College football: Ags hope games vs. rivals provide boost

The New Mexico State Aggies would dearly love to hit a reset button on the 2018 football season.

Between blowout losses, key defensive injuries and self-inflicted wounds, the first three weeks could not have gone much worse.

In the absence of any reset buttons, the Aggies will instead seek a restart Saturday night when the University of New Mexico Lobos roll into Las Cruces. NMSU faces back-to-back games against its two biggest rivals — UNM and UTEP — and coach Doug Martin is hoping the stretch can inspire his players to turn things around.

“Our first three games were tough,” Martin said Tuesday. “All three of those teams will end up in bowls, let’s be honest, and we didn’t play well against any of them. But we cannot let those three games define our season and we’ve told our players that. We have nine games to play starting with two rivalry games. We have to be focused on that.”

Martin believes the Aggies (0-3) have been bogged down by expectations after breaking a 57-year bowl drought last season. They’ve undoubtedly missed since-departed seniors on offense, quarterback Tyler Rogers and running back Larry Rose III, and the defense has been hampered by a slew of injuries this season.

There is some encouraging news on that front, Martin said, as linebackers Leon McQuaker and Javahn Fergurson are expected to return to the lineup this week. McQuaker and Fergurson were NMSU’s top two tacklers in the season-opener against Wyoming but have not played since.

The Aggies will likely remain short-handed on defense, however, as linebacker Malik Demby is out with a nerve issue. Lineman Jassavia Reese (knee sprain) and linebacker Lui Fa’amasino (concussion) are doubtful, Martin said.

A patchwork defense figures to be problematic against UNM (1-1), which has moved the ball effectively on the ground and through the air in its first two games. While the Lobos have incorporated more spread offense and upgraded their passing attack this season, Martin is most concerned about slowing down UNM’s rushing attack.

“We’ve been giving up 5.9 yards per rushing attempt,” Martin said. “That’s frightening. If New Mexico does that against us, it’s game over.”

Aggies linebacker Billy Nipp said missed tackles have been a primary culprit in his team’s unsightly rushing defense. He’s hoping the idea of playing back-to-back rivalry games will bring a renewed sense of energy.

“I think we need to loosen up and just go play like we know how,” Nipp said. “New Mexico is always an important game but I think people have been putting too much pressure on themselves. We need to go fly around and have some fun playing football.”

NMSU also needs to find a way to put more points on the scoreboard. The Aggies are averaging just 10 points per contest and the offense has stopped itself entirely too often, Martin said.

“Our offensive line has struggled,” he said, “and we’ve had penalties, dropped passes and (QB Matt Romero) has missed some open guys. The bottom line is we’re underachieving right now.”