Aggies, UTEP face off for 91st time
LAS CRUCES – An old rivalry gets a new spin when the UTEP football team takes on New Mexico State tonight at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
The Miners and Aggies have squared off 90 times during the I-10 Rivalry’s long history, but both programs have first-year coaches and are in states of transition. Both teams also are in serious need of a win.
NMSU (0-2) is mired in a 13-game losing streak overall and hasn’t beaten UTEP since 2008. The Aggies opened the season against BCS programs Texas and Minnesota, teams they realistically had little hope of defeating.
Such is not the case this week.
UTEP (0-1) is coming off a difficult home loss to New Mexico (42-35 in overtime) and has more new faces and question marks than anything else.
Tonight’s game represents a precious opportunity, and both teams know it.
“It’s really important for me this year,” Aggie senior cornerback Darien Johnson said, “because since I’ve been here we’ve never beaten UTEP. It’s kind of a tradition around here that people take the New Mexico game more seriously. I think we should hate UTEP just as much.”
First-year Miners coach Sean Kugler knows all about the rivalry as a former UTEP player. He played it up this week with talk of bad blood and filling Aggie Memorial Stadium with orange-clad Miner fans. As of late Friday, some 14,851 tickets remained available in a stadium roughly twice that capacity.
“There’s always energy from both teams and both fan bases,” Kugler said during his weekly media conference. “I always enjoyed it as a player and a coach and I’m looking forward to this one as a head coach.”
The rivalry energy could well be boosted by on-field fireworks. Both NMSU and UTEP have shown the ability to move the ball, but neither has been able to keep foes out of the end zone. Will the 91st meeting turn into an Old West shootout?
The Aggies were feeling pretty good about their offense after watching video of New Mexico running roughshod over UTEP. NMSU guard Andy Cunningham even wanted to turn to a ground-and-pound attack.
“I want to run it right down their throats,” said Cunningham, a sophomore from Frisco, Texas. “Watching New Mexico attack (the Miners’) defensive line, one lineman got knocked down 30 times. We want to take our shot.”
Aggies coach Doug Martin said the video was educational because New Mexico runs some of the same rushing plays NMSU employs. He was not ready to drastically change the Aggies’ game plan.
“New Mexico pounds the ball,” Martin said. “It’s two different worlds when you compare our offense to theirs. We have to stick to our strengths.”
The Aggies had that lesson reinforced against Minnesota, when they repeatedly tried to run the ball early with little success. NMSU switched to a spread attack midway through the second quarter and began to give the Golden Gophers trouble.
“I think right now we’re just better with four or five wideouts than we are in our big package,” Martin said.
If the Aggies look to set up the run by passing, UTEP likely will attempt to pound the ball forward on a regular basis. The Miners ran well vs. UNM and don’t figure to back off against an NMSU defense that’s been vulnerable to straight-ahead rushing.
“Their running backs are good,” Johnson said, referring to UTEP tailbacks Nathan Jeffery and Aaron Jones. “We have to be ready for another physical game.”
Martin also expects UTEP to take its shots in the passing game with transfer QB Jameill Showers.
“He’s an elite player,” Martin said of Showers, who transferred from Texas A&M after the emergence of Johnny Manziel. “He’s the best quarterback we’ve played against so far. This game’s going to be another big challenge for our defense.”