San Diego State’s move to Big East to end run of annual games vs. UNLV

When San Diego State visits the Thomas & Mack Center or UNLV takes its basketball team to the Aztecs’ home court in Viejas Arena, the gyms sizzle with intensity like a Las Vegas summer.

However, when the football teams meet – whether at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium or San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, site of Saturday’s 5 p.m. game – apathy replaces attitude, with waves of empty seats filling both sites.

Fans might not care much about the series, but it means plenty to the players and schools. Now the teams prepare to meet for what might be the final time. San Diego State will take its football – and football team – to the Big East Conference next year.

Aztecs coach Rocky Long said he hopes his team’s departure doesn’t mean the end of the rivalry.

“I think when you have schools fairly close together, in the same proximity, and then playing each other yearly, I think it gets to be a really good rivalry,” Long said. “That’s one thing about going to the Big East that we’re going to lose – a couple of our rivalry games that hopefully we can get them scheduled in the future as nonconference games and continue it on.”

UNLV coach Bobby Hauck was open to playing San Diego State in the future.

“With all that Big East money, they can pay us a lot,” Hauck said.

Though this series doesn’t have the rich tradition – or animosity – of the Rebels’ rivalry with UNR, the teams have played some interesting and meaningful games. Two of UNLV’s top victories, in fact, were against the Aztecs.

In 1996, San Diego State came to Las Vegas chasing the Western Athletic Conference title. UNLV, on a 12-game losing streak, was a four-touchdown underdog.

But Jon Denton passed for 503 yards, and the Rebels survived a missed 35-yard field goal with 13 seconds left to hand the Aztecs a 44-42 defeat.

In 2000, UNLV was making a late push for bowl eligibility, but the Rebels’ chances appeared in doubt when host San Diego State drove deep into their territory late in the game, needing just a field goal to win.

Cornerback Amar Brisco stepped in front of a pass and ran 72 yards for a touchdown with 52 seconds left to give UNLV a 31-24 victory. The Rebels won the following week at Hawaii, 34-32, to make it to the Las Vegas Bowl.

The Rebels, though, know what heartbreak at the hands of the Aztecs feels like. They went into the 2008 season finale at 5-6, needing to beat one-win San Diego State to become bowl eligible.

UNLV played poorly in a humiliating 42-21 defeat, keeping it out of the postseason yet again. That game also was the closest Mike Sanford came to making the bowl, the defeat probably eventually costing him the job the following year.

Jobs aren’t on the line this week, not yet anyway, but plenty is at stake.

San Diego State (5-3, 3-1 Mountain West Conference) hopes to continue the momentum of a three-game win streak.

UNLV (1-7, 1-2), which has lost three fourth-quarter leads, needs to finish the season strong, though its most telling games occur beginning next week when the schedule softens.

This game, and by extension the rivalry, is especially important to UNLV’s players from California.

“You can definitely tell in the locker room the spirits are high,” said senior cornerback Kenny Brown, from Palmdale, Calif. “A lot of the guys from California are scrapping for tickets to get their families out there, so this game definitely means a lot to us in that locker room.”

Senior offensive tackle Yusef Rodgers, from Van Nuys, Calif., said he received recruiting attention from the Aztecs and participated in one of their summer camps.

“Every year, it seems like it’s a really physical game,” he said. “It’s one we definitely mark on our calendar.”

■ TV UPDATE - Saturday’s game will be televised locally on 8 News NOW Plus (Cox 128).

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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