Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
SAN DIEGO — As far as Poinsettia Bowl officials are concerned, it's a dream matchup.
Ever since BYU struck a deal to play in this game two years ago, Bruce Binkowski, executive director of the San Diego Bowl Game Association, which oversees both the Poinsettia and Holiday Bowls, was pining for San Diego State to be the Cougars' opponent.
Binkowski, and the Poinsettia Bowl, got their wish.
"It was our hope that San Diego State would be the opponent because of the long-time history between the two schools," Binkowski said. "But we weren't going to take San Diego State at 6-6. We probably have taken them at 7-5, but it wasn't a slam dunk that the Aztecs would be available. So when they finished 9-3 and got passed up by the Las Vegas Bowl — and we get the second pick out of the conference — we grabbed them. It just worked out perfectly for us. We couldn't be happier, for a lot of reasons."
The BYU contingent arrived in San Diego Sunday afternoon. The Cougars and Aztecs meet Thursday (6 p.m., MT, ESPN) in the Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium.
Does BYU's mediocre record take some luster away from the matchup?
"Everybody wants good records for your teams. I'm sure 7-5 was disappointing for BYU," Binkowski said. "But if you look at Boise State game and Notre Dame, games they could have won, they could easily be a 9-3 team going against a 9-3 San Diego State team. We're not disappointed because we know we have a good team. A bounce of the ball here or there could have them at nine victories as well. We think 7-5 is really kind of a 9-3 record. We're not disappointed at all. We're just glad to have them come down to San Diego."
While this marks BYU's first appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl, it is no stranger to postseason games in San Diego. The Cougars played in the Holiday Bowl 11 times from 1978-1993, and helped build the Holiday Bowl into the game it is today.
But it's been 19 years since BYU has been in San Diego for a bowl game.
"It was a special time. It was a great place to go," legendary coach LaVell Edwards recalled last week. "I think we went to the first seven Holiday Bowls. People were planning their trips down there even before the season ended. It was quite a nice run and a great experience. It was a very (nice) place to go at that time of year. It was great to be able to play the game, then go home and enjoy Christmas."
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall remembers coming to San Diego for the inaugural Holiday Bowl in 1978, and again in 1979, when his older brother, Mat, played for the Cougars.
"I know exactly where I sat. I watched BYU play Navy and Indiana," Mendenhall said. "To be on the field coaching (more than 30 years later) for a similar game is a little bit surreal. I'm glad to be a part of it."
Binkowski said there is "a buzz around town" for this game. He said about 40,000 tickets have been sold so far. The Poinsettia Bowl attendance record was set in 2010, when a crowd of 48,049 watched San Diego State defeat Navy.
"This game has the makings of being the second-highest attended game in our eight years," Binkowski said. "Ticket sales are solid and Aztec fans are excited about playing BYU. I think this game will have some atmosphere."
Binkowski acknowledged that San Diego State regards BYU as a big rival. The two teams played for years as members of the Western Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference.
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