There was a lot of hard work and sacrifice that we put in to get to six wins and to get into a bowl game. —Utah State running back LaJuan Hunt
TUCSON, Ariz. — It’s being billed as “The Battle of the Aggies.”
But not Aggie fans are created equally, at least when it comes to geography and decades of anticipation.
With Las Cruces less than four hours away via Interstate 10, estimates have everywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 New Mexico State fans heading this way for Friday afternoon’s NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl. Inasmuch as the southern Aggies haven’t participated in a bowl game since 1960, there is certainly more interest surrounding NMSU than Utah State, which will be making its sixth bowl appearance in the past seven years.
“Of all the bowls, this is the one we always wanted to (play in) because we knew that our fans would really embrace this and get here and that it would be close enough so a lot of them could get here,” NMSU head coach Doug Martin said at Thursday’s pre-bowl press conference.
“I think it's going to be very exciting for our fans. I mean, they've waited for a long time to come and see a bowl game; they've waited a long time for a team to be eligible for a bowl game.”
New Mexico State (6-6 overall, 4-4 in the Sun Belt) is in a situation akin to that of the Aggies (6-6 overall, 4-4 in the Mountain West) in 1993 when they qualified for Las Vegas Bowl II on the last day of the regular season with a win in Las Cruces. That appearance against Ball State ended a bowl-game drought of 32 years and inspired droves of USU fans to drive to Sin City.
It’s also reminiscent of when Utah State played in the 2011 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, since the drive from Logan to Boise is nearly the same as the distance from Las Cruces to Tucson, making it very easy for Aggie fans to watch the game against Ohio University.
Perhaps that’s why USU head coach Matt Wells doesn’t seem bothered by the possibility of thousands of the wrong kind of Aggie fans showing up Friday at Arizona Stadium. Utah State ended up losing to the Bobcats, 24-23, despite having a huge advantage in the stands.
“If it ends up being a road-type atmosphere, then we're fine and we're absolutely prepared to play like that on offense,” said Wells, who was an assistant coach under Gary Andersen in 2011. “I think we've played well on the road, starting from the first game of the year all the way through (the season). Actually, we're a little bit more of a road team (this season), so if tomorrow turns into a road game because of their fan base and how close they are here, then that's great. I think our guys relish that a little bit."
Representatives from the Arizona Bowl announced on Thursday that 40,000 tickets have been sold for the third incarnation of the game played on the home field of the Arizona Wildcats, so the atmosphere should be good, as well as the weather, which is expected to be around 80 degrees at kickoff.
But while the southern Aggies are clearly thrilled with the opportunity to play in a bowl game since NMSU upended Utah State, 20-13, in the 1960 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, the current group of northern Aggies is also excited to have an opportunity to play another game together. After playing in five straight bowl games, USU missed out last season thanks to a 3-9 record, and there are only 10 current members of the team who played against Akron in the 2015 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
And there are only two Aggies on the roster who saw action in USU’s last bowl victory in the 2014 Gildan New Mexico Bowl — senior running back LaJuan Hunt and senior quarterback Kent Myers.
“I just think we can’t take things for granted because making a bowl game is a privilege,” Hunt said. “There was a lot of hard work and sacrifice that we put in to get to six wins and to get into a bowl game, so I think it’s a privilege that we take seriously.”
Wells said he’s pleased with how his team has practiced since relocating to Tucson on Christmas Day, and that his team is ready to go.
“Actually it's kind of like the end of training camp (in that) you're ready just to play,” Wells said. “You're tired of playing against yourselves and practicing against yourselves. ... I think our guys are excited to play the game tomorrow."
Offensively, the Aggies will start redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan Love, who replaced Myers as the starter midway through the season. It was a role Myers, who was thrust into the starting role due to injuries to USU’s top three quarterbacks, filled as a true freshman in 2014 when USU went on to win the New Mexico Bowl.
Of greatest concern, however, is how the USU defense, particularly the secondary, will fare against New Mexico State’s high-powered offense. Led by senior quarterback (and Arizona native) Tyler Rogers (319 for 512 for 3,825 yards, 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions), the southern Aggies led the Sun Belt in passing yards per game with 352.6.
Senior wide receiver Jaleel Scott has been Rogers’ top target this season, totaling 73 receptions, 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns, but senior running back Larry Rose III also caught 49 passes for 474 yards and two TDs. Second all-time in career rushing yardage at NMSU, Rose III also rushed for a relatively quiet 807 yards and nine touchdowns as Martin put much more emphasis on his team’s passing game this season.
During Thursday’s press conference, Martin praised Rose III for sacrificing his stats for the good of the team, and also said he would like to follow Utah State’s model for successfully turning a program around as New Mexico State goes forward as an independent football team next season.
“Utah State, to me, is a program that we really need to try and emulate,” Martin declared. “... To be able to sustain success is really difficult. ... When they started winning, things started happening for them. You know, their administration bought in, the university bought in and coach's salaries improved. All of those types of things. And that's kind of where we are now. We're way behind them, but they're a program that we can emulate."