Aggies keep it interesting with third-string QB

New Mexico States quarterback Dino Maldonado runs to pick up his helmet after it was knocked off by a defensive lineman Saturday afternoon at University Stadium (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

All things considered, Doug Martin could not be too disappointed late Saturday night.

Yes, his New Mexico State Aggies came up on the short end of a 34-25 score in an entertaining Rio Grande Rivalry football battle at University Stadium. But the Aggies’ coach had to acknowledge how close his team game came without its entire arsenal.

Starting quarterback Jonah Johnson left with a wrist injury after passing for just 33 yards. Second-stringer Weston Eget is out with a knee injury and didn’t dress for Saturday’s game.

Enter sophomore walk-on Dino Maldonado, who joined NMSU’s program during the summer and was thrown to the Lobos in an emergency situation Saturday night.

“Pretty crazy,” Maldonado said, “but I felt like I was ready for it. I just wanted to play football and try to help my team.”

Maldonado performed better than anyone had a right to expect, passing for 192 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 45 yards after entering the game with his team in an early 14-3 hole. The transfer from California’s Ventura College kept the Aggies in the fight, trailing just 27-25 early in the fourth quarter.

“He played his heart out,” Martin said of Maldonado. “God love him.”

Still, losing Johnson put New Mexico State (0-3) in a tough spot in terms of game plan. The extent of his injury was uncertain Saturday night, but he’ll undergo an MRI next week, Martin said.

Without Johnson, there were only so many options for New Mexico State’s offense.

“There’s only about four pass plays Dino can run right now,” Martin said, “and no checks whatsoever. He did as good as anybody could have, especially against that defense.”

It wasn’t all good news for Maldonado, who finished 13-of-34 with a pair of interceptions on his card. But NMSU did enough – coming up with key defensive stops and hitting a well-executed trick play – to keep the in-state rivalry game entertaining almost to the finish.

Sophomore wideout Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda came off the COVID list and provided some highlight material. He returned to practice Wednesday after missing last week’s game at San Diego State and contributed the first two touchdowns of his Aggies career – one passing, one receiving.

The first came on when Maldonado hit him near the left sideline with a lateral pass. Maldonado then fired a 11-yard scoring pass to Thomaz Whitford.

“We worked on that a lot at practice, ” Garcia-Castaneda said. “It’s exciting to actually complete it in the game.”

The play trimmed UNM’s lead to 14-13 midway through the second quarter, and Maldonado later hit Garcia-Castaneda in stride for a 75-yard touchdown that pulled NMSU back to within a point at 21-20.

Still, Martin knew his team would be hard-pressed to keep up in a high-scoring game without either of his first two quarterbacks available. For the most part, the Aggies’ defense was able to rise to the occasion.

UNM did rack up 559 yards (381 through the air) and exposed NMSU’s secondary on several long pass plays. But the Aggies refused to break, stopping the Lobos on three separate fourth-and-short situations and keeping the game within striking distance until late in the fourth quarter.

“You know you’re not going to score much with a third-string quarterback,” Martin said, “but our guys just kept fighting. They played their tails off. You have to give them credit for that.”

SATURDAY: South Carolina State at New Mexico State, 6 p.m., NM “The CW El Paso” Radio: 99.5 FM KXPZ

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