LAS CRUCES — For a club returning just four starters, not having played a legitimate college football game in close to two years, New Mexico State totally looked that part Saturday night in front of 19,034 at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
Missed opportunities, dropped passes, untimely penalties and instant replay all conspired against the Aggies on the way to a season- opening 30-3 loss to UTEP.
The defeat snapped a three-game Aggies win streak that spanned four years versus their annual Interstate 10 rival. The Miners previously held an 8-game win streak that spanned from 2009 through 2016.
The clubs missed their annual matchup in 2020 due to COVID- 19. It was the first time the Miners and Aggies failed to meet on the gridiron since 2003.
UTEP moved to 1-0 on the season while the Aggies dropped to 0-1. The Miners won three games a season ago while NMSU split a couple of spring contests, slipping past Dixie College 36-29 to close that truncated season.
One of those four returning starters, Aggies junior quarterback Jonah Johnson, reprised his role as team skipper, connecting on 8-of-24 passes for a scant 66 first-half yards. UTEP redshirt sophomore Gavin Hardison went 11-16-1, 249.
UTEP’S Jacob Cowings (5-for158, one TD) led all receivers. NMSU ground out just 93 yards rushing for the night.
It took all of one Miner offensive snap to attack a defense returning solely right end Donavan King, launching a 47-yard bomb down the right sideline to 5-foot-11 sophomore Jacob Cowling.
After a holding penalty nullified that play, UTEP went right back to that well two snaps later, this time down the left side for a 72-yard gainer. Three plays later, Deion Hankins punched paydirt off right guard from five yards out at the 10:37 mark of the first quarter to hand the Miners a 7-0 lead they would not relinquish.
Johnson scrambled on NMSU’s next snap, a Justin Prince hit shaking him loose of the ball for the night’s first turnover. But the Aggies’ amazingly green D held firm, allowing just a 35-yard Gavin Baechle field goal as residual damage in a 10-0 deficit.
Roughing-the-passer and late-hit penalties ignited NMSU’s next offensive, an Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda 12-yard grab getting the Ags inside the UTEP 20. But after a holding penalty stalled the drive, sophomore Ethan Albertson clanked a 38-yard field goal attempt off the right upright for his first miss in six kicks as an Aggie.
A Justin Garrett 36-yard catch on the ensuing snap got the Miners across midfield. Five plays later, junior Ronald Awatt (11 carries, 74 yards) swept left end for a 34-yard score, Caleb Mills grabbing the Miner runner’s face mask as he entered the end zone for a 15-yard personal foul tack-on.
Dominic Gicinto’s (2-for-31) catch and yet another Miners personal foul penalty accounted for 30 yards as NMSU finally got on the board early in quarter two, Albertson knocking in a 27-yard field goal at 13:49 to close within 17-3. But only after Gicinto’s leaping apparent touchdown catch in the left corner of the end zone was ruled incomplete by both official and instant replay.