Rocky Long wasn’t in the Army then or now. But someone else in the Long household did have an Army connection. That meant one certain game, each year, was must-see TV before Long was long in the tooth: Army-Navy.
“I’d watch that game with great interest because I used to watch it with my father, who was in the Army for 30 years,” said Long, the San Diego State football coach. “So you know which team we rooted for.”
But the Black Knights will be minus a fan come Dec. 23 when the Aztecs face Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.
For the eighth straight season, the Aztecs (10-2) have put on their bowling shoes. But like those musty ones down at the lanes, does this shoe fit?
Some thought the Aztecs, with wins over the Pac-12’s Stanford and Arizona State, deserved a better matchup against a bigger name. But the dominoes fell in a way in which SDSU didn’t anticipate.
When Ohio State beat Wisconsin in the Big 10 title game and still failed to reach college football’s version of the Final Four, the fallout reached the West Coast.
Instead of the Buckeyes being locked in a semifinal matchup with Clemson, the bull’s-eye fell on the Aztecs. Instead of battling a Pac-12 team in a more well-known bowl, they were paired with the Black Knights (8-3).
“Our No. 1 criteria was to play the very best team we could play and the chance to play Pac-12 teams evaporated,” Long said. “I don’t know how it works — don’t ask me — but that’s just the way it works.”
So getting worked up over SDSU being shoved to a bowl it didn’t anticipate being in does no good. Although the combination of SDSU being placed in the Armed Forces Bowl, and star Rashaad Penny being ignored for national awards, leaves Aztecs fans wondering what’s up?
Unfortunately, SDSU is anchored in the Mountain West, which doesn’t have the gratis of the Power 5 conferences. Not much the Aztecs can do about that other than rewind the tape and beat Boise State and Fresno State.
SDSU didn’t, of course, which wrecked the dreams of a perfect season and even the chance to play for the MW championship. Despite signature nonconference wins, the Aztecs stumbles in a watered-down conference was critical.
“We are disappointed we weren’t in the (MW) championship game and we might have maybe had a little bit more control where we would have gone,” Long said.
“But whenever you win 10 games in a 12-game season, I think that puts us in the top 20 of every category. I’ve been told in the last three years that we have the third-best winning percentage in all of college football, that’s not bad.”
So is it a black mark against the Aztecs to be asked to square off against the Black Knights? Probably, but Long was being the good solider leading up to the game.
He was long on positives for the pairing, which will be the only bowl affair that is on ESPN in that time slot.
“Playing an academy team that is 8-3 and possible to be 9-3 and be the Commander in Chief trophy winner, that’s a pretty good matchup,” he said.
Army has created a buzz at West Point with its big year. Long warns his players not to overlook the Black Knights.
“That’s one of the better teams we could have played,” he said.
And it’s one with a familiar look. Army operates the option attack, which is similar to what the Aztecs faced when beating Air Force, 28-24. The Aztecs know Army will keep it on the ground, too.
The Black Knights lost their last game, 52-49, to North Texas. But the nation’s top rushing team did collect 565 on the ground.
“It’s an option attack but it’s different,” Long said. “They’ve had great success with it and they do a lot of different things.”
Some things never change, with Long parked by his TV for Saturday’s Army-Navy game. But unlike those afternoons at his father’s feet, Long is rooting for Navy.
“Navy will have the answer on how to stop them,” Long said. “And we will just copy what Navy does.”
Contact Jay Paris at email@example.com. Follow him @jparis_sports
Sportswriter Jay Paris has written his “Sports Talk” column since joining the Coast News in 2013.
Paris, a Cardiff resident, is a longtime Southern California writer, getting his start with the Orange County Register before coming to San Diego in 1992 to cover the Chargers.
He had the Chargers beat for more than two decades with Oceanside Blade-Citizen, the North County Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, before being named a sports columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Paris has won numerous awards voted on by his peers in the Pro Football Writers of America. He has also been a staple on countless media platforms, everything from the KPBS to MLB Network and various radio outlets.
Paris is also the author of three books, with his latest one being, “Shohei Ohtani: The Amazing Story Of Baseball’s Two-Way Japanese Superstar.” He has also written “Game Of My Life Chargers” and “Game Of My Life Rams.”
He currently covers the NFL in Los Angeles for Forbes. com and is a contributor to USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow Jay on Twitter @jparis_sports