By Derek Gonzales
Make a Play.
That’s been the mantra for New Mexico State football since head coach Doug Martin took over in 2013. After growing pains and heartbreaking losses, Martin may have finally gotten the program to break through with a 32-31 win over the University of New Mexico in front of 17,852 fans inside Aggie Memorial Stadium.
UNM (1-1) came into the game fresh off a week one win against South Dakota, and retuned the majority of team’s starters from last year’s seven-win squad.
The Lobos came into the game as 12-point favorites, and without AP All-American Larry Rose III in the backfield, it was expected that the Lobos would roll out of Las Cruces with their fifth consecutive win against the Aggies, but Martin and the Aggies had other plans.
UNM got off to a quick start with an 8-play, 75-yard drive that was capped off with a Teriyon Gipson 12-yard touchdown run. With UNM running the triple option, it appeared that NMSU would be in for a long night after they struggled to stop the run and conceited 289 yards to UTEP the week before.
NMSU (1-1) got the ball back and responded. Junior quarterback Tyler Rogers, who was knocked out the game against the Lobos last year, led the Aggies down the field. Rogers went 3-for-6 for 34 yards while converting a fourth-and-two on an option keeper at the UNM 46-yard-line to keep the drive alive before Parker Davidson made a 45-yard field goal to bring the score to 7-3.
On the second possession for UNM, Lobo quarterback Austin Apodaca converted a third-down conversion with a 17-yard completion to Dameon Gamblin to keep the drive alive. A roughing-the-passer penalty on the next play set the Lobos up at the NMSU 23-yard-line, and Apodaca faked the inside dive, got outside the collapsing Aggie defense and dove for the pylon for a 23-yard touchdown, extending the lead to 14-3 UNM.
For every punch UNM threw at the Aggies, it seemed like NMSU had an answer all night. The Aggies drove the ball 52 yards after the second Lobo touchdown, but more importantly, gave the defense a breather with the 11-play drive that ended with a Davidson 41-yard field goal. UNM is most effective when they are controlling the time of possession with their running game, keeping their defense off the field, and steadily moving the chains, and NMSU did not allow them to do that.
“They [NMSU] did a great job. They definitely weren’t going to give up the play,” said UNM head coach Bob Davie. “They sat there and made us work for everything we got. We couldn’t get explosive, so we had to grind it out.”
Right before the half, the Aggie offense headed onto the field with only 21 seconds left, and the Lobos had the momentum after taking the air out of the stadium with a methodical 13-play, 51-yard drive that resulted in a Jason Sanders field goal to make it 17-9.
Rogers immediately put the pressure on UNM by completing a 49-yard strike down the seam to Royce Caldwell to put the Aggies at the UNM 20. Rogers then failed to connect with Jaleel Scott, but a pass interference call moved the Aggies up the UNM 5. The Rogers-Scott tandem would connect on the next play for the Aggie touchdown, but a missed extra point by Davidson would make the halftime score 17-15.
“They were excited and they scored at the half, it kind of got the momentum going,” said coach Martin. “That was a major shift, when they came into the locker room, you didn’t have to tell them a whole lot. They were excited in that locker room and they believed they were going to come out and win this football game.”
The second half was a see-saw affair that included NMSU doing things that they haven’t done in the past to win games. The special teams unit was outstanding. Davidson went 4-for-4 kicking field goals, and freshman punter Peyton Theisler saved the Aggies when after a bad snap, he chased the ball into the end zone and somehow managed to still punt the ball off with Lobo defenders closing in on him. It saved the Aggies two points.
UNM was able to take advantage of a short field at the beginning of the third quarter and took a 24-15 lead. It started to look like the Davidson missed extra point at the end of the first half would come back to haunt the Aggies.
Midway through the 3rd quarter, NMSU began a drive at their own 37. After a Xavier Hall rush for no gain, the second down play caused a defensive pass interference, moving the Aggies into opponents’ territory. 13 plays later, Hall punched it in the end zone. Hall, the Las Cruces High graduate, won his first rivalry game in his last chance as a senior.
“This is our turning point. If there is going to be one, it’s going to be tonight,” said Hall, who led the Aggies in rushing with 61 yards on 11 carries.
Martin was on the same page with Hall in thinking that this could be a program-altering win.
“When we come back for [Louisiana] Lafayette [October 1], that stadium has to have the same energy it had tonight. If we can, this will be the game that we look back and we’ll say ‘that was the one that turned the program around.’”
After a Terrill Hanks interception of Apodaca that gave the Aggies momentum and the ball at the UNM 27 with 8:37 left in the game, Rogers and the Aggie offense began a drive that could not only take the lead, but could put NMSU in a position to knock off their in-state rival for the first time since running backs coach and former Aggie quarterback Matt Christian led the Aggies to a 42-28 win in Albuquerque in 2011.
An illegal block pushed the Aggies back to a second-and-17 when Rogers dumped off a pass to Hall, who made a few defenders miss and gained 14 yards. Hall then got the carry on third-and-three and got the first down. With third-and-two at the UNM 8, Rogers threw a fade to the back right pylon for Greg Hogan, who wrestled off the UNM corner and caught the ball to give the Aggies the first lead of the season at 32-31 with 5:46 left.
New Mexico was driving down the field for a potential game-winning field goal when Apodaca was sacked on a second-and-ten by Jassavia Reese and Derek Watson.
On third-and-15, the pass from Apodaca was nearly intercepted, and on fourth
down, the Aggies stopped UNM three yards short of the sticks, clinching an Aggie win.
“That’s what a rival game is supposed to be, down to the wire,” said coach Martin. “I’m really proud of our team. They just wouldn’t give up. It was a great team win for our fans and for the students of the university.”