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Aggies football: Plenty at stake vs. UTEP

New Mexico State running back Larry Rose III, shown scoring a touchdown against Cal Poly in the season opener, and the undefeated Aggies take on UTEP today in the Sun Bowl in the Battle of I-10. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico State running back Larry Rose III, shown scoring a touchdown against Cal Poly in the season opener, and the undefeated Aggies take on UTEP today in the Sun Bowl in the Battle of I-10. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Nothing stirs the blood quite like a silver spade or a brass spittoon.

These are the traditional spoils of victory in the Battle of I-10, the football rivalry game between New Mexico State and UTEP. Round 92 of a series that dates to 1914 will be contested tonight at El Paso’s Sun Bowl.

The two offbeat traveling trophies date back far longer than any of tonight’s combatants have been alive. The Silver Spade has been awarded since 1947, and the Brass Spittoon (officially named the Mayor’s Cup) was added in 1982.

Many NMSU players only recently learned of the trophies.

“We’ve been educating them on the UTEP rivalry and how important it is to our alums,” Aggies coach Doug Martin said. “This game will be another new experience for a lot of these guys. Before we went to Georgia State last week, we asked how many were making their first college football road trip. About three quarters of them raised their hands, which was a little alarming.”

The Aggies rallied for a 34-31 win in that game, improving to 2-0 for the first time since 1999. Now they face a much shorter, likely more difficult trip to take on the Miners (1-1), who have won the last five meetings and lead the series 54-35-2.

Trophies aside, NMSU’s players are aware of the game’s significance.

“This is one week I can’t sleep or anything,” senior center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke said. “It’s UTEP week. It’s huge.”

Added senior defensive back Winston Rose: “It means everything. We’re playing for the highway, I-10.”

To hear coaches and players tell it, the history of NMSU-UTEP is more complicated than tonight’s game. This one figures to resemble a game of keep-away.

The rush-happy Miners won last year’s contest by steadily grinding down the Aggies’ defense. UTEP rushed for 244 yards in the second half and pulled away for a 42-21 victory in Las Cruces.

Led by sophomore tailback Aaron Jones, the Miners may be even more stout in the running game this season. Jones leads the nation with 384 rushing yards and has scored five touchdowns on the ground in UTEP’s first two games.

“There’s no great mystery to what they do,” Martin said. “They have four, five plays they really believe in and they run them over and over.”

The Aggies say they’re looking forward to the challenge.

“They’re a hard-runnin’ team. They’re legit,” NMSU linebacker Rodney Butler said of the Miners. “As a defense, we want to show we can stop the run. We’re prepared mentally and physically to do that.”

NMSU’s offense must do it’s part, as well. The Aggies turned the ball over four times in last season’s loss, contributing the defense’s demise.

The Aggies may be better prepared to play smash-mouth with the Miners this time around. The one-two punch of running backs Larry Rose III and Brandon Betancourt has been effective through two games.

“Those two guys are an excellent running back combination,” UTEP coach Sean Kugler said during his weekly media conference. “(Rose) reminds me a lot of our own guy, Aaron Jones. He’s very shifty, runs strong and can make people miss. Betancourt runs hard, he’s physical and can break tackles.”

Rose left last week’s game at Georgia State in the third quarter with an ankle sprain but has practiced this week and is expected to play, Martin said.

Neither NMSU nor UTEP is entirely dependent on straight-ahead rushing. Respective quarterbacks Tyler Rogers and Jameill Showers are mobile and quite capable of making plays in the passing game.

Still, both coaches expect the more physical team to walk away with the Silver Spade and Brass Spittoon this year.

“Anytime New Mexico State and UTEP get together, it’s a hard-hitting rivalry game that I really enjoy being part of,” said Kugler, a former player for the Miners. “Both teams are improving and there’s a lot of passion for this game. Both sides want to win badly.”

IN ALBUQUERQUE: The local Crimson Central Chapter’s game watch will take place at Altitude Sports Grill inside Hotel Cascada, 2500 Carlisle NE, beginning at 5:30 p.m.

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