The lights will finally come back on Saturday at Aggie Memorial Stadium for what will be a unique college football opening night.
A New Mexico State team with a slew of first-time performers will host I-10 rival UTEP for the first collegiate game in Las Cruces in 644 days. Oddly enough, the Aggies and Miners met in the last pre-pandemic game at Aggie Memorial (a 44-35 NMSU win to cap 2019), and New Mexico State played its two recent spring games at UTEP’s Sun Bowl.
Still, Saturday night offers a chance for these longtime combatants to get back together after COVID-19 canceled last year’s meeting for just the third time since 1945. It will be a new experience for 46 Aggies who will play their first official game at NMSU.
“I don’t know the history, but I know this is a serious game,” said junior wideout Dominic Gicinto, a transfer from Missouri. “Starting against a rival, this sets the tone for the season.”
What that tone will be is anyone’s guess. The Miners, who went 3-5 during an abbreviated 2020 fall season, come to Las Cruces as 9-point favorites over an NMSU program that did not play last fall and went 1-1 in its two spring contests.
“Those games in the spring were really scrimmages,” Aggies coach Doug Martin said. “We haven’t played an actual game since 2019, and it’s remarkable that we’ve come as far as we have after everything these guys went through.
“But everyone’s looking forward to getting back on the field, and a rivalry game’s a great way to start the season. It adds excitement for both sides, for the fans, for everybody.”
New Mexico State’s cast of performers has changed dramatically since 2019. An offensive line anchored by senior left tackle Sage Doxtater and graduate transfers Eli Johnson (center, Ole Miss) and Doro Omeri (right tackle, Houston Baptist) figures to be a strength, but there are numerous questions to be answered elsewhere.
A key one is, who will start at quarterback for the Aggies? Junior transfer Jonah Johnson and redshirt freshman Weston Eget have been battling for the spot, and Martin has declined to settle the issue.
Los Lunas native and Michigan transfer O’maury Samuels and redshirt freshman Juwaun Price will likely split carries at running back, while Gicinto and senior Robert Downs III highlight a deep receiver corps.
Downs smiled when asked what fans can expect from NMSU’s revamped offense.
“We can do some different things,” he said. “I have complete confidence in both (quarterbacks) and I’m excited to show what we can do as an offense.”
UTEP, with new coordinators on both offense and defense, may have some new wrinkles as well. But Martin expects to see two staples of fourth-year head coach Dana Dimel’s program featured prominently — a power rushing attack and physical defensive line play.
“UTEP is always a tough, physical team,” Martin said. “This game will be an indicator of how we match up, because UTEP is going to come right at you.”
Deion Hankins led a deep stable of running backs with 592 yards last season. UTEP rushed for 16 touchdowns and figures to test an inexperienced Aggies defense.
ON THE AIR: New Mexico State does not have a radio affiliate in Albuquerque to start this season, but Saturday’s game will be available through several TV or streaming outlets. Bally Sports Arizona (DirecTV 686, Comcast Xfinity 258) and Comcast Channel 77 will carry the game. Live streaming is available on pay site FloFootball.com.
UTEP at New Mexico State, 7:30 p.m., Bally Sports Arizona, Comcast, FloFootball.com