Local stars part of Aztecs rebirth

The upset alert was interrupting televised college football games everywhere.

In its bid to break into the BCS title game, TCU was down two touchdowns in a mid-November game against Mountain West Conference opponent San Diego State, and former Morro Bay High standout Jerome Long was right in the middle of it.

Long, a junior defensive tackle for the Aztecs, jumped on a first-quarter fumble by Horned Frogs quarterback Andy Dalton in the end zone to put San Diego State up 14-0, and the highlight was immediately beamed to households across the country.

Long had his first touchdown, friends began sending off text messages and TCU was slipping in the polls with every echo of his name.

“I didn’t want to be all boastful about it,” Long said. “I really didn’t do much on that play. I just got good penetration.”

Though the fumble was initially caused by a blindside hit from Aztecs linebacker Rob Andrews, it was a signature moment in the college career of Long, who — along with former Atascadero High standout and redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Tenhaeff — has helped contribute to the rebirth of the San Diego State program.

“It put us up 14-nothing and, really, you recover fumbles in the end zone because of your effort to the ball and his effort to the quarterback,” Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke said. “Obviously, it was a great point in the game for us.”

In only his second year with the program, Hoke has San Diego State back in a bowl for the first time since 1998, when former Cal Poly quarterback Ted Tollner coached the Aztecs to a 20-13 Las Vegas Bowl loss to North Carolina.

San Diego State (8-4) hosts Navy (9-3) in Thursday’s Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium looking for its first bowl victory since beating Boston University 28-7 in the 1969 Pasadena Bowl under legendary coach Don Coryell.

The Aztecs were unable to knock off MWC champion TCU (12-0), which came back and then held on for a 40-35 victory in the Horned Frogs’ closest game of the year, but San Diego State has made huge strides since Long’s freshman season in 2008, when the program suffered its second consecutive loss to Cal Poly.

At 6-foot-5 and now up to 290 pounds, Long has 28 tackles, six for loss, and 11⁄2 sacks this season in addition to his fumble recovery for a touchdown.

“I coach the defensive line, and I get to be with Jerome and have that privilege every day,” Hoke said, “and he’s a guy who I think all his best football continues to be ahead of him a guy who played with a lot of emotion and cares about his team.”

Tenhaeff has gotten into the act, too.

With 26 tackles, two sacks and his own fumble recovery, the 6-2, 210-pounder has contributed as a backup at two linebacking spots and had a signature moment of his own, a late sack against Wyoming that helped seal a 48-38 win over the Cowboys in late October.

Tenhaeff took down Wyoming quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels on fourth-and-12 near midfield for a 15-yard loss, allowing the Aztecs to run out the clock.

“They needed the first down to keep the drive going to get back in the game,” Tenhaeff said. “I was able to come free and get a sack. It was just a good play call, and I ended up in the right spot.”

Both Long and Tenhaeff will be around next season when the San Diego State-Cal Poly rivalry resumes in a matchup of the only two Division I teams that currently boast multiple Tribune All-County first-team honorees.

“It’s definitely great to get to know Nick,” Long said, “to develop a friendship with him and get to talk about A-town-Morro Bay. Morro Bay’s obviously better. It’s more of just love that we’re both on the Aztecs.”

Whereas Long got onto the field as a true freshman, Tenhaeff, a former County Player of Year known mostly for his exploits as a running back, has had a less stable route to the lineup.

He committed to former coach Chuck Long before Long’s firing after the 2008 season. Though Hoke had very little film of Tenhaeff as a linebacker, he honored the prior regime’s scholarship offer to the former Greyhound.

Tenhaeff was even sidelined for his entire redshirt season because of a pre-existing shoulder injury from high school. He really didn’t start practicing as a collegiate linebacker until after that healed.

Despite all of the above, the marriage has worked out.

“I know the school had made an obligation, and we’re committed to it,” Hoke said. “He’s a guy that I can say I’m glad the school stayed with him.”