Why the San Diego State-BYU football game is a rivalry for the still-angry Aztecs
The 9-1 Cougars and 4-3 Aztecs will meet for the first time in Provo on Saturday since BYU’s 24-21 win in 2010 was marred by a controversial replay review that went against San Diego State and forced the Mountain West to change its replay booth staffing policy
For San Diego State football coach Brady Hoke and his Aztecs, Saturday’s game against No. 14 BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium feels like the return to the scene of a crime they have never quite gotten over, 10 years later.
The 8 p.m. MST clash also feels like a rivalry game for SDSU, several players said Tuesday via Zoom from San Diego.
For the Cougars, not so much.
They are looking at the (probable) regular-season ending matchup as a chance for redemption and revenge, redemption after their undefeated season was ruined last week in a 22-17 loss to Coastal Carolina and revenge after a 13-3 loss to SDSU last November started a two-game season-ending skid.
“When (BYU) left the league, that obviously was tough on everybody. I think having the opportunity to have them in the league, I thought it was great. They obviously feel they have to got to do what is right for their university, and their program. We would like them to be a league member (when) playing them.” — San Diego State football coach Brady Hoke
“We definitely want a little bit of revenge there,” BYU defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri said Tuesday. “But I wouldn’t say that is our only motivation. … We don’t have some huge vendetta.”
San Diego State does.
That became apparent when Hoke — who coached SDSU in 2009-10, then returned to the program in 2019 as defensive line coach and replaced Rocky Long as head coach last January — was asked Tuesday about a situation during BYU’s 24-21 win in Provo in 2010 that came to be known as “replay-gate.”
Replay officials ruled a fumble by BYU’s JJ Di Luigi occurred after his knee hit the ground, and let BYU keep possession. A TV replay, that booth officials apparently never watched, clearly showed the ball was out before the running back’s knee hit the turf.
“It has been a long time,” said Hoke, Michigan’s head coach from 2011-14. “I thought we played pretty well up there. If I remember there was a replay that didn’t go our way that we would have liked to have gone our way, obviously. It is a different team, obviously. And we are a different team.”
Angering the Aztecs even more was a news leak to San Diego media a few days later that a BYU employee, video coordinator Chad Bunn, was one of three replay staffers in the booth that day. All three were initially suspended by the Mountain West Conference, but Bunn was later cleared of any wrongdoing, reinstated by the league, and received back pay for his time away, according to his Salt Lake City-based attorney, Alan W. Mortensen.
BYU defeated SDSU 23-6 in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, but last year was the first scheduled meeting since BYU left the Mountain West in 2011 and went independent in football, and Long complained about having the Cougars on his schedule several times before the game.
“I wish they weren’t on the schedule,” said Long, now New Mexico’s defensive coordinator. “I think that them leaving the league was the wrong thing to do. … And the only way they develop a schedule is the Mountain West Conference scheduling them.”
Saturday’s game was originally scheduled to be played Nov. 14, but was taken off the schedule, then added again, when the MW delayed the opening to its season.
Asked about Long’s displeasure, Hoke took a more diplomatic approach.
“When they left the league, that obviously was tough on everybody,” he said. “I think having the opportunity to have them in the league, I thought it was great. They obviously feel they have to got to do what is right for their university, and their program. We would like them to be a league member (when) playing them.”
BYU and SDSU, two of the better non-Power Five programs in the West, aren’t scheduled to play again any time soon. Does Hoke want to see the Cougars again?
“Good question,” he said, later noting that he and Long “are different people” and think differently. “I don’t know what I would say.”
Still, Hoke said, SDSU’s players “know the history. We try and remind them of the history the two schools have. I think this is our 38th time playing each other. We will be excited.”
BYU leads the series 28-8-1; SDSU has never won consecutive meetings. If it is a rivalry, it is one of the most lopsided around.
“We hadn’t played them in quite a while before last year, but it is a big rivalry,” said SDSU junior cornerback Darren Hall. “The fans talk on Twitter all the time. But we are just going to go out there and play football and we can’t make the game any bigger than any other game.”
Junior running back Jordan Byrd, from Albuquerque, says he was made aware of the game’s importance to SDSU’s community last year.
“I just heard that we used to be in a conference together, so it is probably a really good rivalry from there. I know they broke off around 2011,” said Byrd, who returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in the Aztecs’ 29-17 win over Colorado State last week. “Some of the fans still have that connection, but from last year we respect them, so it is going to be a really good game.”
San Diego State could easily be ranked, perhaps even undefeated, if a few plays had gone its way in losses to San Jose State, Nevada and Colorado. Those three teams have a combined record of 15-1.
The Cougars will have their hands full, rivalry game or not, said head coach Kalani Sitake.
“Brady Hoke is a very good coach,” Sitake said. “He knows how to get his guys motivated. They play an aggressive style of defense, very similar to what we have seen from them last year. And they have carried that on. … This is going to be another challenge where maybe we have a little bit of redemption from last year, and also (for) what we had happen last week.”
All four of SDSU’s wins have come by at least 12 points, and the Aztecs rank first nationally in yards allowed per play.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson has said SDSU had the best defense BYU played last year. Hoke was asked by a San Diego reporter if comparisons to Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs are accurate, but Hoke said “that’s a lot to put on a guy, to be honest,” and said Wilson reminds him of former TCU and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
“He is unbelievable in his ability to get the ball off, and his ability to extend plays,” Hoke said. “He does a great job. He will be a real test for our team.”
Rivalry or not.