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Aggies uncomfortable with role of favorite vs. UTEP

(Click here for the Aggies Game Day coverage.)

LAS CRUCES — The New Mexico State Aggies do not want to hear it.

The point spread for NMSU’s annual football grudge match against UTEP started high (16 points) and has continued to grow this week. As of Friday, the Aggies were favored by somewhere between 19 and 21 points for tonight’s I-10 Rivalry game at Aggie Memorial Stadium.

Is New Mexico State (1-2) really three touchdowns better than UTEP (0-3)? Aggies coach Doug Martin said his team will have to prove it.

“Until our program wins this game, we don’t deserve to be favored,” Martin said. “We’ve lost eight straight games in the series and most of them haven’t been close. Our players have got to change that.”

The Aggies don’t seem to be caught up in the bulging point spread either. They know the Miners’ win streak against NMSU has been built on physical dominance and expect a similar approach from the visitors tonight.

“They’re going to come with power, try to run the ball down our throats,” sophomore cornerback Shamad Lomax said. “We’ve got to be physical and show we can stand our ground. We’ve got a lot to prove.”

The same can be said of the Miners, who have largely been blown off the ball in their first three games. UTEP has been outscored 150-37 combined by Oklahoma, Rice and Arizona, and has been unable to sustain any type of success on offense.

That prompted a change of offensive coordinators this week, but Martin and his staff haven’t fretted too much about trying to guess what scheme new OC Brian Natkin will feature.

“It’s no mystery,” Martin said. “UTEP’s going to challenge our manhood and pound the football. That’s who (Miners head coach Sean) Kugler is. It’s going to be a bloody game up front.”

The Miners average just 38.7 rushing yards per game, however, and are near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision barrel in time of possession at 24:10 per contest.

Circumstances have dictated some of UTEP’s issues. Big early deficits forced it to abandon the running game against Oklahoma and Arizona, but the Miners rushed for just 26 yards on 24 carries against Rice.

Asked how his offense would be different under Natkin, Kugler said simply, “It needs to be different from the standpoint of being effective and running the ball efficiently.”

New Mexico State’s defense has largely held its own against the rush this season, including limiting run-happy New Mexico to 176 yards (61 of those came on Jay Griffin’s reverse for a touchdown).

The Aggies would also love to establish their rushing attack this week. UTEP’s 3-4 defense has been gashed for 270.7 rushing yards per game, which seems to bode well for NMSU senior tailback Larry Rose III.

Passing has been the strength of New Mexico State’s offense this season with quarterback Tyler Rogers ranking among the national leaders in several statistical categories. Rogers undoubtedly will look to exploit a UTEP defense that’s allowing 267.3 yards a game through the air.

But the Aggies don’t seem to mind the idea of engaging their southern rivals in a slugfest — regardless of what the point spread suggests.

“Rivalry game or whatever, we’re just focused on getting a win,” junior defensive back Malik Demby said. “This game’s going to be about toughness, who can keep on going down after down. That’s what we’re honed in on, nothing else.”


Saturday: UTEP at New Mexico State, 6 p.m., 99.5 FM (Las Cruces), 1150 AM (ABQ),