ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) A resilient Utah State is set to square off with UTEP and its run-heavy offense in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday as the college football postseason gets underway.
This season, the Aggies (9-4) have been hampered by injuries and were forced to play four quarterbacks. Somehow, their offensive line got better and all others started executing to get the Aggies within one win of double-digit victories, head coach Matt Wells said.
”It’s real simple,” Wells told reporters Friday. ”Our receivers have stepped up. We’ve run the ball better.”
And Wells had to use all his resources. Utah State has five players who have thrown at least two touchdown passes this season. In addition to the four quarterbacks, wide receiver Ronald Butler has thrown two touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, the Miners (7-5) are expected to use their aggressive running game to try to wear down the Aggies defense. Anchored by Aaron Jones, who is 23rd nationally in rushing yards per game (112.1), UTEP head coach Sean Kugler said he expects a very physical game since he knows Utah State will try to stack the line.
”It’s very difficult to run the ball on them,” Kugler said. ”They can get after the quarterback.”
UTEP QB Jameill Showers said the Miners will stick to their strengths so they can open up some play-action options. ”We’ve responded to challenges the season,” Showers said.
But how well UTEP runs the ball will depend on Utah State’s defense, led by brothers Zach and Nick Vigil, linebackers who have combined for 181 tackles.
”They are not the biggest guys but they do break a lot of tackles,” said senior Zach Vigil, who is tied at 12th nationally in tackles for loss with 11.2 per game. ”They run hard. They don’t stop their feet.”
Utah State is 3-5 in bowl games and is making its fourth straight bowl game appearance. The Aggies won the Poinsettia Bowl last year, beating Northern Illinois 21-14.
UTEP has a 5-8 record in bowl games. The Miners’ last postseason appearance came in the New Mexico Bowl in 2010, where they lost to BYU 52-24.
The Miners are seeking their first bowl game victory since 1967 and are coming off their first winning season since 2005.
Here are things to know when Utah State and UTEP play in the New Mexico Bowl:
GRINDING: Aaron Jones has rushed for 100 yards or more nine times in his career. This season, the sophomore led the Miners with 11 rushing touchdowns and also has three receiving touchdowns. During a game against Middle Tennessee, Jones caught a 72-yard touchdown pass. It was the longest reception of his career.
KICKING IT: Sophomore Aggies kicker Nick Diaz is ranked 29th nationally for field goal percentage (80 percent). That percentage has him tied for seventh all-time in school history for a single season. He leads the team with 78 points and is 12 of 15 on field goals.
AIR ASSAULT: While UTEP’s rushing attack has remained strong, the passing game has been inconsistent. Still, Showers threw for 1,732 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s also joined the team’s ground game by rushing for 288 yards and four scores.
TAKEAWAYS: Utah State has forced 29 turnovers in the last 12 games. Overall, the Aggies rank ninth nationally with 18 interceptions.
BROTHERS IN ARMS: Zach and Nick Vigil have combined for 551 career tackles to rank first at the FBS level among active brothers. They are ahead of Duke’s Kelby and Kyler Brown, who have a combined 327 career tackles.
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