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Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006 | They won with decisive plays made by their No. 3 quarterback, although there was reason to believe he was really the No. 2 and climbing as far back as spring football.

They won with 142 yards rushing from a backup running back, who was so lightly recruited that colleges in his home state of Florida overlooked him as he came West for a scholarship opportunity.

And, don’t forget, San Diego State’s Kevin Craft, the above-mentioned quarterback, and Atiyyah Henderson, the running back, are both redshirt freshmen.

Football teams lose games when they’re riddled by injuries as San Diego State was to start the season under first-year coach Chuck Long. But football programs win games when they overcome those injuries with young backups stepping up to fill roles under the teaching of their head coach. That’s especially true when that win comes against a stable program such as Air Force as it did for the Aztecs with a dramatic 19-12 win on Saturday night.

SDSU, now 1-5, was desperate for any kind of win, but providing Long with his first win against Air Force was a much bigger statement of the state of the team than if that first win came this week against Cal Poly, a Division I-AA school that on Saturday plays at Qualcomm Stadium. Cal Poly is a strong program for its level and won’t be an easy win for the Aztecs, but Air Force came to San Diego with a 3-0 record in Mountain West Conference play and one of its two non-conference losses was by one point to Tennessee.

The primary reason the Aztecs came together after a slow start was their coach didn’t panic. Throughout the mounting injuries and losses, Long’s steady hand kept the team from wobbling.

“Before we left for the field I told the players that I believed in them,” Long said. “I have never wavered from that thought, and it paid off with a victory over Air Force. The team gutted it out and a victory like this can play a large part in team morale.”

Long’s steady hand was firmly on the program during the team’s embarrassing loss at San Jose State. He suspended two players for personal fouls during the game. That got the attention of his players.

His steady hand also has been noticed by the parents of recruits attending games. The Utah game was another low point, but parents remarked to Long they were impressed with the coaching staff’s demeanor on the sideline. In other words, they kept coaching instead of throwing headsets.

A losing record doesn’t help recruiting, but it can be overcome. After all, it didn’t stop the Aztecs in recent years from landing some of the heavily recruited players that are on the roster now.

Another significant sign Long is establishing a program can be identified by the post-game comments from Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry. When Air Force suffers an upset loss, DeBerry has been known to criticize his players more than praise his opponent. That wasn’t the case after Saturday’s game.

“I really salute the San Diego State team and Chuck Long on his first win,” DeBerry said. “He and his staff did a tremendous job utilizing their open date before us. We had to scratch our heads and scrap a little bit.”

Well, he seems to feel he had to mention the bye week, but for DeBerry it’s still a major concession.

In recent years, SDSU didn’t have a backup quarterback to carry the team if the starter went down. For example, if Adam Hall stayed healthy in 2003, the Aztecs would have gone to a bowl game.

It can even be said some years the Aztecs didn’t have a legitimate starting quarterback. Brian Russell was the last quarterback to lead SDSU to a bowl game in 1998, and he didn’t finish his career as a quarterback. He was converted to safety, a position he now plays for the Cleveland Browns.

A bowl game is still unlikely this year – the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl is hoping for at least five more wins – but San Diego State might have won more than a football game Saturday night. The Aztecs might have won a future for their football program.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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