How SDSU football made it to an October 24 season opener

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Members of the 2019 SDSU football team pose in celebration with the Old Oil Can trophy after the Aztecs’ 17-7 victory over Fresno State on Nov. 15, 2019 at SDCCU Stadium. The win over the Bulldogs marked the first time the Old Oil Can was in SDSU’s possession since 2016.

by Amber Salas, Senior Staff Writer

On Oct. 24, San Diego State football will kick off for their first football game of the season against UNLV at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. Aztec fans, players and coaches look forward to this game, as football in the fall was out of the question at one point. 

Enduring change is one phrase that could best describe this football season. 

“Our student-athletes, they’ve been through some ups and downs,” head coach Brady Hoke said. “From being paused at one time to how many guys can be on the field to, ‘Okay, now we’re 11-on-11 and we’re being physical,’ and just getting to this point and how they handled themselves throughout and I’m really proud of them and for this senior class.” 

Many changes have occurred since now and Aug. 10 when the Mountain West Conference made the decision to postpone fall sports. At that point, the only option to keep players and coaches safe was to reconsider playing football in the spring. 

After roughly a month-and-a-half of limited outdoor activity like lifting weights on the practice field, the Aztecs received good news. On Sept. 24, the MWC reversed its original decision and decided that football would kickoff on Oct. 24. The new schedule would consist of eight conference games and a conference championship on Dec. 19. 

Given all the uncertainties that at one point surrounded this football season, Aztec football players know how special their season opener is to them. 

“It will feel a little bit more special because of the circumstances we went through to get here,” senior defensive back Dwayne Johnson Jr. said. 

Senior defensive back Tariq Thompson said he remembers the way he felt when the season was originally postponed. The thought of losing his senior season was hard to wrap his mind around. 

“Almost losing the season and just losing my senior year was heartbreaking,” Thompson said. “I mean, I grew up in San Diego, I grew up watching SDSU football, my dad’s an alumni, all my family goes to the games and it would have been sad to not to be able to play my last year here at SDSU and miss out on the opportunity to play with my brothers, who, I mean, I’ve developed a bond (with) for the last four years that will last a lifetime.”

Securing a deal with Quest Diagnostics for rapid testing three times a week was key in the conference deciding that football would be able to play this fall. Testing is required for all student-athletes, coaches and trainers. 

The Aztecs endured several bumps in the road including a spike of COVID-19 cases in the College Area that led to a two week pause for athletics early last month.  

Once returning from the two-week pause, the Aztecs then had to practice in limited numbers, host virtual meetings and watch film over Zoom. Players and coaches participated in a non-traditional fall camp consisting of drills and work with the sleds and bags.  

Although fall camp wasn’t what the Aztecs are used to, junior running back Chance Bell feels the team is prepared thanks to the guidelines that have been in place.  

“It was a little bit different just because we had to break things up into groups until we could all come back to one as a team, which we just did recently,” Bell said. “You couldn’t really turn around without someone giving you some hand sanitizer and things like that. So a different aspect to it, but again, they put us in the best position to be successful. We trust them to keep us safe and we’re ready to play ball.”

Hoke is proud of his team for sticking together and remaining committed to learning over Zoom. 

“I think (Zoom is) a fine way to learn, but I wouldn’t want to have to learn that way,” Hoke said. “So the guys have done a nice job, they’ve stayed together.”

As the Aztecs move forward with the season, they will continue to utilize Zoom for virtual team meetings, as well as utilize space in Peterson Gym and Fowler Athletic Center for in-person meetings. 

No matter how prepared his team is, Hoke said no one has control over the virus and the thought of it spreading on the team lingers in the back of his mind. He stresses communication and accountability as key factors in allowing his team to follow protocols and remain healthy. 

The MWC canceled its first game due to COVID-19 on Oct. 20. The conference shared that the week one matchup of New Mexico and Colorado State will not happen via Twitter due to high COVID-19 cases in Bernalillo County, New Mexico. 

Hoke mentioned that the cancellation brings concerns for everyone, but at the end of the day, he needs to focus on his team and the job at hand. 

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned,” Hoke said. “We talk every day with our players about making sure you’re being around your bubble of people that you’ve been around and wearing a mask on campus. We’ve been very fortunate. I think our guys have done a good job. I feel for those kids at New Mexico and Colorado State, but I gotta worry about the Aztecs, so that’s where my concerns are.” 

Due to the nature of the MWC playing an eight-game schedule over the course of eight weeks, there is no extra time to make up this game. 

Senior offensive tackle Kyle Spalding said he realizes anything can change in any moment as his team plays football during a pandemic. He will bring a mindset of playing each game like it’s the last opportunity. 

“You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, especially in these times right now and making sure that you treat each game as important as it needs to be,” Spalding said. “You never know if it’s gonna be the last one for a couple weeks or something. So really focusing on what you can control and bringing good energy and good attitude towards it and focusing on each game.” 

Through the entirety of this unprecedented unique season and all the changes that come with it, Johnson Jr. feels that the team has still remained focused on their one goal. 

“One thing we’ve tried to maintain here is we keep our mindset,” Johnson Jr. said. “We have one mindset, one goal — Win 22 and play physical — so whether there’s fans or not or energy in the stands or not, we’ve got to bring energy ourselves.” 

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. this Saturday. Aztec fans can tune in to CBS Sports Network for their broadcast of the game to start this unprecedented Mountain West football season.