One might think Saturday night’s New Mexico State-Washington State football season opener would be hard to figure.
It’s the first meeting between the two programs, both teams have a number of new starters and that includes Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon, who this week was awarded the keys to WSU’s high-octane Air Raid offense.
Still, at least two significant numbers seem to indicate the contest is no great mystery. No. 23 Washington State is paying NMSU a $600,000 guarantee to travel to Pullman, Wash., for the contest – and various betting lines Friday had the Cougars listed as 31- to 32-point favorites.
Can the Aggies give them a run for their money? Only, NMSU coach Doug Martin says, if the visitors stay out of their own way.
“No self-inflicted wounds,” Martin said. “I feel like we have more talent and speed than we’ve had in the past but we need to play a clean game. Mental errors, especially in key situations, really hurt us last year. (Quarterback) Josh (Adkins) has matured, but the next step for him is learning to manage a game. That’s going to be a big key for us.”
Martin is confident his team can improve on last season’s 3-9 record. Redshirt sophomore Adkins is back for a second year as starter, and the Aggies have plenty of skill-position talent surrounding him.
The offensive line has some new faces and limited depth thanks to some offseason injuries, but Martin believes his team’s offense can be “tough to handle,” as long as Adkins’ decision-making matches his physical skills.
“Washington State has team speed on defense,” Martin said, “and they bring pressure a lot of different ways. (Adkins) has to be able to read what they’re doing and he’s got to know when to either take off and run or throw the ball away. We can’t afford to take a lot of sacks or start forcing the ball into coverage.”
Martin called NMSU’s receivers “a team strength,” and said getting the ball to speedy senior running back Jason Huntley in space is also a priority. Huntley believes there will opportunities for the latter.
“We want to create situations where they have linebackers in coverage,” Huntley said, “and take advantage. If we execute and take care of the ball, we can make some plays.”
But can the Aggies make enough? Washington State’s offense under coach Mike Leach is among the nation’s most productive every year. The Cougars averaged 37.5 points per game in 2018, leading the nation in passing yards and completion percentage on their way to an 11-2 record.
Several key players from that team have since departed – including quarterback Gardner Minshew, who was drafted by the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. But few observers expect a major drop-off from WSU’s offense, even with the relatively unproven Gordon at the helm.
New Mexico State’s defense is expecting a different type of challenge after it struggled to stop rushing attacks last season. Many Aggies opponents posted pedestrian passing numbers primarily because they did not have to pass.
“This game will be different,” senior defensive lineman Roy Lopez said. “We need to fly around and chase the ball and we have to pressure the quarterback. We believe in our offense and what those guys can do, but it’s up to us to control the game on our side of the ball. We’ve had a good spring and a good summer; it’s time to play football.”