Stanford’s visit to San Diego State in the nightcap of Week 3 action marks one of the most important regular-season college football games ever played in the city of San Diego.
Despite a loss last week at rival USC, Stanford arrives on Montezuma Mesa with a Top 20 ranking and a running back in Bryce Love putting up eye-popping numbers. Perennial Pac-12 championship contenders under head coach David Shaw, Stanford is the kind of high-profile, Power Five conference opponent San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said in 2015 was “afraid” to take on a road game against a Group of Five team.
One could understand why a Power Five team wouldn’t want to risk a non-conference loss playing an opponent like San Diego State: Just ask Stanford’s Pac-12 counterpart, Arizona State, which lost at home to the Aztecs last week, 30-20. And the biggest risk comes from San Diego State running back, Rashaad Penny.
Penny went off for more than 200 yards rushing against the Sun Devils, 353 all-purpose, and scored touchdowns on a 95-yard run; a 99-yard kickoff return; and a 33-yard reception.
“He’s got great balance,” said Arizona State head coach Todd Graham. “He’s hard to tackle. We knew he was a heckuva a returner…but he’s just an all-around back. He’s the real deal.”
Shaw said Stanford took this date on because those in the program knew it would be a challenge. Likewise, Shaw knows the challenge Rashaad Penny specifically poses the Cardinal.
“Every game you look at, he finds a way to make plays,” Shaw said. “Combination of size and speed and strength, it’s impressive.”
Penny’s all-around effort against Arizona State really showcased his complete game after having put up impressive numbers last year, albeit in a No. 2 capacity behind Donnel Pumphrey. In showing off his full repertoire, Rashaad Penny looks reminiscent of his former teammate — if not of 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up, Christian McCaffrey.
Like McCaffrey, and now Love, at Stanford, Penny is building upon a recent and impressive legacy of running backs. Stanford went from Toby Gerhart, to Stepfan Taylor, to Tyler Gaffney, to McCaffrey and Love; Rashaad Penny follows Pumphrey, who came after Ronnie Hillman and Adam Muema.
“There’s a mentality that your program starts to have, where you take a lot of pride,” Shaw said. “It cant’ just be the runner. It has to be all the guys up front, it has to be the fullbacks, it has to be the tight ends, it has to be the receivers blocking downfield. You take pride in giving a guy an opportunity to make big plays.
“And, of course, you have to recruit the talent,” Shaw added.
Penny’s indeed a rare talent. A 3-star recruit from Los Angeles-area Norwalk High School, Penny’s the latest among a stable of hidden gems Long and his staff mined from the talent-rich Southern California pool.
He’s like predecessor Hillman in that regard, who came to SDSU out of La Habra. However, Penny is on the way to establishing himself as the Aztecs’ best back in a quarter-century; better even than NCAA rushing record holder Pumphrey.
A big night against Stanford is a huge step in that direction for Penny. It’s also arguably the most important regular-season game played in San Diego in years, fulfilling the promise of a similar date that awaiting in 1992 but didn’t come to fruition.
Twenty-five years ago, the biggest regular-season college football game in the history of America’s Finest City…didn’t happen.
The No. 1-ranked, defending national champion Miami Hurricanes visited San Diego State on Nov. 28, 1992, the last weekend of the regular season. The contest was unremarkable in that the ‘Canes were expected to get little resistance from a 5-4-1 Aztecs bunch on their presumed way to the Sugar Bowl.
However, I remember the hype distinctly: This game was to settle the Heisman Trophy debate where few ever went: on the field.
On one side was Miami quarterback Gino Torretta. Torretta registered so-so statistics in 1992, but competently managed the Hurricanes offense to a 10-0 record. Miami’s defense was the reason it was contending for a second consecutive national championship, but Torretta was the team’s face — and thus, the safe choice.
On the other side was San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk, whose team hadn’t achieved at the same level as Torretta’s Hurricanes, but who individually embodied the greatness requisite of winning a Heisman with 1,630 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns on the season.
Faulk rushed for 154 yards against the national championship-winning ‘Canes the season prior. He sealed the NCAA record at the time for freshman rushing yards, and his output was the most The U had surrendered in more than four years.
A similar performance in ’92 may well have won Faulk the Heisman; he lost to Torretta, 1,400 points to 1,080, in the final balloting. Faulk finished runner-up despite missing the Miami game with a sprained knee.
Indeed, the opportunity for Marshall Faulk to put San Diego State football on the map in an incomparable way was denied. Miami cruised to a win before losing the national championship to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
When Stanford enters Qualcomm Stadium Saturday night, Rashaad Penny won’t stand in a spotlight as bright as the one that eluded Marshall Faulk 25 years ago. But the Cardinal do represent perhaps the best chance for an Aztec to state his Heisman Trophy case since then.