It seems a bit odd for I-10 rivals New Mexico State and UTEP to be lining up for their annual football battle with Thanksgiving just a few days away.
The Aggies and Miners typically slug it out early in the season. This year it comes after NMSU and UTEP have already squared off in men’s and women’s basketball.
But under the circumstances, playing this late might be something of a blessing. The Aggies and Miners come in to Saturday’s meeting in Las Cruces with 1-9 records and bowl aspirations long extinguished. This longtime rivalry gives both teams something to get excited about.
“This is a game I circle on my calendar,” Aggies defensive tackle Roy Lopez said. “I’m pretty sure all of us do. UTEP is a school I don’t like and they know I don’t like them. It’s always a fun game to play.”
Aggies coach Doug Martin expressed similar sentiments and said he doesn’t mind playing a rivalry game at the back end of his team’s difficult schedule.
“I actually like it,” Martin said. “This is the last home game for our seniors and we want to send them out the right way. This is always a big game no matter what our records are and our senior class has an opportunity to get their third win against UTEP. Not too many players in this program have done that.”
The teams’ similarities go beyond their records. Both have struggled to put points on the board, with NMSU averaging 18.8 per contest and UTEP averaging 18.4.
New Mexico State’s problems have been primarily a function of turnovers, Martin said.
“Even last week we turned it over three times,” he said, referring to NMSU’s 41-28 win over Incarnate Word. “It was huge getting the monkey off our back and seeing the guys celebrate in the locker room. But we’ve still been our own worst enemy with turnovers and if that happens this week we won’t win.”
NMSU has found some balance on offense of late, getting production from running backs Jason Huntley and Christian Gibson to complement the passing game. Both backs rushed for 100-plus yards against Incarnate Word.
UTEP has been much more adept running the ball than throwing it, and Martin expects rushing offense to be crucial for both teams Saturday.
“I’m sure UTEP wants to stop the run and make us throw it,” he said. “Lately we’ve been much better when we’re able to run, so that’s a key for us.”
UTEP coach Dana Dimel has hinted the Miners might switch things up at quarterback this week to energize their sluggish passing attack. That would mean playing sophomore Gavin Hardison more while run-first senior Kai Locksley gets fewer snaps.
The Aggies are not necessarily buying it.
“Their scheme doesn’t change too much with either quarterback in there,” Lopez said. “We’re expecting Locksley but we’re prepared for both.”
Today’s game will be the season finale for Lopez, who suffered a leg injury in NMSU’s season-opener and has played in just two games since. NCAA rules will allow him to take a redshirt season if he plays four games or fewer, so Lopez will play against UTEP and sit out next week’s finale at Liberty.
“It’s definitely weird,” Lopez said. “but I’m happy to be back on the field. We were able to have fun last week and I plan to do the same thing Saturday.”