By Ken Ables
(All photos by Aztec Hall of Fame Photographer Ernie Anderson unless noted otherwise)
On September 15, 1967, the Aztecs kicked off their inaugural season in their new home in Mission Valley with a 16-8 victory over Tennessee State. It was the first of 336 games and 222 Aztec wins in San Diego Stadium, a facility that would change its name in coming years to Jack Murphy, Qualcomm (the “Q”) and SDCCU Stadium. I was in the stands for that first game, along with my parents, Tom and Nancy Ables, and my brother. And I was there for the 222nd and final win in 2019, a 13-3 win over hated BYU. In fact, I was there for all but one of those 222 victories (I missed North Texas State in 1975), and in the stands for 332 total games. And I plan to be at the first game at Snapdragon Stadium September 3rd when the Aztecs kickoff against Arizona on national TV.
If you are familiar with my family’s history with the Aztecs, you know that my Dad was the greatest college football fan of all time, attending 788 Aztec football games, between his freshman year at State in 1946 and his passing in 2017. He was at every single home game for those 72 seasons, and only missed six games on the road. And when you include college games the Aztecs did not play (Rose Bowls, Holiday Bowls, random college games on bye weeks), he attended more than 825 college football games.
The Q is gone, of course, and Snapdragon Stadium has been built in the northwest corner of the old stadium’s parking lot on land that is now a part of San Diego State. After two years of “home” games 115 miles away, the Aztecs open the 2022 season on CBS in the first game played on campus since 1966.
Sports fans love lists and rankings. The Sons of Montezuma asked me what I considered the Top 10 Aztec wins at the Q. With 222 wins to choose from, that could have been a daunting task. Fortunately, my Dad had already done the heavy lifting. In his book GO AZTECS!, [link?] he lists his favorite games (he would wouldn’t limit himself to a number and wouldn’t rank them within the list).
To kick off the 100th season of Aztec football – and my 61st and my family’s 77th – and the first season in Snapdragon Stadium, here are my top 10 Aztec wins in Mission Valley from GO AZTECS!, in chronological order:
#10. Southern Mississippi (1968)
The Southerners, as they were known then, came to San Diego leading the nation in total defense, and had just lost a last-minute heartbreaker to Alabama the week before. While they may have played Alabama close, Southern Miss had never seen anything like Don Coryell’s aerial attack – or his defense. Less than a minute into the game, Fred Dryer returned a USM interception 28 yards for a touchdown. Tom Nettles caught four of Dennis Shaw’s seven touchdown passes. The night before a USM coach had said they wanted to score 100, but that they would try to hold it down. Mission accomplished: Aztecs 68, Southern Miss 7. It was the Aztecs 34th win in their past 35 games. Don Coryell and Fred Dryer are members of the College Football Hall of Fame.
#9. Florida State (1977)
Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles came to San Diego 8-1 and ranked #13. FSU alum (and former Seminole RB) Burt Reynolds drove down from Hollywood for the game. FSU was looking to avenge their 1973 loss to the Aztecs and to work on a few things before their game with arch-rival Florida and their bowl. Claude Gilbert’s Aztecs had other ideas. David “Deacon” Turner rushed for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns. QB Joe Davis was 21 for 30 for 228 yards and threw three touchdown passes to Ron Smith. Final score: Aztecs 41, Florida State 16. Aztecs are 2-0 vs. Florida State.
#8. BYU (1986)
The Aztecs and Cougars met in the final game of the season with the WAC championship – and trip to the Holiday Bowl – on the line. The Aztec D held the high-powered BYU offense to 167 total yards and a single field goal. Chris Hardy rushed for 98 yards and scored on a 17-yard TD run; Kevin Rahill kicked a 39-yard field goal with 5:27 left. It was the second of three games at the Q where the Aztec D held the Cougars without a touchdown. Final: Aztecs 10, BYU 3.
#7. Pacific (1991)
The Marshall Faulk game. In a game he didn’t even start, Marshall came off the bench and rushed for an NCAA-record 386 yards as a true freshman. And he scored 44 points (7 TDs and a 2-point conversion), another NCAA record. Marshall set nine NCAA records in that game (six still stand), and overnight became the talk of college football. Final score: Aztecs 55, Pacific 34. In his three years with the Aztecs, Marshall was a three-time All-American and a Heisman runner up (and he should have been the winner!). Marshall is a member of the Aztec, College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
#6. Oklahoma (1996)
The second game of a home-and-home with Oklahoma matched the Aztecs and Sooners in the third week of the season. The Aztecs scored on offense and defense. Billy Blanton threw five touchdown passes (3 to Az Hakim, 2 to Leandrew Childs) and Ricky Parker, who set the Aztec record for interception yardage (146) the previous year in Norman, scored on a 60-yard pick six. He still holds the Aztec career record for interception return yards with 355. Final: Aztecs 51, Oklahoma 31.
#5 Navy (2010)
Bowling for the first time in 12 seasons, and looking for their first bowl win in 41, Brady Hoke’s second Aztec team earned a spot in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl with an 8-4 record. The first half was close after Navy scored with :07 left to cut the Aztecs’ lead to 21-14. Ronnie Hillman scored two second half TDs – a 15 yard pass from Ryan Lindley and a 1 yard run – and the Aztec D shut the Midshipmen out to give the Aztecs a 35-14 win. Ronnie rushed for 228 yards and was named offensive MVP of the game.
#4. Boise State (2013)
Most of the Mountain West seems to be flummoxed by the Boise State’s reputation and their weird field. But not the Aztecs. A year after beating the Broncos in Boise in 2012, the Aztecs went for two in a row, this time on green grass, as the football gods intended. With the Broncos up 28-21 with 4:04 left, Tim Vizzi returned a Bronco punt 41 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. The Broncos got the ball first in overtime and were held to a field goal. Aztec ball. Quinn Kaehler’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Colin Lockett ended the game. Final score: Aztecs 34, Boise St. 31. Colin’s catch was the perfect bookend to the 2012-13 Boise State games: in 2012 he returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. For good measure, the Aztecs went to Boise to play Buffalo in the 2013 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. A 49-24 win. That gave the Aztecs 3 wins versus or in Boise in two seasons.
#3. Air Force (2015)
Rocky Long’s 2015 Aztecs ran the MW table with a perfect 8-0 record and earned the right to host the Mountain West Championship Game. Freshman QB Christian Chapman, in his first career start, was 9-14 for 203 yards and a touchdown pass to RB Donnel Pumphrey, who also rushed for 90 yards. Donny Hageman’s 46-yard field goal with 5:10 left gave the Aztecs a 3-point lead. Final score: Aztecs 27, Air Force 24. It was the first of back-to-back MW Championships.
#2. Cal (2016)
Records broken, winning streaks begun. Donnel Pumphrey rushed for a career-high 281 yards and broke Marshall Faulk’s Aztec career rushing record. Rashaad Penny returned a Cal kickoff 100 yards for his fourth career kickoff return TD, breaking Colin Lockett’s Aztec record. And they didn’t stop there: DJ finished his career as the all-time NCAA rusher with 6,405 yards. Rashaad returned three more kickoffs and a punt for touchdowns, tying the NCAA record for career kickoffs returned for touchdowns (7) and all kicks (8). The 45-40 victory over the Golden Bears was sealed with a Damontae Kazee interception with less than a minute to play. Since that game in 2016, the Aztecs are 7-2 vs. the PAC-12. DJ finished the season with 2,133 yards and Rashaad with 1,018, making the 2016 Aztecs the only team in NCAA history with a 2,000- and 1,000-yard rusher.
#1. Stanford (2017)
Ranked power 5 opponent. Brother vs. brother. Blackout. Last-minute win. Fans rushing the field. The Aztec-Stanford game featured everything an Aztec fan could ask for. The Cardinal came to town ranked #19, 1-1 and looking for their first win in the United States (they opened with a win 62-7 win over Rice in Sydney, Australia). The game was close, with neither team leading by more than four points. Aztec receiver Mikah Holder and his twin, Cardinal DB Alijah faced off for the only time in college, with family bragging rights for life on the line. Down 17-13 with 6:15 left, the Aztecs started their game-winning drive on their own 25. Five plays later, the Aztecs had moved to the Cardinal 42. And then the lights went out. For 22 minutes. Momentum killer? Hardly. Rashaad Penny carried three times for 11 yards and Christian Chapman completed all three of his passes; the final one a perfectly executed play action where the linebacker bit on a fake to Penny, leaving TE David Wells open. He made the catch and dove into the end zone for the final score of the game with :54 left. Kameron Kelly’s interception on the final Stanford drive sealed the W: Aztecs 20, Stanford 17. Fans had been gathering around the edge of the Plaza and Field levels, and once the game ended, they rushed the field for the only time in 53 seasons at the stadium.
There were other great wins, including Miami, Wisconsin, Arizona State, the first win over Florida State, closing out the Q with wins over long-time rivals Fresno State and BYU. But these are my favorite 10. My Dad may not have wanted to pick a favorite, but I’m not a bit hesitant. Whether or it’s recency bias or not, the 2017 Stanford game is my favorite win at the old stadium. What’s yours?