I just would say that it was about two hours of drama playing out on Twitter, phone calls and text messages, but in the end we’ve very excited to play in the game. But it was stressful, quite a bit, to be honest. —Utah State coach Matt Wells
LOGAN — After a very long week “on the bubble,” the Utah State football team had to endure a couple more excruciating hours Sunday afternoon.
But after an agonizing delay, it was finally announced that the Aggies (6-6) will be headed to Tucson, Arizona, to play in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 29. The game will be held at Arizona Stadium, the 55,675-seat venue on the campus of the University of Arizona.
Utah State’s opponent in Tucson will be a familiar one — former Big West and WAC rival New Mexico State. It will be the first bowl game for the southern Aggies (6-6) since the 1960 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, when NMSU beat Utah State, 20-13.
“We are extremely excited to accept the invitation to represent Utah State University and the Mountain West in the 2017 NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl,” USU head coach Matt Wells said. “This bowl game is a great reward for our team and its accomplishments this year, and solidifies the strength and consistency of this program as we will be playing in our sixth bowl game in the past seven years.”
While the official Twitter account of the Arizona Bowl said about 1:20 p.m. Sunday that “we’re moments away from announcing the participants,” it took more than an hour before the Utah State-New Mexico State matchup was officially announced. Rumors suggested that behind-the-scenes negotiations might have had one or both of the Aggies headed to the New Mexico Bowl instead, or left out of the postseason altogether.
“I just would say that it was about two hours of drama playing out on Twitter, phone calls and text messages, but in the end we’ve very excited to play in the game,” Wells said. “But it was stressful, quite a bit, to be honest.
“At one point, it just hurt. The thought of calling a team meeting and telling them we’re done was just too hard to fathom. So, there was extreme joy and relief when we got the call. I’m just so happy for the team to have an opportunity to play another game.”
While USU hasn’t played New Mexico State since 2012, the southern Aggies are certainly familiar to Wells. He was a freshman quarterback on the Aggie team that needed a victory at New Mexico State in its final game of the 1993 season in order to become bowl eligible. Utah State ended up winning 20-17 at Las Cruces, propelling the Utah Aggies into Las Vegas Bowl II — the school’s first bowl game since the 1961 Gotham Bowl.
In addition to facing New Mexico State four times as a USU athlete and twice as an assistant coach at Utah State, Wells also spent three seasons as an assistant at New Mexico, which has a huge, in-state rivalry with the southern Aggies. And like Utah State, New Mexico State beat the Lobos on their home field this season. The southern Aggies won 30-28 on Sept. 9, while USU won at Albuquerque 24-10 on Nov. 4.
“That’s a great rivalry. I was part of it once, so that was a great win for them,” Wells said. “So I’ve seen a little bit of them on film, and they do some dynamic stuff on offense.”
Historically, the Utah Aggies have dominated the series with New Mexico State. Utah State has won 30 out of 37 meetings with NMSU, which now resides in the Sun Belt Conference, the league where Utah State also played football in 2003-04.
New Mexico State is coached by Doug Martin, who guided the southern Aggies to a 4-4 record and a tie for fifth place in the Sun Belt this season. In his first three seasons at NMSU, Martin’s teams went 2-10, 3-9 and 3-9. The former Kentucky quarterback was also the head coach at Kent State from 2004 to 2010, where he went a combined 29-53 in seven seasons.
“We are excited to prepare for a quality New Mexico State team that had an outstanding season,” Wells said. “Our staff has great respect for New Mexico State head coach Doug Martin and the entire team with the success they had this season.”
New Mexico State qualified for a bowl game for the first time in 57 years by closing out its season with two straight home victories over Idaho (17-10) and South Alabama (22-17).
Led by senior quarterback Tyler Rogers, the southern Aggies are currently fourth in the nation in passing offense, averaging 352.6 yards per game. Rogers, an Arizona native, has completed 319 of 512 passes this season for 3,825 yards, 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. "Getting to a bowl game is the way our senior class should go out,” Martin said. “They are a remarkable group and have changed the culture here at New Mexico State. This bowl shows that we can do great things here and the best days are ahead."
This year’s NOVA Arizona Bowl will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network for the first time. The first two bowl games in Tucson were broadcast by the American Sports Network and streamed online by CampusInsiders.com.
The first NOVA Arizona Bowl in 2015 was actually an all-Mountain West affair, with Nevada beating Colorado State 28-23. Last year, Air Force beat Southern Alabama 45-21.
Utah State bowl history (4-7)
1947 — Raisin Bowl: Lost to San Jose State, 20-0
1947 — Grape Bowl: Lost to Pacific, 35-21
1960 — Sun Bowl: Lost to New Mexico State, 20-13
1961 — Gotham Bowl: Lost to Baylor, 24-9
1993 — Las Vegas Bowl: Defeated Ball State, 42-33
1997 — Humanitarian Bowl: Lost to Cincinnati, 35-19
2011 — Potato Bowl: Lost to Ohio, 24-23
2012 — Potato Bowl: Defeated Toledo, 41-15
2013 — Poinsettia Bowl: Defeated Northern Illinois, 21-14
2014 — New Mexico Bowl: Defeated UTEP, 21-6
2015 — Potato Bowl: Lost to Akron, 23-21