TUCSON — After waiting 57 years between bowl appearances, Aggie Nation (the New Mexico State version) turned out in force for Friday’s Arizona Bowl in Tucson.
The Aggies made the trip and a long day in the desert sun worthwhile.
Larry Rose III broke loose for a 21-yard touchdown run in overtime as NMSU pulled out a 26-20 victory over Utah State in front of an announced 39,132 fans at Arizona Stadium.
Rose finished his final contest in crimson and white with 142 rushing yards on 16 carries. His final carry was one New Mexico State will long remember. It was Rose’s 37th career rushing touchdown — tying a program record — and it helped him earn offensive MVP honors.
The TD also capped a final rally to help New Mexico State (7-6) finish with a winning record for the first time since 2002. The Aggies prevailed in their first bowl appearance since 1960 — another victory over Utah State in that season’s Sun Bowl.
The long-awaited sequel came in front of boisterous crowd comprised mostly of NMSU fans. Rose said the sea of crimson kept New Mexico State’s players motivated to fight to the end.
“It was tremendous,” Rose said. “We saw (NMSU fans) had both sides of the stadium covered and thought, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be.’ I’m sure nobody’s in Las Cruces right now.”
Coach Doug Martin saw the turnout as a sign his long-dormant program has turned a corner.
“I think if you look at that crowd,” Martin said, “the city of Las Cruces and Aggie Nation is on board. That was an unbelievable crowd and it made a huge difference in us winning that game.”
Friday’s victory included plenty of late drama. The Aggies drove for a tying touchdown with 6:31 left in regulation on Jaleel Scott’s dazzling grab of an 11-yard Tyler Rogers pass. Scott just managed to tap his left foot in bounds on a play that was reviewed before a delayed touchdown call.
NMSU’s defense, which came up big time and again, then forced Utah State (6-7) to settle for a field-goal try on its overtime possession. Dominik Eberle’s 29-yard attempt bounced off the right upright — one of four misses in the game by the kicker who had missed just two previously all season.
“He’s usually automatic,” Martin said of Eberle. “We were incredibly lucky that he had an off day.”
On the second play of NMSU’s ensuing OT possession, Rose broke a pair of tackles, hurdled another defender and rambled into the end zone. New Mexico State fans raced onto the field in celebration at the ending of the 4-hour contest.
The ending mirrored a wild start that featured a ridiculous stretch of 17 points scored in 28 seconds. It started when New Mexico State’s opening drive produced a 23-yard field goal by Dylan Brown that made the score 3-0.
It didn’t stay 3-0 for long.
Utah State’s Savon Scarver returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for touchdown — an Arizona Bowl return record that barely outlasted the subsequent TV commercial break.
NMSU’s Jason Huntley did Scarver one better by taking the following kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and a new record. The Aggies led 10-7 with 10:47 left in the first quarter.
But the next three quarters became something of a slog. Neither offense was able to sustain much and the teams combined for 20 punts, 11 by NMSU’s Payton Theisler.
Brown’s second field goal of the game gave New Mexico State a 13-10 lead in the second quarter, but a Rose fumble set up a tying kick by Eberle on the final play of the first half.
The score remained 13-13 through a sluggish third quarter, highlighted only by a terrific individual play by NMSU linebacker Terrill Hanks. Utah State had first-and-goal at the NMSU 1-yard line when Hanks deflected a pitch and scrambled to recover the ball, keeping the contest tied.
Utah State finally grabbed the lead, capitalizing on a 13-yard Theisler punt with a four-play scoring drive. LaJuan Hunt’s 1-yard run put USU up 20-13 with 13:28 left in regulation.
But NMSU’s offense, which struggled mightily most of the night, came up with a tying drive. Scott, Rose and Johnathan Boone contributed key catches on the series, breathing life into the Aggies and their cowbell-clanking fans.
“This group of seniors is the first class we recruited,” Martin said. “Some of them transferred but those who stayed, we told them they could be champions. They are, bowl champions, and I’ll always remember this group. I think New Mexico State fans will, too.”
Leon McQuaker, who had a game-high 13 tackles, was named defensive MVP for New Mexico State. Rogers finished 29 of 54 passing with a touchdown and two interceptions.
New Mexico St. 26, Utah St. 20, ot
Utah St. 7 6 0 7 0—20
New Mexico St. 10 3 0 7 6—26
First Quarter NMS—FG Brown 23, 11:15
UTS—Scarver 96 kickoff return (Eberle kick), 11:01 NMS—Huntley 100 kickoff return (Brown kick), 10:47 Second Quarter UTS—FG Eberle 35, 14:55 NMS—FG Brown 33, 11:35 UTS—FG Eberle 30, :00 Fourth Quarter UTS—Hunt 1 run (Eberle kick), 13:28 NMS—Scott 11 pass from Rogers (Brown kick), 6:31 First Overtime NMS—Rose 21 run, :00
First downs 23 17
Rushes-yards 45-187 29-174
Passing 239 191
Comp-Att-Int 25-44-0 29-54-2
Return Yards 115 113
Punts-Avg. 9-42.33 11-40.1
Fumbles-Lost 3-2 1-1
Penalties-Yards 9-84 4-45
Time of Possession 31:02 28:58
RUSHING—Utah St., Hunt 20-133, Bright 11-48, Vaughns 1-6, Miller 1-1, Love 11-1, Wildman 1-(minus 2). New Mexico St., Rose 16-132, Huntley 6-17, Rogers 6-16, Lottie 1-9.
PASSING—Utah St., Love 25-44-0-239. New Mexico St., Rogers 29-54-2-191.
RECEIVING—Utah St., R.Tarver 8-97, Raymond 5-42, Vaughns 4-22, Bra.Roberts 3-32, Hunt 3-25, Bright 1-12, D.Nelson 1-9. New Mexico St., Rose 6-48, Boone 5-48, Huntley 5-19, Scott 3-37, Muse 3-12, Clark 3-8, Bry.Roberts 1-15, Lottie 1-2, Cramer 1-2, Hogan 1-0.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Utah St., Eberle 44, Eberle 49, Eberle 48, Eberle 29.