February football, anyone?
The New Mexico State University football team will take a stab at something completely different Sunday, taking on Tarleton State at the Sun Bowl in El Paso. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m.
It’s a long-awaited moment for the Aggies, who did not participate in fall football because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the first of two spring games for NMSU, which will also host Dixie State at the Sun Bowl on March 6.
While two games hardly qualify as a season, they do represent an opportunity for New Mexico State. Coach Doug Martin’s team will get a moment in the spotlight as the only Football Bowl Subdivision team playing spring games. It’s also a chance for the rebuilt Aggies to gain needed experience.
“We’re just excited to have a game,” Martin said, “anywhere, against anyone. Obviously, this feels more like spring camp than a true season and the primary goal is to get ready for the fall. But we have so many new players in the program and you can learn a lot by putting guys in game situations. This can really help us.”
It will be the first game in 450 days for the Aggies, who began full-team practices on Jan. 19 but are prohibited from playing at home because of New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions. It is the first meeting between NMSU and Tarleton State, which is transitioning to Division I football and will be playing its first-ever FBS-level opponent.
Fans will not be allowed at Sunday’s game but NMSU coaches will get their first look at a number of new players. That includes junior quarterback Jonah Johnson, who is expected to start versus the Texans.
A transfer from Fresno City College, Johnson passed for 1,818 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019 while rushing for 254 yards and six TDs. Johnson is battling redshirt freshman Weston Eget for the starting spot, and Martin indicated Eget may start against Dixie State, allowing both players to play an entire game.
Both QBs bring a dimension to the NMSU offense that has been lacking in recent seasons, Martin said.
“They both have strong arms, which will allow us to throw deep,” he said. “They’re both fairly mobile, too, but Jonah is especially good on the move. For a guy his size (6-foot-3, 240 pounds), he can really run.”
The Aggies have a number of returnees on offense and their line is expected to be a strength. Former Los Lunas High standout and Michigan transfer O’Maury Samuels is likely to be NMSU’s primary running back in 2021, but a “minor” injury may keep him out Sunday, Martin said.
The Aggies have little experience on defense and figure to be tested by a Tarleton State team that put up 37 points in a double-overtime loss to McNeese State last week. Running backs Braelon Bridges and Ryheem Skinner led the rush-happy Texans, combining for 167 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries.
“They’ll be a major test for us,” Martin said. “Tarleton State has been a good program for a long time, and they’re ready to move up to Division I. If you dropped them in the Sun Belt, I bet they could win six games. They have that kind of talent.”
THINKING AHEAD: Tarleton State and Dixie State are members of the expanding Western Athletic Conference, which will sponsor Football Championship Subdivision football beginning in 2022. NMSU is a WAC member for other sports but remains an FBS independent for football and has scheduled as such through 2025, athletic director Mario Moccia said.
New Mexico State could ultimately rejoin the conference’s football ranks should the WAC move to the FBS level. Tarleton State President Dr. James Hurley says such a transition is already in the works.
“Our goal going into this is to immediately start laying out a plan among the presidents and athletic directors to develop a strategic plan to become an FBS conference,” Hurley told tarletonsports.com. “That work will start Day 1. We understand that realistically this is going to be at least a five-year process.”
The WAC has announced that football-playing schools Lamar, Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State and Southern Utah will join the league by July 2022.