ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — What a stage for a debut.
The New Mexico State University football team – featuring first-time starters at quarterback and tailback – will make its inaugural appearance at one of the sport’s most celebrated venues tonight.
The Aggies take on No. 13 UCLA at the Rose Bowl in a game that has all the markings of a mismatch.
NMSU is 0-3 and has struggled mightily to make defensive stops. The Bruins are 2-0 and have racked up 99 points against two programs that competed in bowl games last season (Nevada and Nebraska).
Some betting lines have UCLA favored by 42 points or more. It’s the biggest point spread with UCLA as a favorite in Bruins history.
To their credit, however, the Aggies are keeping a positive outlook. Not only do they have little to lose, it’s an opportunity to play at a stadium they’ve all seen on television countless times.
“We’re very excited about playing at the Rose Bowl,” junior wideout Adam Shapiro said. “It’s really a legendary stadium. It’s kind of what college football’s all about.”
NMSU’s players have been getting a crash course in big-time college football this season. Tonight’s game will be their third against a BCS team in four weeks, a stretch that included a trip to Texas’ Darrell K. Royal Stadium.
But for freshman quarterback King Davis III and junior tailback Brandon Betancourt, collegiate start No. 1 will come at the Rose Bowl.
Betancourt, a Mayfield High graduate who saw limited action prior to this season, is delighted to make the start anywhere.
“I’ve been working my whole life to get to this position, starting on a college football team,” Betancourt said. “The coaches felt like I’m the man to start this week, and I’m ready to go.”
NMSU coach Doug Martin said turnovers triggered the switch at both positions. Senior quarterback Andrew McDonald had four turnovers in his team’s first three games, while senior tailback Germi Morrison coughed up a critical fumble in last week’s home loss to UTEP.
Still, Martin emphasized the changes were rewards to Davis and Betancourt as much as anything else.
“King’s a mobile, athletic guy that can help us against a fast defense like UCLA’s,” Martin said. “He’s done some good things when he’s been out there. … Brandon’s really played well, too. He’s earned this.”
Martin and the Aggies can only hope the position switches make their offense more productive. NMSU has scored just 49 points in three games and has struggled to sustain drives. UTEP set a school record last week with nearly 42 minutes of possession to New Mexico State’s 18.
Even when the Aggies’ offense was successful, it failed to provide the defense with much rest. NMSU’s scoring plays came on passes of 81, 20 and 72 yards.
New Mexico State’s Achilles’ heel on defense has been against the rush. Undersized up front, the Aggies have been pushed backward late in games. They rank last among 123 FBS teams against the run, allowing 331 yards per game.
They’ll be tested again tonight against a UCLA squad that can be equally explosive rushing or passing. Sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley has connected on 67 percent of his passes and ranks second on the team in rushing after two games.
The Bruins also have game-breakers in running back Jordon James and wideout Shaquell Evans.
NMSU senior defensive lineman Willie Mobley is more concerned about a UCLA offensive line that often looked dominant in last week’s 41-21 victory at Nebraska. He doesn’t want the Aggies’ first Rose Bowl appearance to turn into a Bruins parade.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for us,” he said, “but we’ll go out and play hard and hopefully put on a good show.”