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Aggies gain bowl eligibility with comeback win

LAS CRUCES – A full moon rose over Aggie Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening. It might as well have been blue.

New Mexico State University’s football team enjoyed an exceedingly rare moment, improving its record to 6-6 and becoming bowl eligible with a dramatic 22-17 victory over South Alabama in its regular-season finale.

A season-best crowd announced at 26,268 celebrated after South Alabama’s final, last-gasp pass was broken up to seal the win. Fans then rushed the field and swarmed the Aggies players and coaches.

“Best feeling I’ve had in football ever,” said NMSU quarterback Tyler Rogers, who connected with fellow senior Conner Cramer for a go-ahead 7-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds remaining. “Considering everything we’ve gone though here, that was amazing.”

The Aggies, whose last bowl appearance came in 1960, almost certainly will end the nation’s longest drought in the coming weeks. It won’t become official until a 2 p.m. press conference today, but NMSU is expected to be invited to the Arizona Bowl set for Dec. 29 in Tucson. A representative for the Arizona Bowl attended Saturday’s game.

“I’m sure something positive’s coming for us,” coach Doug Martin said. “Whatever it is and whoever shows up to play us, we’ll be ready to give it all we have.”

During their on-field victory party, Aggies players donned T-shirts emblazoned with “MADE HISTORY.” But like so many things for this program in recent years, Saturday’s win did not come easily.

South Alabama (4-8, 3-5 Sun Belt Conference), playing its final game under longtime coach Joey Jones, stubbornly hung around and eventually took a 17-16 lead on Gavin Patterson’s 27-yard field goal with 5:24 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The Aggies knew it was do-or-die time.

“I just told my guys in the huddle, ‘Let’s make history. This is what we’re here to do,'” Rogers said.

NMSU drove 83 yards on 15 plays, converting twice on third down to earn the winning points. On second down and goal from the South Alabama 7, Cramer went in motion toward the right sideline and worked his way open in the back of the end zone. He dove to catch Rogers’ pass, then quickly raced to the sideline.

“When I was in motion I yelled at Tyler when I passed him, ‘Throw me the ball,'” Cramer said. “I wanted it and I’m so thankful he threw it to me. What a way to celebrate my last game at Aggie Memorial – and my (23rd) birthday.”

New Mexico State wide receiver Conner Cramer, center, celebrates in the end zone after catching the go-ahead touchdown pass in the final minute. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Rogers, who missed last week’s 17-10 win over Idaho with a sprained right (throwing) shoulder, put his injured joint to the test, throwing a program record 61 times. He completed 40 for 450 yards and two touchdowns with one interception that was bobbled into a defender’s hands in the end zone.

“I was kind of worried about it,” Rogers said of the shoulder, “especially when I got hit a couple times, but it feels great now. I’m good to go.”

New Mexico State (6-6, 4-4) had to overcome some self-inflicted adversity in its final game as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. The Aggies will play as a Football Bowl Subdivision independent starting next season.

The first such instance came late in the first half with NMSU leading 13-7. After coming up with a sack to push the Jaguars out of field-goal range, linebacker Terrill Hanks celebrated a bit too enthusiastically and drew a taunting flag to give USA a first down at the Aggies’ 25.

Two plays later, Hanks came up with a drive-ending interception.

“I was kind of hurting after that personal foul because I knew it hurt my team,” Hanks said. “I told my teammates, ‘I’ll make up for it.’ I’m really glad I was able to do it.”

The Aggies later appeared to have wounded their hopes by eschewing a short field goal on fourth down, leading 16-14 midway through the final quarter. Rogers’ ensuing pass was incomplete, and South Alabama followed by driving for the go-ahead field goal.

Martin’s decision was based on South Alabama’s previous scoring drive. “We weren’t sure if we could stop them, so we didn’t want to get conservative. We were playing to win. That play didn’t work out but tonight was all about playing to win, and these guys made sure we got it done.”

Click here for the box score.