When we got bowl-eligible, we were hoping we'd be able to stay here and play at home. —Aztec coach Rocky Long
SAN DIEGO — These are halcyon days for San Diego State football.
The Aztecs (9-3), once perceived as perennial underachievers, have claimed their first conference championship since 1998, won seven consecutive games (their longest single-season streak since 1977), and are seeking their first 10-win season in 35 years.
Playing in its third straight bowl game for the first time in program history, SDSU meets BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl on Thursday (6 p.m. MST, ESPN) on its home field at Qualcomm Stadium.
"I can't tell you how excited we are to be here," said Aztec coach Rocky Long, who is finishing his second season at the helm. "When we got bowl-eligible, we were hoping we'd be able to stay here and play at home."
On top of that, San Diego State gets to play BYU, a program it considers a rival.
How have the Aztecs managed to turn things around and change their culture?
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said Long has played a crucial role in the rise of SDSU football.
"He's been able to instill a toughness and a workmanlike mentality at a place that wasn't really known for that," Mendenhall said. "They were known more for skill and speed. He's given them a real hard-nosed identity."
Mendenhall regards Long a mentor and friend from their days together at Oregon State and New Mexico. And both teams play a physical brand of football, emulating their head coaches.
"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, trying to get after one another," Long said.
While the Cougars don't view the Aztecs as rivals, they do have respect for SDSU.
"I wouldn't consider them a rival. History goes back with the coaches," said BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy. "They're a good team and we're a good team. It's going to be a battle. They have the same philosophy our coaches here do. You could say we have a past. But as far as we respect them, they respect us. … It's going to be 22 heads battling on every play."
The Aztecs are No. 16 in the country in rushing, averaging 229 yards per game. Running back Adam Muema rushed for 1,355 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.
"I like their physicality. They finish blocks as well as any team we've played, right up there with Notre Dame and Boise State," said BYU linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga. "Their offensive line and their running backs are physical. I think they play offense a lot like we play defense. They play downhill and try to hit you in the face."
"They're going to run power and bring it on every play. That's what we're looking forward to as a defense," said Van Noy. "They understand that we're a good defense and they're not backing down. They didn't back down to Boise State, and they have a good defense. They'll keep trying to pound it at us."
Sophomore quarterback Adam Dingwell replaced injured starter Ryan Katz in late October and is unbeaten (4-0) as a starter. Dingwell has completed 55-of-86 passes for 590 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Aztecs' 3-3-5 defense started slow this season, yielding 432.4 yards per game, including 306.4 passing yards, through their first five games as SDSU opened with a 2-3 record. But during the Aztecs' seven-game winning streak, they have given up only 334.1 yards per contest, including only 183.7 passing yards.
Senior cornerback Leon McFadden, who has three interceptions and 10 pass breakups this season, is expected to be playing in the National Football League next season. He will likely line up opposite of the Cougars' biggest playmaker, wide receiver Cody Hoffman, Thursday night.
"He's a great player. He's got instincts and plays an NFL-style corner," BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said of McFadden. "I would suspect he has a chance to play in the NFL, just watching him. They don't give him much help. We'll try and test him. We feel like we've got pretty good receivers, too. He's a good player."
EXTRA POINTS: BYU and San Diego State have played three common opponents. Both lost to San Jose State (20-14 and 38-34, respectively), both defeated Hawaii (47-0 and 52-14, respectively). Meanwhile, the Cougars fell 7-6 at Boise State, but the Aztecs knocked off the Broncos on the blue turf, 21-19. … BYU leads the all-time series with SDSU, 27-7-1. … The Aztecs haven't beaten the Cougars since 2005 — Mendenhall's first season at the helm. SDSU won that game at Qualcomm, 31-10.
Cougars on the air
BYU (7-5) vs. San Diego State (9-3)
Thursday, 6 p.m. MST
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM