Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl matchup between San Diego State and Central Michigan in Albuquerque, N.M., marks a reunion of sorts for each team’s head coach.
Central Michigan (8-5) returns to the postseason after finishing last year 1-11, the largest turnaround from 2018 to 2019 in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Mid-American Conference West division title and bowl bid mark significant milestones for Jim McElwain, the program’s first-year coach.
“When you look at his resume, he’s a winner,” Central Michigan linebacker Michael Oliver told the Battle Creek Enquirer. “At the end of the day, it’s not hard to buy into a winner. He brought in incredible people.”
That resume includes a winning run at Colorado State, which is a member of the Mountain West Conference along with the bowl’s hometown team, New Mexico.
McElwain coached at Colorado State from 2012 through 2014. His last Colorado State team won 10 games and spent two weeks in the AP Top 25 poll. In 2013, the Rams beat Washington State 48-45 in a memorable New Mexico Bowl.
The Rams played San Diego State only once in McElwain’s tenure, a 38-14 Aztecs win in 2012, but the program’s overall success in those three years isn’t lost on San Diego State coach Rocky Long.
“When he was at Colorado State, he had great success. That’s how he got the Florida job,” Long said in reference to McElwain’s ensuing stint with the Gators. McElwain coached Florida to SEC East titles in 2015 and 2016.
“What you see on film is basically what they did at Colorado State. They throw well, they run well. On defense, they’re strong up front,” Long added. “So I think it’s a pretty good matchup.”
Central Michigan comes into the New Mexico Bowl featuring a multifaceted offense. Chippewas running back Jonathan Ward has rushed for 1,082 yards at a robust 6.2 yards per carry. His 15 touchdown runs rank third in the MAC.
Quarterback Quinten Dormady, a transfer from Tennessee, finished the regular season strong. He completed 71 percent or more of his pass attempts in the final three games leading into the MAC championship game, effectively spreading the ball among a number of pass-catchers.
Ward, tight end Tony Poljan and receivers Tyrone Scott, JaCorey Sullivan and Kalil Pimpleton all caught at least 33 passes for more than 300 yards, each with at least one touchdown.
Defensively, a line featuring two standout freshmen — LaQuan Johnson and Jacques Bristol — paved the way for 29 team sacks.
San Diego State (9-3) produced just one less sack in one fewer game, employing Long’s signature 3-3-5 odd-stack defense. Long implemented the scheme as head coach at New Mexico from 1998-2008.
Long coached the Lobos to five bowl games in his tenure, including the New Mexico Bowl in 2006 and 2007. Since becoming San Diego State’s head coach in 2011, the Aztecs are on an unprecedented streak of nine consecutive bowl appearances.
San Diego State has followed a consistent blueprint in Long’s time there, building off aggressive defense and using the run to complement it on the other side of the ball. But while past Aztecs teams featured stat-producing running backs like Ronnie Hillman, Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny, Juwan Washington leads the 2019 team with just 500 yards in nine games.
Quarterback Ryan Agnew missed the regular-season finale against BYU, when Carson Baker made his first career start. Agnew is probable for the New Mexico Bowl.
–Field Level Media