By Derek Gonzales
The New Mexico State Aggie football team opened up their 2016 season with a 38-22 loss to the UTEP Miners Saturday evening at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
NMSU (0-1) came into the game with question marks at key positions. Junior quarterback Tyler Rogers did start after there were questions surrounding his status, and struggled for the Aggies, going just 17-of-41 with 206 yards passing with a rushing touchdown and no interceptions. AP All-American third-teamer Larry Rose III was inactive while he’s still recovering from a sports hernia injury, and last year’s leading tackler, Derek Ibekwe, was also inactive with a sports hernia.
UTEP (1-0) won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, which showed UTEP head coach Sean Kugler’s confidence in his defense, especially without Rose in the Aggie backfield. It may have set the tone for the evening, as the Aggies struggled offensively for most of the night, culminating with just 345 yards of total offense against the Miner defense.
“We were not clicking tonight in the first half. We got things going in the second half, took care of the ball really well, and didn’t have any turnovers so that’s a positive,” said head coach Doug Martin, who fell to 0-4 in his career against UTEP. “Defensively, we played pretty good the first half but we just didn’t help our defense offensively.”
After an NMSU three-and-out on their second drive of the game, UTEP’s Aaron Jones broke off a 37-yard run on the first play of the drive to put the Miners ahead 7-0. Jones, an El Paso native, had a career night, rushing the ball 31 times for 266 yards, which was the third-most single game rushing yards in UTEP history.
“He [Jones] is a great [running] back, and he is going to be an NFL player. It’s hard to get him down,” said Martin.
NMSU was able to move the ball on the next possession, and were able to put together a 74-yard drive that resulted in a first-and-goal at the UTEP 1-yard line. Rogers ran for 28 yards on the drive, but the Aggies were unable to punch it in in the three opportunities they had on the goal line, and settled for an 18-yard field goal from sophomore Parker Davidson to cut the Miner lead to 7-3.
When the first quarter concluded, Rogers was just 3-of-11 for 45 yards, and the Aggies had been penalized four times, one of which kept a UTEP drive alive and culminated in points. Rogers did display great decision-making, and he was able to make plays on his feet to keep drives alive.
“He [Rogers] certainly had a lot of distractions and that was self-inflicted. He has to take care of himself better and smarter, but hopefully he will learn from that,” said Martin of Rogers’ legal situation that gained a lot of attention. “He has learned a valuable lesson and he has been very responsible and accepted his responsibilities and hopefully gets better moving forward.”
UTEP had the ball when the second quarter began, and were in the process of taking the Aggies on a long drive. On the drive, UTEP converted three consecutive third-down attempts before finally running out of luck on a third-and-goal, settling on a Jay Maddox 23-yard field goal to put the Miners up 10-3. The drive was 14-plays, 66 yards and it really was the beginning of the Miners being able to enforce their smash-mouth style of football that has been the culprit of the Sean Kugler era at UTEP.
In the second quarter, NMSU had the ball for only 3:45 of the quarter, and UTEP gave the Aggies a heavy dosage of Jones and the running game. UTEP reeled off 17 points and NMSU just had 24 total yards in the second quarter as the teams headed off into the locker room with the Miners leading 24-3.
In the third quarter, UTEP punter Alan Luna pinned NMSU on their own one-yard-line for the second time in the game midway through the period. Rogers was able to lead the Aggies on a 12-play drive, 99-yard drive that was capped off with a Rogers four-yard touchdown run to close the gap to 24-10. Rogers led the Aggies in rushing, gaining 63 yards on nine carries.
The Aggie defense was unable to get a timely stop once the offense started clicking, but the unit still looked much improved and more aggressive with new defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani leading them. The 13 tackles-for-loss were an improvement for a team had 56 tackles-for-loss all of last season.
NMSU did have a chance in the fourth quarter with possession to possibly cut the lead to eight, but the drive stalled out at the UTEP 30-yard line and the Miners took over on downs and ran out the clock. Still, the Aggies were competitive on the road without their star running back, and will look to build on the positives going forward.
“Our kids played hard, they’re going to do that now, and they will get better,” said Martin. “We are going to win football games if we continue to take care of the ball like we did tonight and continue to play with that toughness. We will be okay.”