It hurts. That’s a hurting locker room right now. These kids fought. They gave it everything they had and spilled their guts out there. And for that, I’m proud to be their coach. —Utah State coach Matt Wells
TUCSON, Ariz. — Utah State made New Mexico State wait just a little bit longer to secure its first bowl victory in more than a half of century.
But after 57 years, what’s a few minutes of overtime?
Thanks to a 21-yard touchdown run by Larry Rose III on their second play of the extra period, the southern Aggies prevailed over the northern Aggies, 26-20, Friday night in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl.
“For us, that game couldn’t have ended any better,” NMSU head coach Doug Martin proclaimed. “That was just poetic that Larry Rose would score that last touchdown because he’s meant so much to this football program.”
Rose was named the game’s offensive MVP after rushing for 142 yards on 16 carries and also catching six passes for 48 yards. The historic touchdown in overtime tied Rose III for first on the NMSU career TD list with 37, and the senior ended his career second in rushing yardage with 4,567.
Had Utah State (6-7) held on for the victory, Rose’s counterpart, senior running back LaJuan Hunt, likely would have received the offensive MVP after rushing for a season-high 134 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries.
But after going up 20-13 early in the fourth quarter on the 1-yard plunge by Hunt, the Aggies’ stalwart defense eventually gave ground. After surrendering a 10-yard completion on fourth-and-6, NMSU quarterback Tyler Rogers promptly lofted an 11-yard pass to Jaleel Scott along the eastern edge of the end zone. Defended tightly by USU cornerback Wesley Bailey, Scott’s grab was initially called incomplete before being reversed and called a touchdown following a lengthy review.
“I’ve got no comment on that,” USU head coach Matt Wells replied when asked about the reversal.
The victory was the first in a bowl game for the southern Aggies (7-6) since beating Utah State, 20-13, in the 1960 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
Meanwhile, Utah State ends the season with a losing record for the third straight season, having gone 3-9 last year and 6-7 in 2015 following a loss to Akron in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
“It was a great game. What a game,” Wells said. “It went down to the wire. Great atmosphere. But they made one more play than we did.
“ It hurts. That’s a hurting locker room right now. These kids fought. They gave it everything they had and spilled their guts out there. And for that, I’m proud to be their coach.”
The setback in Tucson will long be remembered by Aggie fans for the many opportunities missed, including four wayward field goal attempts by sophomore placekicker Dominik Eberle. A finalist for this year’s Lou Groza Award Collegiate Place-kicker Award, Eberle had only missed two field goals all season, and one of those attempts was blocked.
But while Eberle connected on two kicks from 35 and 30 yards out, the native of Germany missed attempts from 44, 49 and 48 yards in regulation, and his 29-yard attempt in overtime glanced off the right upright.
“He’s my kid, he’s my field-goal kicker and I’m sticking with him,” Wells said. “I love that kid. He’s been very consistent all year, and in a tight ballgame, I really thought he would win the game.”
Another major opportunity lost came in the third quarter with the game tied at 13-13. Following an interception by senior safety Dallin Leavitt, USU quarterback Jordan Love connected with junior wide receiver Ron’quavion Tarver for a 41-yard reception that set Utah State up with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
But on the next play, NMSU linebacker Terrell Hanks broke through, tipped away a pitch from Love to Hunt and ended up recovering the football.
“Honestly, it’s a check, and we got the right look to the edge,” Hunt said. “The New Mexico State defender just made a great play to deflect the pitch.”
Had the Aggies scored on that opportunity, it would have been the first time in the entire game that either offense had scored a point as the first 26 points in the contest all came via both special teams units.
After a 23-yard field goal by Dylan Brown put NMSU up 3-0, USU’s Savon Scarver returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. But his Arizona Bowl record return didn’t stand up for long as NMSU’s Jason Huntley promptly did him four yards better, returning USU’s kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown that left the southern Aggies up 10-7.
But after all the madness of three scores in the span of 28 seconds, things quieted down in the second quarter and it became a game of field position and field goals. Eberle tied the game at 10-10 with a 35-yarder, only to watch as Brown kicked a 33-yarder three minutes later to regain the lead for New Mexico State.
Eberle then connected from 30 yards as time expired in the first half to tie the game at 13-13 at halftime.
But while USU punter Aaron Dalton continually aided the Aggies’ cause — he averaged 44.6 yards on nine punts — New Mexico State’s Payton Theisler badly shanked a punt into the NMSU bench area, netting the southern Aggies a mere 16 yards.
Utah State then turned things over to Hunt, who churned out 24 yards on three rushes and a 12-yard reception to put Utah State in front for the first time since Scarver’s score.
But answering the call again and again, the USU defense wasn’t able to hold off a New Mexico State team energized by a huge advantage in the stands at Arizona Stadium and the southern Aggies scored the final 13 points of the game.
“That’s a fantastic football team,” Martin said of the northern Aggies. “They’re really well coached, and they really hard-nosed, tough players. We knew this was going to be a battle coming here because of the style that they play with. They’re a really excellent football team.”