Saturday: New Mexico at Utah State
Time: 2 p.m.
Location: Maverik Stadium, Logan, Utah
Radio: KKOB Radio 94.5 FM, 770 AM
Line: Utah State favored by 20
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
In college football — and at Utah State and the University of New Mexico, in particular — two years can make a world of difference.
On Nov. 12, 2016, Jason Sanders’ 40-yard field goal with 1:06 left in the game capped a Lobo rally from a 21-6 deficit for a 24-21 victory in Logan, Utah. The game represented UNM’s fifth straight win, giving it a 7-3 overall record and 5-1 mark in Mountain West play.
For the Aggies, the loss was the third of five straight to end the 2016 season. USU fell to 3-7 overall and 1-5 in the conference.
As the teams get set to convene for another game today at Maverik Stadium, the script has flipped.
Utah State (6-1, 3-0 MW) has won six straight since a season-opening loss to then-No. 11 Michigan State. The Aggies have received enough votes in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 to be ranked 27th.
They are coming off a 6-7 season in 2017 in which they lost to New Mexico State 26-20 in overtime in the Arizona Bowl.
UNM (3-4, 1-1) has lost three of its last four games since a 42-25 win over NMSU on Sept. 15. The Lobos, who seemingly had all the momentum in the world heading into 2017, went 3-9.
They have lost 11 of their last 14 games, dating to last season.
New Mexico faces a daunting task in trying to turn around its 2018 season and getting bowl-eligible.
“Since I came to UNM, I’ve been very impressed by Utah State as an overall program,” Davie said. “Now they’re in the second year with the offensive coordinator, second year with the quarterback, and it’s impressive to watch. You can tell they’re in their second year with their offense, schematically. You can tell it’s the quarterback’s second year. He is much more efficient; they obviously trust him much more.
“And they’re averaging 47.7 points a game.”
Utah State head coach Matt Wells hired offensive coordinator David Yost after the 2016 season. Yost was the offensive coordinator at Oregon under Mark Helfrich before Helfrich was fired in 2016.
Sophomore quarterback Jordan Love has thrown for 1,610 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions this season. He spreads the ball to different receivers; the Aggies have six players with 12 or more receptions in 2018.
They also rely on running backs Darwin Thompson and Gerold Bright, who have combined for 141.5 yards per game and 13 total TDs.
But USU’s special teams and defense have had a hand in the Aggies No. 4 scoring offense in the nation.
Aggies kick returner Savon Scarver has scored two touchdowns. Punt returner Jordan Nathan has returned one to the house. Utah State has blocked two punts, returning one for a score. Three different USU defenders have interception returns for TDs.
Junior outside linebacker Tipa Galea is a disrupting force, with eight tackles for loss, 5 1/2 sacks, a 56-yard interception return for a TD and one blocked punt.
As a unit, the Aggies have forced 16 turnovers.
Wells, who had two stints at New Mexico as an assistant coach — as wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator under former coach Rocky Long in 2007-08 and wide receivers coach under former coach Mike Locksley in 2010 — also doled out superlatives toward UNM personnel.
“They’re very well-coached and they have athleticism,” Wells said of the Lobos. “I love their nose guard (Aaron Blackwell) and he’s a physical, tough guy. No. 11 (Rhashuan Epting) has some speed off the edge. The punt returner (Marcus Hayes) has really good range and he’s a weapon. We’re going to have to be on high alert on our punt team.
On offense, “they have some weapons on the outside. They have a big 6-foot-4 receiver is Delane Hart-Johnson. Elijah Lilly is really athletic and he’s explosive with the ball. They have a couple more wideouts than what they’ve had in the past. They’ve always had tailbacks that are explosive, and I don’t think that that’s anything different from this bunch.”
What the Lobos need to pull off an upset is a more consistent passing attack behind quarterback Sheriron Jones. He has 1,087 passing yards with 13 TDs and seven picks. Davie has said that Jones must continue to mature in his read development for the spread-option offense to take off.
Senior tailback Tyrone Owens is running hard and has 507 rushing yards with six TDs on the season, but his 3.8-yard average per carry is far below his 8.0-yard average from that magical 2016 or even the 5.5-yard average he maintained last season.
Davie surely is hoping the Lobos make similar strides to the Aggies in their offense next year when offensive Calvin Magee will be in his second year here with his system.
Until then, UNM must play near-flawless football to have a chance at Utah State on Saturday and turn back the clock to 2016.