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Rocky Long is coming home.
No, Long is not known to be a candidate for the vacant University of New Mexico football job, a position he held from 1998-2008. But Long will bring his San Diego State Aztecs to Albuquerque for the 14th annual New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 21.
San Diego State (9-3, 5-3 Mountain West Conference) will face the Central Michigan Chippewas (8-5, 6-2 Mid-American Conference) in a game scheduled for a 12 noon kickoff at Dreamstyle Stadium.
Nor is first-year Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain a stranger to Albuquerque, having coached Colorado State from 2012-14. In one of the most memorable New Mexico Bowl games, his Rams beat Washington State 48-45 in 2013.
This will be the first New Mexico Bowl appearance for both teams. The game has tie-ins with the Mountain West and Conference USA, but though C-USA is sending eight teams to bowl games, the New Mexico Bowl is not one of them.
The Mountain West qualified seven teams, all of which have found a bowl-game home.
Long, a UNM triple-option quarterback from 1969-71, worked as an assistant coach at UNM, Wyoming, with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League, at TCU, Oregon State and UCLA before taking the head-coaching job at his alma mater in 1998. He compiled a 65-69 record at UNM, but took the Lobos to five bowl games – including the first two New Mexico Bowl games – between 2002-07.
After a 4-8 season in 2008, Long left UNM and took a job as defensive coordinator at San Diego State the following season. He was named head coach after Brady Hoke’s departure in 2011 and is 80-38 at SDSU. This will be the Aztecs’ ninth consecutive bowl appearance during his tenure there as head coach.
Long has a 4-9 overall record in bowl games.
McElwain is 2-0 at Dreamstyle Stadium, having coached CSU to a 66-42 victory over UNM in 2013 followed by the New Mexico Bowl victory over Washington State that December.
After compiling a 22-15 record in three seasons at Colorado State, McElwain was fired after going 22-12 in three seasons at Florida. At Central Michigan, he took a team that had gone 1-11 in 2018 and coached them to the MAC title game, where the Chippewas lost 26-21 to Miami (Ohio).
Before coming to Colorado State in 2012, McElwain worked as an assistant at Eastern Washington, Montana State, Louisville, Michigan State, with the Oakland Raiders, at Fresno State and Alabama.
McElwain has a 2-1 record in bowl games. He was rumored to be in the mix for the head coaching job at Missouri — on Monday, Missouri announced the hiring of Appalachian State’s Eliah Drinkwitz — but has said he’ll coach the Chippewas in their bowl game regardless of his coaching future.
On the field, San Diego State brings to the game a defense that ranks fifth nationally in average yards allowed (288.7) and fourth in scoring defense (12.8). Long is renowned for the 3-3-5 defensive alignment he devised as an assistant and brought to UNM in 1998.
Four Aztecs were named to the All-Mountain West defensive first team. Rio Rancho High School graduate Keshawn Banks, a defensive end, was one of two Aztecs who made the defensive second team.
Zach Arnett, a La Cueva graduate who played for Long at UNM, is San Diego State’s defensive coordinator.
Aztecs quarterback Ryan Agnew was 216-of-340 for 2,175 yards and 11 touchdowns with five interceptions. The SDSU running game was not as potent as in the past, led by Juwan Washington with 500 yards on 150 carries. Manzano graduate Jordan Byrd rushed 61 times for 216 yards.
In contrast, Central Michigan ranked third in the MAC and 28th nationally in total offense with an average of 445.6 yards a game. The Chippewas averaged 31.9 points a game, 44th nationally.
Central Michigan running backs Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis combined for more than 2,000 yards rushing this season. The Chippewas were strong on defense as well, ranking 38th nationally with an average yield of 351.7 yards per game.
New Mexico Bowl: San Diego State vs. Central Michigan, 12 p.m. TV: ESPN. Tickets: $25-$40