When I think back on the biggest victories I’ve witnessed as a San Diego State football fan, a particular memory comes to mind for each. I’ll never forget the euphoric mass of humanity on the field at STADIUM last September following the Stanford upset. Nor will I forget the realization dawning on me, after that clutch Adam Muema first down run in 2012, that the Aztecs had actually just beaten Boise State on The Blue.
When I think of tonight’s 28-21 win over No. 23 Arizona State — a game that probably ranks just a bit behind those two in the pantheon of Rocky Long-era wins — the lasting memory will be me nearly barfing six slices of Woodstock’s pizza onto some poor souls in Plaza Level below.
I’m not out of the woods yet in that regard, either, so apologies if I end up losing my dinner in this post. That game was … something.
Generally, watching your team face a Football Championship Subdivision squad offers only two possible outcomes: A meaningless, emotionless win or a humiliating loss that is a harbinger of pestilence, sadness and doom.
What went down on Saturday night felt like splitting the difference between the two.
Yes, the Aztecs notched their first win of the season, gutting out a 28-14 victory over solid FCS opponent Sacramento State. But the Aztecs needed a late rally to avoid the embarrassing upset. Even worse, they almost certainly have lost QB Christian Chapman for an extended period of time. The senior injured his knee while being hit low during the second quarter and did not return. An MRI is scheduled for Sunday.
The San Diego State football Aztecs opened their 2018 season with a 31-10 loss to the 13th-ranked Stanford Cardinal. They’re called the Cardinal because their old nickname was Indians. That’s right, smarter-than-thou “West Coast Ivy” Stanford is actually no better and no less culturally exploitative than SDSU.
Except that Stanford stopped appropriating the Indian nickname in 1972, right after winning their second straight Rose Bowl. Stanford has won eight Rose Bowls. They played in the first (and almost last) Rose Bowl in 1902.
So maybe Stanford is a little different than us.
On this night the main observable difference was how Big and Tall the Cardinal receivers were in relation to our State school defensive backs. Specifically one Jose Joaquin Arcega-Whiteside, who lit up the Aztecs for 226 yards and three touchdowns on six receptions.
One month ago, Trey Kell was a tragic story. The San Diego native was a key part of a vaunted recruiting class that disappointed, producing diminishing returns every single season. The tragedy was capped with a cruel senior campaign that saw him injured and sick and injured again.
Today, the first-year head coach and the hometown senior capped off one of the most stirring comeback stories in San Diego State sports history, beating the New Mexico Lobos in an excruciating-thrilling-horrible-wonderful 82-75 come-from-behind victory in the Mountain West Tournament title game in Vegas. The Aztecs will go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons thanks to an improbable nine-game winning streak that had the kind of redemption arcs you only see in sports movies where the main character is a golden retriever or a field goal kicking mule.
Back when things looked bleak for San Diego State men’s basketball, I would often try to break up all the bitter text in my grim recaps with a few visual aids. One of my favorite crutches was the win probability chart, because, hey, why expend brainpower writing angry words about another brutal loss when you can let a line graph tell the grim tale for you.
Anyway, here is what those charts looked like back then.
Say, would you like to see the win probability chart for the Aztecs’ Mountain West Conference semifinal game against the University of Nevada-Reno on Thursday night?
The Brian Dutcher era at San Diego State started with talk of surrendering defense to facilitate scoring, and that talk mostly came to fruition. This year we’ve seen a faster tempo on offense, running in transition and jacking 3-pointers with impunity. At times it has been beautiful and thrilling. At others — all of late January and early February, for instance — it has been a galling disaster.
In the first round of the Mountain West Conference Tournament, we saw our Aztecs revert to a more familiar form. The Aztecs didn’t beat Fresno State on Thursday afternoon with transition buckets or long range marksmanship or anything even vaguely aesthetically pleasing. Instead, as Steve Fisher looked on approvingly from the stands, they brought out their pool cues and tire irons to beat Fresno back onto their team bus.
This game — a 64-52 final — was physical, offensively challenged and generally ugly as sin. If this was the first college basketball game I had ever watched, it might have been enough to steer me away from ever watching another one. But it was vintage SDSU.
I’ve muttered under my breath about Kameron Rooks at times this season. I’ve yelled at my TV for him to be removed from games. I’ve even poked a little good-natured fun at him on the popular website Twitter dot com. Chances are you have done these things, too.
It’s been a pretty rough year for the graduate transfer from Cal. He’s averaging just two points per game, and with the emergence of Jalen McDaniels and Nolan Narain, he has found himself increasingly garnering the dreaded DNP-coach’s decision.
I’ve always felt a little bad about metaphorically dunking on Rooks, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, he’s unpaid labor who doesn’t owe us shit. For another … well … it’s not like he doesn’t want to be more productive. Being the guy on a popular basketball team who everybody grumbles about has to kind of suck, right?
Rooks is, to use some absolutely loathsome sports-speak, what he is. He’s a 7-foot-1 Pac-12 recruit who looks like he should be better but just … isn’t. And even though it’s not his fault, it makes us angry! We think basketball is supposed to be easy when you’re that crazy tall, and we dismiss what freakish athleticism you need to be agile and nimble at that size.
All of this made Rooks’ glorious game of redemption tonight so damn satisfying.
The lifting of Malik Pope’s quasi-suspension on Tuesday probably did not change a lot in the grand scheme of things. The San Diego State men’s basketball team is still a long shot to win the Mountain West Conference Tournament (though certainly not as hopeless a long shot as before). It remains out of NCAA at-large contention. It probably isn’t going to make the NIT field, either.
But Brian Dutcher’s decision to reinstate Pope after the conclusion of the program’s internal investigation into the star senior’s borrowing habits did this much: It breathed needed life into Viejas Arena and created a fun, memorable Tuesday night in late February.