Turns out, the pundits had it right. The UTEP Miners (7-5) and the Utah State Aggies (9-4) will play at University Stadium Dec. 20 in the ninth annual Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
The UTEP-Utah State matchup was the consensus pick for the New Mexico Bowl in the many bowl projections found online in the days leading up to Sunday’s announcement. Thus, while there was no surprise, executive director Jeff Siembieda expressed satisfaction.
“It’s two fan bases and two programs that are headed in the right direction,” Siembieda said. “And they want to be here.”
Utah State’s New Mexico Bowl bid is its first. UTEP played in the fifth annual contest in 2010, losing to Brigham Young 52-24.
The two programs are virtual strangers, having played each other only twice – and more than a half-century ago. Utah State beat the Miners 20-7 in 1960 and 21-6 the following year.
The 2010 UTEP-BYU matchup drew a crowd announced at 32,424, the second-best in the event’s history, with plenty of orange-clad Miners fans in the stands.
Siembieda said he’s not sure how Utah State, located in Logan, Utah, population about 50,000, will travel. But, he said, “Just talking to people up there, I know they’re excited. I know they wanted to come here.”
Both teams and both coaching staffs are familiar with University Stadium, and both have had recent success there.
The Miners opened their 2014 season in Albuquerque with a 31-24 victory over New Mexico. Utah State was last here in 2013, when the Aggies hammered the Lobos 45-10.
Utah State coach Matt Wells is a former UNM assistant – twice. He worked for Rocky Long as wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator in 2007-08, then for Mike Locksley in 2010 before returning to Utah State, his alma mater, as an assistant. He took over the head coaching job last year after Gary Andersen’s departure for Wisconsin.
Just as Wells is coaching at his alma mater, so is second-year UTEP coach Sean Kugler, who played for the Miners in the 1980s.
The game could be a classic match-up, pitting UTEP’s power running game against one of the toughest run defenses in the nation. Look for prolific Miners running back Aaron Jones to see a lot of Aggies linebacker Zach Vigil, the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and vice versa.
Jones rushed for 1,233 yards this season, 237 of which came against New Mexico on the University Stadium synthetic turf. He averaged 5.68 yards per carry on the year.
Vigil and his brother Nick, also a linebacker, led a Utah State defense that allowed 129.3 yards per game on the ground – about 18 yards more than Jones averaged by himself for UTEP.
The teams have relatively short but interesting bowl histories.
For Utah State, this will be a fourth consecutive bowl trip after a 14-year drought. The Aggies are 3-6 in bowl competition but are working on a two-game win streak, having beaten Toledo in the 2012 Idaho Potato Bowl and Northern Illinois in last year’s Poinsettia Bowl.
The Miners haven’t played in a postseason game since their New Mexico Bowl loss to BYU four years ago. They’re 5-8 overall but have lost their last five, having last won a bowl game in 1967.