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The Ups & Downs with Lady Luck and the Aztecs in Las Vegas

By Ken Ables (@ka619sd via Twitter)

Your friends are always quick to tell you how they won big in their latest trip to Las Vegas, but they don’t seem to be as forthcoming with recaps of their less-than-successful trips. With football fans, specifically Aztecs football fans, they are no different.

The Aztecs head to Vegas for a late Friday game vs. UNLV in the Raiders’ new palace by the Strip. SDSU has played 16 games in Vegas and have 9-7 record in games played in Sam Boyd Stadium: 8-6 vs. UNLV and 1-1 in the Las Vegas Bowl. Will they leave Las Vegas with a 1-0 record in Allegiant Stadium?

Since I just took bettors to task for underreporting losing trips to Vegas, let’s put all the cards on the table and take a look at some big wins, and a very costly bust in Sin City.

Listen to our SDSU vs UNLV Preview Podcast! Available to follow on Spotify, iTunes, iHeart or directly at our Podcast page!

But we had a sure winner…

Everyone heads to Vegas knowing they have a foolproof system to win big. In 1996 the Aztecs headed to Vegas with a 6-2 record, including a 51-31 win over Oklahoma. At 4-1 in conference, the Aztecs would be WAC champs and get a Holiday Bowl berth by winning out. UNLV (coached by Jeff Horton) entered the game 0-10 and going nowhere. Those were the days of high-powered Aztec offense and spotty defense. Still, the Aztecs should have no problem, right? George Jones (275 rushing yards) and Billy Blanton (395 passing yards) led the Aztecs to 42 points. The problem: UNLV scored 44.

Running back George Jones. (Ernie Anderson photography)

Aztecs roll a 7

The early ‘00s brought us the Dark Side Defense led by All-American Kirk Morrison and five other future NFL players. In the 2003 game at UNLV, Aztec QB Adam Hall hit Robert Ortiz in the left corner of the end zone for an early 7-0 lead. That was followed by … no more scoring. The Dark Side shut down the Rebels to record their second shutout of the year. 

Wide receiver Robert Ortiz. (Ernie Anderson photography)

Championship Run

By 2015 the Aztecs were known as a ground-and-pound running program that regularly produced 1,000 yard rushers. After starting with a 1-3 non-conference result, the Aztecs went on a roll in MW play, and arrived in Las Vegas with a 6-0 conference record. Led by DJ Pumphrey’s 139 rushing yards, the Aztecs built a 31-0 lead in the first half. DJ scored two TDs and Rashaad Penny, Dakota Gordon and QB Maxwell Smith each ran for a TD as well. Chase Price caught a TD pass and Damontae Kazee took a punt to the house. Donny Hageman added a field goal. Final Aztecs 52, Rebels 14. The Aztecs beat Nevada the next week to finish MW play a perfect 8-0. They beat Air Force to capture their 20th conference championship, and beat Cincinnati 42-7 in the Hawaii Bowl to finish 11-3.

Defensive back Damontae Kazee returns a punt for a touchdown. (Ernie Anderson photography)

A record-setting performance for the ages

One of the all-time great Aztec games was played in Las Vegas, but the opponent was the University of Houston, not UNLV. DJ Pumphrey came into the game with 6,290 career rushing yards, 107 short of Ron Dayne’s NCAA record 6,347. Early in the fourth quarter he gained 15 yards to break Dayne’s record. He finished the game with 115 yards, 2,133 for the year and 6,405 for his career. Rashaad Penny finished with 1,018 yards making the 2016 Aztecs the only team in NCAA history with a 2,000 and 1,000 yard rusher. After spotting the Cougars a 10-0 first quarter lead, the Aztecs scored 34-unanswered points for a bowl win over an AAC team for the second consecutive year. DJ and Juwan Washington each scored rushing TDs. Ron Smith’s perfectly timed interception turned into a 54-yard pick six, and Senior Curtis Anderson scored his first career touchdown in the fourth quarter of his final Aztec game. 

Running back Donnell Pumphrey Jr. on his way to breaking the NCAA all time rushing yards record in the Las Vegas Bowl. (Ernie Anderson photography)

The Aztecs find themselves in a situation similar to 1996: control their own destiny. This Aztec team is battle-tested, having won 5 games decided by a TD or less, including two multiple overtime games and two wins over PAC-12 teams. Just like 1996, look for the team with Jeff Horton on the sidelines to win.

Kickoff is at 8:30 Friday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. If you can’t make it to Vegas, watch it on CBS Sports or listen to Ted Leitner and Rich Ohrnberger on 1360.

Click below to get your copy of GO AZTECS!
by Tom Ables. Photography by Ernie Anderson and others.


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