Central Michigan and San Diego State took the podiums Friday morning to preview the New Mexico Bowl. The Chippewas and Aztecs will square of at Dreamstyle Stadium in Albuquerque on Saturday, December 21, at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Here is what the coaches and players from the teams discussed on media day.
Altitude and New Mexico Bowl experience
Central Michigan hails from Mt. Pleasant, MI, a highly different environment than the one the team is about to experience in Albuquerque. The altitude in New Mexico’s largest city is over 5,300 feet which greatly contrasts to the midwest environments the Chippewas are used to playing in.
McElwain served as Colorado State’s head coach from 2012-14 and played quarterback out west at Eastern Washington, so he remains accustomed to the conditions in the mountainous area.
“I played at Northern Arizona one year which is 7,800 feet. I went out for warm-ups and thought I was John Elway the way the ball flew. I love to play golf here. I remember playing golf in places with altitude and that ball goes forever,” McElwain said. “We’ve been here long enough to acclimate ourselves, with the hydration and the things that go along with it. For me, personally, it’s great to be back in the mountains.”
Central Michigan quarterback Quinten Dormady practiced in Albuquerque earlier this week and believes McElwain was spot on with his assessment of the air.
“Once I started throwing it, it’s different. The ball flies tighter, travels farther, and I think it was huge to get out there yesterday because it definitely changed things a little bit,” Dormady said.
While at the helm at Colorado State, McElwain coached the 2013 New Mexico Bowl, one of the more iconic bowl games of the decade. With as little as three minutes to go, Colorado State trailed by 15 points, 45-30, to Washington State. The Rams scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to one-possession, and then outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett forced a fumble to give his team an opportunity for the tie. Down eight, Colorado State scored once again and tied the game with a Statue of Liberty two-point conversion.
Washington State fumbled the ensuing kickoff, allowing the Rams to kick a 41-yard field goal as the clock expired, and McElwain’s team exited Albuquerque with a bizarre, thrilling comeback victory.
“At an event, they were running highlights of different games they have played here. I started watching it and saying, ‘You know what? That was pretty cool!’” McElwain said. “One thing in coaching, you focus on the now and don’t really get a chance to relive what’s happened in the past, but just seeing the smiling faces of the people involved in this bowl game, I felt like I was coming back home.”
San Diego State’s head coach Rocky Long is a celebrity in the area as well. Long played quarterback at New Mexico from 1969-71 and served as the Lobos head coach for 11 years from 1998-08.
“I have a lot of old friends here and a lot of old teammates,” Long said on his local ties, laughing. “The old teammates have cost me some money because football players don’t think they have to buy tickets, and we’re all old guys, so I’m not taking care of just their families — I’m taking care of their families’ families. But it’s really, really fun to see my old teammates, especially, and some of the players I’ve coached.”
While out in the state, players earn an opportunity to experience New Mexico culture. One of the great debates in New Mexico is ‘green or red.’ It doesn’t refer to the Christmas season but instead references the state’s famous varieties of chile. Chiles are common toppings on food items in Albuquerque, and Central Michigan strong safety Devonni Reed already determined a favorite.
“Yesterday at breakfast, I was sitting down eating my pancakes. Coach (defensive coordinator Robb) Akey comes around with a bowl in his hands and I was asking, ‘What is it?’” Reed recalled. “‘It’s green chile big dog,’ so I said, ‘Let me try some on my eggs.’ I put some on my eggs and it took a minute because I’m not really fond with peppers and stuff, but I tried it, and I can say I will go with green.”
San Diego State’s suffocating defense
San Diego State fielded the fourth best scoring defense in the country this season, allowing just 12.8 points per contest. The Aztecs held five opponents to 10 points or fewer, never allowed greater than 23 points, and only yielded more than two touchdowns once — a 26-22 win over Wyoming.
Only Utah allows fewer than the 72.4 rushing yards San Diego State permits per contest. The passing defense has been stellar as well, led by cornerback Luq Barcoo who is second in the country with eight interceptions and first in pass breakups with 16.
“Every game’s different and you never know how it’s gonna play out. The best part of our program is our players,” Long said. “We kind of lost our way a year ago in what our team is all about. This senior class did an unbelievable job of leadership and getting us back on the right track. We win games as a team — we’re not overly talented, we don’t out-talent anybody. We win games as a team and we play as a team, and that’s all due to the leadership of our players.”
While San Diego State’s defense holds opponents to fewer than two touchdowns per outing, the team managed nine wins despite posting a scoring average of under 20. Facing a Chippewas offense which registered 38 points in all eight wins, Long hopes the defense sustains its level of play heading into the final game of the season.
“When you play a game against a team like Central Michigan that is so good on offense, there is no shutting them down. The trick is just to keep the score to a point where you’re gonna have a chance to win,” Long said. “We’re not shutting anybody down. We’re gonna go out there and play our defense. We’re gonna play as hard as we’re gonna play, and hopefully we score more points than they do.”
Recovery from 2018 down years
Central Michigan hit rock bottom last season, snapping six-straight years of bowl eligibility to finish a dreary 1-11. The Chippewas responded with a coaching change, hiring Michigan wide receivers coach Jim McElwain, who was fired from his last head coaching job in the middle of 2017 after a rough start with Florida. Central Michigan is McElwain’s third stop since last participating in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl, and he’s experienced a whirlwind of a journey since.
“In each program you come into new, I don’t think there’s one formula,” McElwain said. “You have to do a great job of evaluating the needs of the particular organization and then prioritize the things you need to attack a little bit to give yourself the chance to be successful. This is a great group of people that are really fun to work with, and I think that’s why Central Michigan University moving forward has a real chance to continue to grow and be successful. I’ll just tell you this — I’m having a blast.”
Like McElwain, Dormady had been well-traveled through different programs. He played 13 games at Tennessee from 2015-17 before transferring to Houston. After not earning the starting job for the Cougars, the former SEC quarterback decided to finish his career working with the former SEC coach. Together, they created something special in the MAC — Central Michigan’s first West division title since 2009.
“Anytime it doesn’t go as planned, it’s tough. That’s how it goes, you just have to move the past to the past and focus on the present,” Dormady said on his past stops at Tennessee and Houston. “Like everyone said so far, this is a huge opportunity for us as a team, as a conference to come down here and represent the MAC. This is one of the better teams I’ve been a part of and it’s a lot of fun.”
Central Michigan’s story of 2019 has been all about recollecting and rebounding. With nearly two 1,000-yard rushers, the run game has been a key development in the Chippewas’ successful campaign. The leader of it is senior Jonathan Ward, who rushed for 1,017 yards as a freshman but slipped to 212 as a sophomore. This season, a revitalized Ward enters the bowl game with a career-high 1,082 yards, and McElwain noticed Ward’s maturity to put the rough 2018 campaign behind.
“We met with each one of the players and told them we have an opportunity to start with a clean slate,” McElwain said. “We ripped up their bios, ripped up any notes of any player on the team, and said here’s your opportunity to be who you want to be. Jonathan Ward’s been a great leader for this football team and he’s played injured, which tells you a lot. The fact that he cares so much about this group of guys and how hard he plays, I’m just glad he’s on our team.”
San Diego State is also experiencing a bounce-back season. After three-consecutive years with double-digit victories — including two Mountain West titles — San Diego State faltered to 7-6 last year. The Aztecs lost five of their final six, including a 27-0 shoutout to another MAC team, Ohio, in the Frisco Bowl. But San Diego State is bowling for the 10th consecutive season and even held a ranking in 2019, and this season could end in a 10-win journey for the fourth time in five years.
“I think the motivation of laying a goose egg last year has carried over to this year,” tight end Parker Houston said. “It’s been said throughout the few weeks we’ve had off, it’s in the back of everybody’s mind, and we don’t want to do that again. We want to come out on top and come home with the trophy. I think we’re ready for a good game.”
The New Mexico Bowl trophy is hand-crafted and hand-painted every season. Here is this year’s version created by artists of the Zia Pueblo, featuring paintings of Central Michigan and San Diego State on a clay pot.
Central Michigan brought head coach Jim McElwain, quarterback Quinten Dormady, and strong safety Devonni Reed to the press conference.
San Diego State brought middle linebacker Kyahva Tezino, tight end Parker Houston, and head coach Rocky Long to the press conference.