By W.G. Ramirez special for the Las Vegas Bowl
LAS VEGAS — As San Diego State pulled away for its 34-10 victory over Houston in the 25th Las Vegas Bowl, a second victory for the Mountain West Conference on the opening day of the bowl season became an afterthought.
With 11:49 left in the game, the storyline changed as senior running back Donnel Pumphrey ran 15 yards down San Diego State’s sideline, and became the NCAA career rushing leader. And has his teammates embraced him, tears ran faster than he did for 115 yards against the nation’s No. 3 rushing defense.
“I was more emotional when I broke the record, with my teammates, than I was with my family (after the game),” said Pumphrey, who surpassed Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne as the leading rusher in college football history and finished his career at San Diego State with a total of 6,405 yards. “It hit me at that point. Just to be able to celebrate with my teammates is amazing.
“I’m honestly blessed to be around these guys right here and just to experience all this with my teammates and my family and my friends – it’s amazing.”
Pumphrey – who had -1 yard after the first quarter – finished with 115 yards rushing and a touchdown to earn most valuable player honors in a game San Diego State (11-3) was installed as an underdog.
“We were told for the last two weeks on how good Houston was,” Aztecs coach Rocky Long said. “‘They beat No. 3 Oklahoma! They beat No. 4 Louisville!’ I mean, that’s a big-time football team and it was like we didn’t belong here. But I guess that was wrong.”
After a sluggish first half that saw Houston (9-4) open a 10-0 lead, the Aztecs made a minor adjustment in the trenches, which gave their rushing game some breathing room, and they scored 34 unanswered points en route to the win.
Pumphrey’s senior total of 2,133 yards rushing ranks in the top 10 for an FBS player. Teammate Rashaad Penny finished with a mere 23 yards rushing, but it sent him over the 1,000-yard plateau, giving him 1,018 for the season, marking the first time in NCAA history one team had a 2,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard rusher in the same season.
“And that’s a credit to our players,” Long said. “I think our coaches do a nice job of evaluating, I think our coaches do a nice job of coaching, but guess what: coaches don’t make plays; coaches do not win games.
“Coaches can lose games, but coaches don’t win games – players win games. These guys win the games. All we have to do is make sure they’re in shape, they have the right attitude and give them an honest chance to win and then they go out and win.”
And while Pumphrey was doing his part to give his teammates a chance to win, San Diego State’s defense dominated the Cougars over the last three quarters. After gaining 102 yards on offense in the first quarter, Houston managed to gain just 152 yards the rest of the way.
The Aztecs intercepted Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., four times, including Ron Smith’s 54-yard interception return.
“Their tempo was pretty fast, but the interceptions killed them,” San Diego state linebacker Calvin Munson said. “We just kept feeding off it. We were blitzing them from all sides, I felt like they started not being able to handle all the pressure and we started getting sacks and picks. It was a lot of fun, I had a blast out there.”
San Diego State wideout Curtis Anderson also caught a 28-yard touchdown pass – his only reception of the game – from Christian Chapman, while Juwan Washington ran for a touchdown, and placekicker John Baron booted two field goals for the Aztecs.
“Our team played very, very well today,” Long said. “Not only did we play well and beat them, I think we’re a Top 25 team. I think that people maybe know that we’re a pretty good program now that might not have.”