The tone was set immediately. On the third play of the game, San Diego State middle linebacker Kyahva Tezino tipped and intercepted Quinten Dormady’s pass at the line of scrimmage. Four plays later, the Aztecs capitalized on the turnover with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jesse Matthews. With an instant advantage, the team never looked back.
At the 14th annual New Mexico Bowl, the Aztecs (10-3) dominated from kickoff to the final whistle at Dreamstyle Stadium in a lopsided 48-11 win over MAC West champion Central Michigan (8-6). Under head coach Rocky Long, the Aztecs secured their fourth bowl victory of the decade and fourth campaign of 10 or more victories in the past five years.
“The best part of our program is we’ve got great kids in our program,” Long said. “Some of them are kids, they come in as kids, they leave as men. You saw one of the men up here in Kyahva (the game’s Defensive MVP). We have very few issues in our program because they’re such great people.”
San Diego State entered with the fourth best scoring defense in the country, allowing 12.8 points per game, as well as the second best rushing defense, allowing an average of 72.4 yards per game. The Aztec defense rose up to its incredibly high standard, clamping Central Michigan’s typically high-powered offense to 11 points and 112 rushing yards.
“This is the best defense we’ve had in San Diego State for the last 10 years — there’s no doubt in my mind,” Long said. “We’re not exceptionally talented on defense. We have good players but very few of them are gonna be in the NFL. Our kids buy into our scheme, they play extremely hard, and they don’t make mental errors.”
The Aztecs asserted their will by forcing five turnovers. They intercepted three passes, including Tezino’s athletic diving grab at the line of scrimmage on the game’s third play. Free safety Tariq Thompson picked off Dormady in the middle of the second quarter, leading to San Diego State’s second touchdown of the game. Then, San Diego State secured its most important defensive play of the game on the ensuing drive.
Near the end of the first half, Central Michigan’s offense finally caught rhythm and wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton guided the Chippewas down to the 2-yard line. But on the doorstep of the end zone, the Chippewas hurried the offense and threw an errant pass in double coverage. Cornerback Luq Barcoo tied the FBS lead with his ninth interception of the season and prevented Central Michigan from cutting into the 20-3 deficit, roughly a minute before halftime.
“You’re not going to beat anybody turning it over (five) times,” Central Michigan head coach McElwain said. “First series they bat a ball to get it and go in and score. You’re not gonna beat anyone doing that. And then we get down there before half, if you throw it to the boundary, we’ve got a touchdown.”
While San Diego State’s defense stifled the Chippewas regularly in the first half, the Aztecs’ offense strung together its strongest performance of the year. Despite nine wins entering Saturday, San Diego State only crossed the 30-point mark once in the regular season — a 31-10 victory over New Mexico State in September. With 6:24 left in the third quarter, quarterback Ryan Agnew threw a streak down down the left sideline to T.J. Sullivan. Sullivan hauled in a one-handed grab in the end zone, allowing San Diego State to shatter a season-high in points with a 34-3 lead. Two touchdowns later, that season-high was dramatically overwritten with a 48 on the scoreboard.
“We knew what we were capable of,” Co-Offensive MVP and wide receiver Jesse Matthews said on the offensive explosion. “We work hard every day in practice, so just to see it come to fruition was a pretty good feeling.”
Agnew shined with 287 yards through the air, delivering three touchdowns. His longest of the day was a 74-yard strike to a wide open Matthews, who caught the uncontested heave and sprinted to the end zone for his second score of the day and of his career. Agnew kept his options versatile all day long, connecting with 12 different receivers who all caught between one and three passes. Matthews led the bunch with 111 yards in a dominant showing against Central Michigan’s defensive backs.
“This just shows you that people evaluating other people aren’t always right. Do y’all know that Jesse Matthews was a walk-on?” Long said. “All of a sudden during spring practice and in the fall, he became our most consistent wide receiver. He can beat you deep, he can out-jump you for the ball, he can make tough catches. He's our best receiver. Nobody in this whole country recruited him! Not even us!”
In the ground department, Albuquerque native and Co-Offensive MVP Jordan Byrd excelled in a familiar venue. The San Diego State running back set a career-high with 149 rushing yards on 17 carries and delivered one touchdown in a standout homecoming performance. After practicing in his hometown all week, Byrd was determined to replicate his high school dominance in the state where he was raised a football player.
“It brought me back to high school days,” Byrd said. “Especially my senior year, coming back here in December, it reminded me of the (state) championship. It brought me back memories of what I did in that game. I was telling one of my coaches that the cold makes me feel faster, so coming back here and playing in the cold, it really felt good.”
Central Michigan’s offense was held to three points in the first half, and the only score was set up by a 61-yard pass from Dormady to wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton on blown coverage. The Chippewas suffered eight three-and-outs and lost the turnover battle in dreary 5-1 fashion. As a run dominant team with a pair of star halfbacks, attaining 20 rushing yards in the first half prevented Central Michigan from gaining an offensive advantage in the early going.
The Chippewas’ created one major highlight in the otherwise rough defeat. Sophomore running back Kobe Lewis eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark on the season on a 66-yard breakaway carry in the third quarter. Lewis joined teammate Jonathan Ward as the second Chippewa back over the century mark this season. The duo is one of two running back pairs (along with Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks) to produce 1,000 rushing yards each in 2019. It is also the first time in Central Michigan history the Chippewas have finished a season with two 1,000-yard ball carriers.
“I don’t care what the score is, I feel like I can come back from anything as long as there’s time on the clock,” Lewis said on his long third quarter run to cut the score to 34-11. “It wasn’t necessarily about me trying to get to 1,000 yards. I just wanted to play hard, finish hard. I knew it was the last game.”
Central Michigan successfully converted the 2-point conversion after Lewis’ highlight run, and the momentum carried through to the defense. The defense tipped one of Agnew’s passes at the line of scrimmage and cornerback Alonzo McCoy jumped like a basketball player securing a rebound to corral the high interception. However, San Diego State’s defense prevailed once more, blindsiding Dormady with a sack on 4th down several plays after the Chippewas’ lone takeaway.
Central Michigan tested three quarterbacks in the game, starting with Dormady in his final collegiate game. The Tennessee/Houston transfer completed 11/26 passes for 164 yards and a trio of interceptions. Lazzaro only threw one pass on a three-and-out drive, but also ran three teams for five yards throughout the game. In the fourth quarter, true freshman Daniel Richardson was inserted into the game, and he threw his first career pass — a completion to JaCorey Sullivan.
“I wanted to give Daniel a chance to go,” McElwain said. “They beat the heck out of us up front. It was tough to make throws back there when you got the pressure like we did.”
Even in garbage time when the game was decided, Central Michigan could not avoid the costly mistakes. Lewis fumbled on a fourth quarter carry, which was scooped up by San Diego State cornerback Darren Hall for a defensive touchdown. Then, the Chippewas muffed a punt near the goal line with around two minutes to go. However, San Diego State spared them by kneeling the ball instead of plugging it into the end zone, celebrating on the turf with a 48-11 victory.
Central Michigan’s season concludes with two consecutive postseason losses and an 8-6 record. Considering expectations following a 1-11 season, McElwain’s team performed above standard in every facet. However, coming up short in Albuquerque for the program’s fifth-straight bowl loss is a bitter end to an otherwise spectacular season.
“Why wouldn’t it be a success?” McElwain said on the Chippewas’ season. “I mean, we went to the MAC Championship, right? We were picked dead last with a bunch of guys no one believed in. You’re absolutely right it was a great success. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, and yet here’s what I’m going to tell you: You learn from your failures. That’s how you become successful.”