TUCSON — A steady stream of crimson-wearing New Mexico State football fans headed west on I-10 from Las Cruces to Tucson on Thursday, covering roughly 276 miles to attend today’s Nova Arizona Bowl.
For New Mexico State’s long-suffering football program, the trip to a postseason appearance has been infinitely longer.
When the Aggies (6-6) and Utah State (6-6) kick off Friday at 3:30 p.m. at Arizona Stadium, it will end a New Mexico State bowl drought that stretches back to 1960 — the longest among Football Bowl Subdivision schools. The road from then to now has included more potholes than pavement.
Just this week, NMSU coach Doug Martin described the program he took over in 2013 as “a dumpster fire.” That was not the low point.
Since the 1960 Aggies finished 11-0 and defeated Friday’s opponent, Utah State, in that year’s Sun Bowl, NMSU fans have endured a 27-game losing streak, two winless seasons and six one-win campaigns. Since 2000, New Mexico State has finished with a winning record just once (the 2002 squad went 7-5).
But Martin’s team has ended one dismal streak and can add 2017 to the list of winning seasons with a victory today. The opportunity is not lost on Martin or his players.
“Getting to a bowl game was a big goal,” said senior quarterback and Arizona native Tyler Rogers, “winning a bowl game is the next one. It would be huge to go out in my last game as an Aggie and get a win. That’s the goal now.”
The 27-day span between New Mexico State’s bowl-clinching win over South Alabama and Friday’s matchup has offered a rare moment in the sun. The Aggies’ long-awaited bowl appearance has prompted spots on national television and aided recruiting, Martin said.
Players also have enjoyed the perks that go along with a bowl appearance, including a team tour of Old Tucson Studios on Wednesday and a downtown rally that featured a battle of the NMSU and Utah State bands on Thursday.
As of today, the party’s over, Martin said.
“We want our guys to enjoy the experience,” he said, “but we’ve constantly reminded them there’s a game at the end of all this.”
As their identical records might seem to indicate, the NMSU and Utah State Aggies have produced similar results in 2017 and are widely expected to play a competitive bowl game. Utah State was listed as a 4-point favorite Thursday.
But USU is on much more familiar ground and will be making its sixth bowl appearance in seven years. Martin conceded that postseason experience is an advantage.
“Utah State is a model of what we’d like to look like as a football program,” Martin said. “We’re light years behind in terms of salaries, facilities and continuity. We’re delighted to finally be in a position to play a bowl game. They expect to be here.”
But New Mexico State’s Aggies know better than to take this rare chance for granted. Martin said his coaching staff has been forced to “rein these guys in a little” during some spirited pre-bowl practices.
When the contest finally kicks off, it figures to be strength vs. strength when New Mexico State has the ball. Rogers, running back Larry Rose III and wideout Jaleel Scott lead an offense that ranks among the national leaders in passing and has been productive throughout the season. Utah State’s defense, meanwhile, has been stout against the pass.
“They come with a lot of schemes and blitzes, try to confuse you,” Rogers said. “But we’ve seen pretty much every kind of blitz this season. I think we’ll be ready.”
NMSU’s defense will also bring pressure against USU quarterback Jordan Love, but senior linebacker Dalton Herrington believes forcing Love to pass is priority one.
“Our line has done a good job stopping the run most of the year,” Herrington said, “and that will be big in this game. (Utah State’s offense) is really balanced and we need to take that away. This is a big moment for us, our fans and our city. We need to be the ones forcing the action.”
New Mexico State vs. Utah State
3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
99.5 FM (Las Cruces), 1150 AM (ABQ)