We have to find a way to win this and get us back to even, three wins in the league and another step closer to bowl eligibility. —Utah State head coach Matt Wells
LOGAN — Normally, heading down to Albuquerque to play a conference road game against New Mexico wouldn't be viewed as a positive for the Utah State football team.
But considering that the Aggies (4-5 overall, 2-3 in the Mountain West) head into Saturday afternoon's game against the Lobos (3-5, 1-4) with a 2-0 conference road record versus a 0-3 mark at home, a visit to the Land of Enchantment might be just what Utah State needs.
"We have to find a way to win this and get us back to even, three wins in the league and another step closer to bowl eligibility," USU head coach Matt Wells said. " There are a few guys that said something to me about it that we’re 2-0 on the road in the league. Hopefully, that continues. We have played well on the road this year, so we’ll look forward to that."
With three games remaining, the Aggies need two victories in order to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2015. Heading into this weekend's action, the easiest route to six victories would appear to come in USU's next two games against New Mexico — the last-place team in the Mountain Division — and Hawaii, the fifth-place team in the West Division.
Following next week's bye week, Utah State will host the Warriors (3-5, 1-4) on Nov. 18, then wrap up the regular season on Nov. 25 at Air Force (4-4, 3-2).
But while the Lobos, who have lost three straight games, would appear vulnerable right now, Bob Davie's triple-option attack is always difficult to prepare for, and the Aggies have lost to New Mexico the past two years by a total of four points.
"This is a unique week in terms of scheming and playing, when you play the option and you play a defense that pressures as much as they do and as much as they have against us the last few years," Wells noted. "That’s just who they are. They do that against everybody."
After winning nine games and a share of the Mountain Division title in 2016, the Lobos certainly aren't who they were a year ago. New Mexico, which led the nation in rushing last year at 343.3 yards per game, is currently third in the Mountain West in rushing offense at 234.5 ypg and next-to-last in scoring offense at 22.4 ppg.
The loss of star running back Teriyon Gipson, who averaged 8.8 yards per carry last year, has certainly hurt UNM's offense, as has an injury to Lamar Jordan earlier this season. The senior quarterback was nailed by Boise State defensive end Chase Hatada (who was subsequently ejected for targeting) during the Lobos' 28-14 loss at Boise on Sept. 14, and he hasn't been the same since.
Last week during UNM's 42-3 loss at Wyoming, Tevaka Tuioti ended up starting at quarterback for the first time, but the redshirt freshman completed just 8 of 17 passes for 47 yards and three interceptions. Jordan came off the bench to complete 2 of 8 passes with two more interceptions, while rushing for just eight yards on eight attempts.
“I have no idea what they’re going to do at QB. I don’t know. I have no idea," Wells said of the Lobos. "We’ve certainly seen Lamar. Lamar’s a good quarterback. We’ve seen him several years now. He’s played a long time, it seems like. Tevaka Tuioti can throw it, but I have no idea what they’re going to do. We’re going to prepare for their offense and their scheme and what they do."
Junior running back Tyrone Owens leads the Lobos in rushing this season with 477 yards and three touchdowns on 86 carries, while senior tailback Richard McQuarley is close behind with 80 carries for 437 yards and six TDs.
Defensively, the Lobos are fourth in the MW against the run (138.6 ypg), but injuries in the secondary have hurt their pass defense (eighth at 233.1 ypg) this season.
The Aggies come into Saturday's game third in the conference in scoring offense (30.6 ppg) and fifth in pass offense (235.8 ypg) despite a rough outing against Boise State last weekend. Utah State lost 41-14 and were outgained in total yardage by the Broncos 533-279, and Wells put the blame for the lopsided defeat on his own shoulders.
"I think they were ready to play emotionally, but when you don’t go out and play well the first two series of the game on either side and it’s 14-0, then something’s wrong," Wells said. "There were communication errors. There was some technique stuff on defense. I’m going to take responsibility, and I’ll certainly shoulder all of it when we lose.”