The Poinsettia Bowl is a matchup more than 20 years in the making.
In 1991, new Oregon State defensive coordinator Rocky Long approached first-year head coach Jerry Pettibone about a Beavers graduate assistant on the previous staff, telling Pettibone that they would be making a big mistake if they didn’t retain the graduate assistant.
Pettibone and Long hired that graduate assistant as OSU’s defensive line coach. The assistant’s name was Bronco Mendenhall.
Ever since, Long and Mendenhall have been close friends, which makes the Poinsettia Bowl between Long’s San Diego State Aztecs (9-3) and Mendenhall’s Brigham Young Cougars (7-5) an intriguing matchup.
“There aren’t a lot of close friends in coaching, and I consider Bronco one of my close friends,” Long told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Bronco and I have been on the same sideline and had various successes. We’ve been on opposing sidelines, and he’s had a whole lot more success than I have in those situations.”
Long taught Mendenhall his 3-3-5 blitzing scheme at Oregon State. Mendenhall succeeded Long as the Beavers’ defensive coordinator in 1996 when Long went to UCLA in the same capacity. When Long was hired at New Mexico as head coach in 1998, he hired Mendenhall as the Lobos’ defensive coordinator.
Mendenhall helped Long and the Lobos reach the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl before joining BYU as its defensive coordinator in 2003. Mendenhall, who became the Cougars’ head coach in 2005, owns a 7-2 record vs. Long in head-to-head matchups.
Any advantage the Aztecs might have had because of their unique defense is negated because Mendenhall knows Long’s scheme as well as any coach in the country. Mendenhall originally brought the 3-3-5 to BYU with some success but switched to a 3-4 based on the talent BYU is able to recruit.
Ironically, it’s the Cougars defense that comes into the matchup as the more heralded unit. BYU is No. 3 in the country in total defense, allowing 266.3 yards per game. The Cougars are No. 2 in rushing defense at 84.3 yards allowed, No. 13 in pass defense (182.1 yards) and No. 5 in scoring defense at 14.7 points allowed.
The Aztecs’ 16th-ranked rushing attack will have to find a way to open holes for running back Adam Muema to open up the play-action pass for quarterback Adam Dingwell and put points on the board.
SDSU’s defense, however, is the reason for the team’s seven-game winning streak to finish the regular season. After the first five games of 2012, the Aztecs were 2-3 and were allowing 432.4 yards per game and 306.4 per game through the air.
In the last seven games, SDSU has allowed 334.1 yards per game and just 183.7 per game through the air.
The Cougars, who could name either Riley Nelson or James Lark as their starting QB for the bowl game, has to find a way to halt the Aztecs’ pressure.
Either way, the game figures to be one of the more hard-hitting of the postseason.
“If you’re those kinds of people who like how football used to be played, it’ll be one of those games that there’s 22 kids on the field at any one time, flying around after one another,” Long said.