New Mexico State set to end bowl drought vs. Utah State

New Mexico State is heading to a bowl game for the first time since 1960. That alone should be enticing enough to watch how the Aggies fare against the other Aggies — Utah State — in the Arizona Bowl at Tucson, Ariz., on Friday.

The teams define average with each going 6-6 overall and 4-4 in respective conference play during the regular season, but their storylines are not mediocre. New Mexico State’s opponent in its last bowl, the 1960 Sun Bowl in El Paso? None other than Utah State, which lost 20-13.

The Aggies and Aggies meet again in the 2018 regular season, on Sept. 8 at Logan, Utah.

An Arizona Bowl victory by New Mexico State, of the Sun Belt Conference, would secure the program’s first winning season since 2002.

New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia, an alumnus of the Las Cruces, N.M., school, broke down in tears when accepting the Arizona Bowl invitation.

“It made me feel good, not just as the director of athletics, but as an alum,” Moccia said. “I had an outpouring of support from alums and friends in the business. The national exposure that this athletic program, the football program and the institution has received was phenomenal.”

New Mexico State has been part of the bowl experience only three times before. Utah State, of the Mountain West Conference, is appearing in only its 13th bowl game, but its sixth in the last seven years, the fourth under coach Matt Wells.

New Mexico State’s Doug Martin is experiencing his first bowl as a head coach. He has never coached a winning team dating to his tenure at Kent State from 2004 to 2010. His five-year record at New Mexico State is 16-44.

“Utah State is a good football program that has been in bowl games,” said Martin, who was the offensive coordinator at Boston College before he came to Las Cruces in 2013. “They are used to this. Our players aren’t. We have to do a good job preparing our guys.”

New Mexico State has one of the most prolific passing games in the nation, ranking fourth at 352.6 yards per game. Senior Tyler Rogers, who hails from Peoria, Ariz., has passed for 3,825 yards with 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Conversely, Utah State is among the nation’s best at stopping the pass, allowing just 181.8 yards per game, which ranks 17th.

“(Rogers) can really throw the ball,” said Wells, who played against New Mexico State when he was Utah State’s quarterback from 1993 to 1996. “He has a lot of guts. You see him moving around in the pocket, making throws off his back foot, the wrong foot. The wideout, Jaleel Scott, is really tall (6-foot-6) and a 1,000-yard receiver. That’s hard to do these days. They have a really good tailback (senior Larry Rose III) that’s just short of 900 yards in an offense that does not run the ball very well.”

Utah State linebacker Suli Tamaivena leads the team with 109 tackles, including three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss, to go along with two fumble recoveries. Junior linebacker Gaje Ferguson has 86 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss and one forced fumble.

The Utah State secondary features AP second-team All-American Jalen Davis, who has five interceptions, three of them returned for touchdowns, which leads the nation.

Utah State is led by quarterback Jordan Love, whose main function is to not make mistakes. He has completed 104 of 191 pass attempts for 1,377 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions.

Running back LaJuan Hunt leads the team in rushing with 695 yards on 149 carries with 10 touchdowns, and wide receiver Ron’quavion Tarver has 40 receptions for 472 yards with seven touchdowns.

New Mexico State defensive end Cedric Wilcots II and linebacker Dalton Herrington earned All-Sun Belt first-team honors. Wilcots recorded 8.5 sacks on the season, good for second in the conference, to go along with three forced fumbles and six pass breakups. His average of 0.71 sacks per game is tied for 16th in the country.

Herrington led the Sun Belt in tackles with 124, which included 15 for loss and 5.5 sacks. His 124 total tackles are the 10th most in the country amongst FBS players. He also had one interception.