LOGAN, Utah — It was more than just a small glimmer of hope for the New Mexico State Aggies when quarterback Matt Romero finished a 75-yard first quarter drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to the right corner of the end zone to Johnathan Boone.
NMSU, which had lost its first two games of the season, had just stiffened its defense to force a pair of field goals by Utah State — despite giving the home Aggies a short field on the second.
But all that momentum went by the wayside in a hurry when Utah State’s Savon Scarver returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
Before halftime arrived, the Utah State field goals – four of them by Dominik Eberle in the first two quarters – started to turn into touchdowns and the battle of the Aggies went lopsided in the wrong way for the visitors, 60-13.
Utah State went up 33-10 at intermission on the way to the blowout in the rematch of the Arizona Bowl to close the 2017 season — a game won by New Mexico State in overtime in NMSU’s first bowl appearance since 1960.
“We’re not playing very physical right now. We’re not near as physical of a football team as we were last year,” New Mexico State coach Doug Martin said. “And we don’t really have that many missing pieces from last year, especially on defense, with nine starters coming back.
“We’re just not tackling like we did last year, running to the ball and doing all those things that made us a good football team last year,” Martin added.
Dominik Eberle, USU’s kicker, tied an NCAA record for points in a game by a kicker as he booted six field goals and totaled 24 points. Eberle’s first two field goals came in the home team’s first two possessions for a 6-0 advantage.
But New Mexico State (0-3) countered with the Romero-to-Boone scoring connection to go up by a point.
Then came Scarver, who also ran back a kickoff return for a touchdown in last year’s bowl matchup.
“The kicking game has hurt us in all three games so far,” Martin said. “As much time as we spend on that, that’s just inexcusable.”
“It was a great run, a great job by our kickoff return team,” said Utah State coach Matt Wells on the play.
Utah State (1-1), which lost to nationally ranked Michigan State in the opening week of its season, went up 16-7 on a 52-yard field goal by Eberle in the waning seconds of the first quarter.
But NMSU, given a short field of its own after an interception by Shamad Lomax at the Utah State 38, got back to within a possession on a 49-yard field goal from Dylan Brown with 8:13 left before half.
An apparent second Lomax interception less than three minutes later, this time as Utah State threw into the end zone, was waived off on a roughing-the-quarterback penalty on the visitors.
Three plays later, Utah State went up 23-10 on a 1-yard run by Eltoro Allen.
“Just from what I saw on the scoreboard, it didn’t look like a roughing call,” Martin said. “But they called it and you can’t do anything about it.”
The deficit grew quickly for NMSU from that point.
Another Eberle FG and a 14-yard pass from Utah State’s Jordan Love to Jalen Greene, with 22 seconds before intermission, made the score 33-10.
Three games into the 2018 campaign, Martin feels like his team is still in a transition stage from the high points from a year past.
“I think our guys have had a little bit of trouble learning how to handle success from last season,” the NMSU coach said. “They think it’s just going to come naturally to them again, and it just doesn’t happen that way.
“You’ve got to work for it and you’ve got to build your own identity each year,” Martin continued. “This team really hasn’t done that yet.”
The Aggies host New Mexico (0-2) this coming Saturday (6 p.m., AggieVision, 770 AM/94.5 FM/1150 AM).