Thu, Dec 30 2010 01:20 PM Posted By: Phillip Brents
After the final gun sounded in the sixth annual San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, members of San Diego State University’s football team immediately headed over to listen to a game-ending serenade by the Navy band. Then the Aztecs made a quick sprint to the opposite side of Qualcomm Stadium, with arms raised in triumph, to celebrate in front of their own fans.
Quite delirious fans, it might be said.
The long drought was over. After 41 years, SDSU finally had a bowl victory.
The aftermath of the Aztecs’ 35-14 win over the Midshipmen is still sending shivers up the spines of both long-term supporters and a new cadre of fans.
Yes, San Diego is known as a band wagon town, and there was plenty to toot one’s horn about on Dec. 23. Before the game could even be played in front of a live national television audience, 1.5 million gallons of rainwater that flooded the field at Qualcomm Stadium had to be drained. It was no easy task. Heaters were still drying the field two hours before kick-off and grounds crews were still raking muddy corners of the end zone as the game kicked off.
“With what we were dealing with (the previous night), the stars aligned,” said South County resident Bruce Binkowski, who serves as executive director of both the Poinsettia Bowl and Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl games. “It was an amazing job the stadium grounds crew, the city’s waste water management team and a whole lot of other people did to get the field playable in time for our original kick-off. They all really stepped up.”
A total of 53,000 tickets were sold for the game, and a Poinsettia Bowl record crowd of 48,049 showed up to witness the Aztecs’ finest hour in more than a decade. They also saw a piece of history as Aztec freshman running back Ronnie Hillman set a Poinsettia Bowl rushing record with 228 yards and scored four touchdowns in the process.
SDSU (9-4) last qualified for a bowl game in 1998, losing to North Carolina in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Aztecs’ last bowl game victory came in 1969 against Boston University in the Pasadena Bowl.
One gets the distinct feeling that SDSU, under the guidance of Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year Brady Hoke, is going to make a regular habit of playing in post-season contests.
“When we started this game, we didn’t expect SDSU to play in it every year,” Binkowski said. “To get them in this game against Navy, it was a dream match-up for us. It was almost like two home teams. SDSU got a chance to showcase just how good their program has become. For them to win it, it was just icing on the cake.”
Said Hoke: “It was such a great match- up, such a great match-up for this community, a great match-up in college football.”
A total of seven South County players on the Aztec roster — senior linebacker Marcus Yarbrough (Eastlake), senior receiver Demarco Sampson (Castle Park), senior kicker Bryan Shields (Bonita Vista), junior kicker Abel Perez (Castle Park), sophomore tight end D.J. Shields (Bonita Vista), sophomore defensive back Derek Mack (Otay Ranch) and Andrew Feaster, a junior transfer from Southwestern College — all helped set the standard for future teams.
“It was great,” said Shields, who caught one touchdown pass this season. “We put in a lot of hard work during the season and it paid off.”
Sampson, one of the team’s breakaway threats, had two catches for 45 yards. He ended a sometimes tumultuous five-and-a-half–year career at Montezuma Mesa with 2,242 receiving yards to rank ninth all-time in school history.
The former Trojan standout said the bowl game victory was about personal redemption.
“When I first got here, it was more for the college experience than going to college,” he said candidly. “I wasn’t taking things seriously and got into trouble. I got kicked out of school. What got me back was thinking about my future. I thought I had to graduate and get a degree.”
Sampson’s return to the team, in more ways than one, was evidenced by his contributions the past two seasons. He earned second team all-conference honors in 2009 and was named as one of six Aztecs to earn first team all-conference honors this year.
He ended his college career with receptions in his last 27 games, scoring eight touchdowns this season to go with 1,175 yards.
“It was a great experience,” Sampson said of the Poinsettia Bowl victory. “Me and Ronnie are good friends. I told him that for this game either he had to rush for 200 yards or I had to get 125 (receiving yards). I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am so proud of him.”
Clearly, it’s been a long journey to the top for the Aztecs. The nine wins by SDSU was the most since going 10-1 in 1977. The Aztecs finished 3-9 in 2006, 4-8 in 2007, 2-10 in 2008 and 4-8 in Hoke’s first year at the helm last season.
Yarbrough came into the SDSU program as the first recruit signed by former coach Chuck Long, whose three-year tenure ended with Hoke’s hiring two seasons ago.
“We had a great coaching staff that came in here and started to work really hard with everyone,” the former Titan standout said. “I’m happy to go out the way we did.”
Yarbrough, who ranked in a tie for fifth on the team with 41 tackles and two sacks in the regular season, said the Aztecs’ ability to play “disciplined” was the key to success in the bowl game victory.
“Playing a team like Navy, you know you’re going to play a team that plays disciplined and doesn’t make mistakes,” he said. “We had to play that same way.”
Perez, meanwhile, continued to do what he had done all season: provide the team with a consistent kicking game with his strong leg. He booted successful PAT conversions on all five of the Aztecs’ touchdowns to finish with 105 kicking points 17 field goals and 54 extra-point conversions. During the regular season, he recorded 28 touchbacks on kick-offs. The previous season, SDSU recorded just two touchbacks.
Make no mistake, it was a complete team effort by the Aztecs, who failed to make a turnover in the game.
While Hillman, who was named the Offensive Player of the Game, squarely stole the spotlight, it was the arm of quarterback Ryan Lindley that constantly put SDSU into scoring position. The former Vaquero signal-caller finished the game by completing 18 of 23 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He did not throw an interception, nor was he sacked.
Lindley threw a 53-yard scoring pass to Vincent Brown in the second quarter to get the Aztecs rolling with a 14-0 lead. Lindley later tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Hillman (his third TD of the game) early in the fourth quarter to push SDSU in front 28-14.
“The coaches had a great game plan and we didn’t see anything in the game we didn’t see throughout the week of practice and that was awesome,” said Lindley, who passed for 3,830 yards and 28 touchdowns this season and 9,537 yards and 67 touchdowns in his career. “It was just set up great and coached very well and we had a lot of great preparation.”
Lindley credited the play of the offensive line for SDSU’s dominance throughout the game.
“It all starts on the line of scrimmage and our offensive line played great all year and they really had a stellar game,” he said. “I had all the time in the world to throw the ball and get it to these big guys, these play-makers we have. It makes my job easy as a quarterback.
“I’m extremely proud of our seniors and what we have done this year.”
Lindley hit seven receivers in the game with completions. Brown caught eight aerials for 165 yards, another Poinsettia Bowl record.
SDSU’s resurgent rushing game generated 279 net yards. The Aztecs totaled 555 offensive yards.
Navy (9-4) rushed for 235 yards and passed for 147 yards in what Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo called a “thorough whipping.”
Navy entered the game ranked fifth in the nation with 288.9 rushing yards per game and had not scored less than 28 points per game in its last eight outings.
SDSU out-scored the Middies, 14-0, in the second half.
The game was likely decided in the third quarter when SDSU forced Navy to turn the ball over on downs at the Aztec three-yard line. A touchdown by the Midshipmen at that point would have bitten severely into a seven-point Aztec lead.
Andrew Preston, who earned Defensive Player of the Game honors, intercepted Dobbs in the fourth quarter to stymie yet another potential Navy scoring drive. Preston finished the game with a team high 10 tackles.
Quarterback Ricky Dobbs figured in both Navy touchdowns. He completed a 30-yard scoring pass to Greg Jones early in the second quarter to trim the SDSU lead to 14-7 and later scored on a one-yard run with seven seconds left in the second quarter to close the game to 21-14.
Lindley called Navy “an amazing team.”
“(They’re) probably the best in the nation at what they do with the triple option and Ricky Dobbs did a great job of running that offense,” the SDSU quarterback said. “He was a warrior and he was getting hit and he was still going. He’s a great player.”
Hillman scored on runs of 22, 37 and two yards. The 22-yarder got SDSU off to a 7-0 lead while the 37-yarder gave the Aztecs a 21-7 lead.
Also for SDSU, Walter Kazee rushed seven times for 41 yards while tight end Gavin Escobar caught three passes for 24 yards.
Five Mountain West Conference teams qualified for bowl games this year. MWC champion TCU (12-0) will play Wisconsin (11-1) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 while Air Force finished 9-4 by defeating Georgia Tech (6-7) by a 14-7 score in Monday’s Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.
In other games played prior to the Poinsettia Bowl, BYU upended UTEP, 52-24, in the New Mexico Bowl while Boise State thrashed Utah, 26-3, in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Boise State is slated to become an MWC member next season while both BYU and Utah leave the conference.
Auburn (13-0) and Oregon 12-0) will vie in the national championship game on Jan. 10.
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