SAN DIEGO (AP) — Behind star running back Rashaad Penny, the undefeated San Diego State Aztecs are reaching heights they haven’t attained in decades.
Their No. 19 ranking matches their highest spot since 1978.
When the Aztecs (4-0) host Northern Illinois (2-1) on Saturday night, it’ll be their first home game as a nationally ranked team since Nov. 11, 1995, at what was then Jack Murphy Stadium.
That didn’t turn out so well. The No. 25 Aztecs lost 34-31 to Wyoming and promptly fell out of the rankings.
These Aztecs understand what they face even as their fans hope for not only a third straight Mountain West Conference title, but the Group of Five’s berth in a major bowl.
“I think it’s definitely motivation,” junior safety Parker Baldwin said. “We were talking about it the other day. The Top 25 , it’s recognition but at the same time, it is a target. It’s like a warrant for your arrest. Everyone is coming for you. Northern Illinois is definitely going to want to knock us off, especially after they knocked off Nebraska two weeks ago, and they’re coming off a bye week, too, so they’re going to have a lot of motivation coming in here. They’re a really good, athletic, physical team and we can’t overlook anyone on our schedule because you know any given Saturday, anything can happen.”
Northern Illinois is coming off a 21-17 upset at Nebraska. A year ago, SDSU beat the Huskies 42-28 in DeKalb.
Here are some things to look for when the Aztecs step out of MWC play to host the Huskies:
NO DELAYS, PLEASE: There was an 88-minute lightning delay during SDSU’s victory at Air Force last week, which came with the Aztecs trailing 9-0. The previous Saturday at home, there was a 25-minute delay against then-No. 19 Stanford when most of the stadium lights went out while the Aztecs were driving for the eventual go-ahead score.
“That’s a bad luck deal if you ask me. Now, it turned out OK,” SDSU coach Rocky Long said. “You hate to see a drive stopped with that kind of momentum. Then last week, we benefited from a lightning strike. I think it really helped us. So does that mean that the next one is going to go against us again? I don’t know what’s going to happen this week. Hopefully we won’t have any more of those this year.”
NO HEISMAN HYPE: So far, there’s no Heisman campaign for Penny, the nation’s second-leading rusher. Last year, the Aztecs pushed for D.J. Pumphrey, who was on his way to breaking the NCAA career rushing record.
“Well, last year we thought we had a legitimate candidate because of past performance,” Long said. “This year we didn’t have a legitimate candidate because he was the backup running back last year so why would you have a pre-arranged campaign for him? And it seems to work better since we didn’t do it. We thought he was going to be that good, obviously, but if you don’t have a record to show that he was that good in the past, there’s no reason to pre-hype him and it seems to be working better that we didn’t pre-hype him.”
PENNY: The senior won the Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Week Award for a record fourth straight week. Although he had a season-low 128 yards in the 28-24 victory against Air Force, he tied a career high with three touchdowns, including the game-winning 53-yard run with 5:39 left.
Penny averages 179 yards, second to Stanford’s Bryce Love, who averages 196.8.
THE HUSKIES: Northern Illinois CB Shawun Lurry had an 87-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter of the upset at Nebraska, tying the school record with his second career pick-six. Jawuan Johnson followed with a 25-yard pick-six for a 14-0 lead.
“We know them pretty well because we played them last year,” Long said. “They’re big and strong up front and they’re very, very talented and skilled at the positions they need to be talented and skilled at and there’s a reason they’re one of the non-Power Five schools with the best record and not long ago they played in the Orange Bowl. It’s a very good program that’s run by a very good coaching staff and they’ve got talented players. That’s why they’re good.”
THE STADIUM: This will be the first game since San Diego County Credit Union took over naming rights at what had been known as Qualcomm Stadium. The Huskies haven’t played SDSU in San Diego since 1971, but played in the Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in 2006, 2013 and 2015.