deter the faith Helton and his players had in the quarterback's ability to rally. They'd seen similar at USC.
"That's typical Sam, I'll tell you. If you watched him walk off the field and give that little smirk, like, 'You got me on that one,' there was no question in any our minds what was about to happen," Helton laughed.
(Top photo courtesy of Mollie Hanke, ASU)