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Aggies hope to play spoiler in ’19 football finale

Doug Martin did not try to sugar coat his feelings about New Mexico State’s 2019 football season.

Coming into training camp, the Aggies’ seventh-year coach believed his team had more overall talent than the 2017 squad that finished 7-6 and earned an Arizona Bowl victory over Utah State.

But for a variety of reasons, NMSU started the season with nine straight losses and is forced to play spoiler in Saturday’s season finale at Liberty. The Aggies (2-9) can knock the 14-point favorite Flames (6-5) out of bowl contention with a win in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“Overall it’s been a disappointing season,” Martin said this week. “To me it’s more disappointing than my first four years here because now, talent-wise, we’re good enough to compete. Even with the schedule we have, I thought we could get (to bowl eligibility). We didn’t get it done and it’s frustrating.”

Turnovers and key injuries to an already thin offensive line have plagued the Aggies as much as anything in 2019. NMSU’s negative-1.18 turnover margin per game ranks among the nation’s worst, and the team was without three of its top four offensive tackles for its first eight games.

The Aggies have won the turnover battle in their last two games, wins over Incarnate Word and UTEP, while offensive-line play has improved. If nothing else, that sends NMSU into its finale with a chance to finish 2019 on a high note.

“We still have a lot to play for,” senior defensive lineman Cedric Wilcots II said. “We want to start something for the next groups coming in here. A three-game winning streak would be a great start.”

Wilcots believes a more aggressive approach has paid off for NMSU down the stretch. Defensively, it’s been evident in forced turnovers and tackles for loss.

“We had to get more physical,” Wilcots said. “We took that upon ourselves and it’s paid off the last two games. When you force turnovers and give the offense some short fields, it changes the game in a hurry.”

A similar approach has benefited NMSU’s offense. Martin still prefers a pass-first approach, but a much-improved rushing attack paid huge dividends in the Aggies’ back-to-back wins. They rushed for 554 combined yards against UIW and UTEP.

Those kind of numbers are unlikely against Liberty, but an effective running game figures to be crucial to NMSU upset hopes. Chilly and rainy conditions are expected.

“They’re a good run-stopping team,” running back Christian Gibson said of the Flames. “They do a good job getting off blocks, so it’ll be a challenge. But we’ve shown we’re capable the last two weeks. If we have to lean on the run game, we’re good enough to get it done.”

Equally important will be slowing down Liberty’s prolific passing combination of quarterback Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert and wideout Antonio Gandy-Golden. NMSU’s pass defense held up reasonably well in a 20-13 loss to Liberty earlier this season in Las Cruces, but Martin expects the Flames to come out firing with bowl eligibility at stake.

“(Calvert) is exceptional throwing the ball, extremely accurate,” Martin said, “and Gandy-Golden is an NFL player who hasn’t been drafted yet. I think you have to double him a lot, and we did a pretty good job with that the first time we played them. But it’ll be a challenge to do it again.”

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