LAS VEGAS — When Donnel Pumphrey arrived at San Diego State from Las Vegas, even head coach Rocky Long was concerned he was too small to play running back.Returning home for his final college game in the Las Vegas Bowl against Houston on Saturday, Pumphrey has more than put those doubts to rest as he needs 108 yards to pass Wisconsin's Ron Dayne for most career rushing yards in NCAA history.
"We don't think about his size anymore because he's a big-time player," Long said.
Pumphrey is listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, leading Aztecs offensive coordinator Jeff Horton to joke that "two Pumphs would equal one Dayne." Horton would know, having coached the bruising Dayne during his Heisman Trophy-winning senior season in 1999 as he finished with 6,397 career yards rushing, though the NCAA did not include statistics from bowl games at the time.
Horton was hoping to get in touch with Dayne by phone this week and have him speak to Pumphrey. The two most prolific rushers in the sport might not share similar builds, Horton said, but they have the same competitive fire.
"A lot of running backs aren't my size," Pumphrey said. "That's why I try to play with a chip on my shoulder and play as big as possible. I try to play like I'm 6-1, 240 or whatnot. That's just how my game is."
Pumphrey has rushed for 6,290 yards in four seasons, including a single-season school record 2,018 yards to lead SDSU (10-3) to its second consecutive conference title. He needs 110 yards to have one of the 10 most-productive rushing seasons in college football, and is the only FBS player with 5,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in his career.
But Pumphrey seems entirely nonplussed by what he has accomplished statistically and what he can still do, leaving his teammates to tout the record.
"The team wants it more than him," running back Rashaad Penny said.
However, the Cougars (9-3) have a rush defense ranked No. 3 in the nation and won't concede the record in their first game under new head coach Major Applewhite. Houston held Big 12 champion Oklahoma to just 70 yards rushing and a Louisville offense with Heisman winner Lamar Jackson to 101 yards on the ground.
Freshman defensive lineman Ed Oliver could not be stopped in those games, with five tackles for a loss, four sacks and a forced fumble in the two marquee wins.
"I don't think he is going to rise to the occasion. He is already at that level," Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. said. "That guy brings it every single play."
More things to watch for as the Cougars and Aztecs face off on the first day of bowl season:
MAJOR'S MARK: The past few weeks have been a blur for Applewhite, Houston's offensive coordinator for the last two seasons before being promoted to replace Tom Herman after he headed to Texas. Applewhite went through a coaching change as a quarterback for the Longhorns, so he understands the turmoil and uncertainty his players have been through.
"What you realize, especially these guys with not just one coaching change but two and three coaching changes, at some point you've got to play for the brand," Applewhite said. "You got to ride for the brand and that's what these guys do. They play for the city, they play for the university."
But Ward expects his teammates to play for Applewhite, seeing his new position as vindicating "all the hard work we put in."
SHINY PENNY: Pumphrey is the headliner in the SDSU backfield, but Penny is just as capable. The junior had 117 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the conference title game, scoring on a fourth-and-one run late in the third quarter that was ultimately the game-winner in the 24-17 triumph over Wyoming.
Penny needs just five yards rushing to top the 1,000-yard mark this season. It would be the first time in NCAA history a team has had a 2,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard rusher in the same season.
GOODBYE GREG: Ward got some time to rest and recuperate during the last few weeks after dealing with shoulder and ankle injuries during the regular season, and Applewhite expects him to be at his best in his Houston finale.
Ward needs two rushing touchdowns to break Bryce Beall's school record of 38, but also ranks 11th in the country in yards passing per game.
This article was written by Dan Greenspan from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.