Asked in the preseason how far away the Aggies were from being a bowl-caliber team, Martin’s response: Barometers and measuring sticks would largely be dictated by how NMSU performed against its two regional rivals. Ditto when asked about what some of the team’s goals were entering a 2013 season as an independent.
Players followed suit: Practices often have seen NMSU break team huddles by chanting “Beat UTEP” or “Beat UNM” in unison.
The 0-2 Aggies will get their first crack Saturday night when the 0-1 UTEP Miners come to Aggie Memorial Stadium.
“If you look at the history of New Mexico State, every year we have won the UTEP and the New Mexico game in the same year, those have been winning seasons,” Martin said this week. “Those have been productive years, (when) something special has happened. That’s why you study history. So you can learn from it. And that’s what I wanted our players to realize. They understand the importance of this game, not only for our fans but for what we can do if we’re fortunate enough to win this football game.”
Players said they noticed an emphasis put on the UTEP and UNM dates almost immediately since Martin took over.
“Regardless of who we’re playing week to week – we’re definitely focused on that team – but we got in the back of our minds, UTEP and UNM,” cornerback Cameron Fuller said. “We’re definitely looking forward to it.”
Said fellow cornerback Darien Johnson: “He’s made it a big emphasis. Rivalry games are important for not only the football team but the towns, the cities. Coach Martin’s trying to build that in our heads. This is an important game, and we’ve got to take this game seriously. Go out and win these games, because it’s real big for the program.”
Aside from the rivalry aspects of the contest, Saturday’s game is crucial for other reasons, as well.
While UTEP lost 42-35 in overtime at home to New Mexico last weekend, the Aggies have fallen to two BCS teams (Texas and Minnesota). In a sense, during an independent schedule that’s chock-full of challenges, UTEP is one early-season contest the Aggies can shoot for. (UTEP was listed as a 5½-point favorite Wednesday, down from opening at 6.) Saturday’s game can also give the Aggies a good idea of how they’ll compete when they travel to Albuquerque on Oct. 5 to play the Lobos.
“Obviously we’re not worried about New Mexico right now. It’s just a one-game season with UTEP,” Martin said. “But it is interesting to see the talent level of both teams and our talent level. Compare it, and we’ll find out a lot about ourselves this Saturday, about how far we need to go recruiting-wise and playing, and getting better.”
Martin also pointed out the Aggies didn’t beat the Miners in the past four years of the DeWayne Walker era.
“We haven’t won this game in a long, long time,” he said. “If our players want to be significant, this is the weekend to get that started.”