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LAS CRUCES — Four minutes.
That’s how close New Mexico State was last season to ending a now seven-game losing streak to rival UTEP.
Instead, the Aggies prepare for Saturday’s rematch against the Miners with the memories of losing two 14-point leads last year in the second half for a 50-47 overtime loss at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
“When you have a 14-point lead with four minutes left, you should win the game,” Aggies coach Doug Martin said. “We gave up explosion plays on the last two drives that absolutely killed us. Offensively we had a chance to still win it in regulation and we were almost in field-goal range, but we didn’t get it done. It was a team loss, but you still can’t lose those kinds of games.”
Football is the ultimate team sport, but it was the Aggies defense that surrendered a 14-point lead with 4:07 to play.
“They just kept going and going, and we couldn’t get a stop,” Aggies junior safety Jaden Wright said. “This year if we are in the same situation, we just have to get off the field.”
UTEP played the game without star running back Aaron Jones, who will be on the field Saturday. It was backup quarterback Ryan Metz who led late game drives of 75 and 98 yards to send the game into overtime.
“It was four minutes,” said Aggies junior safety Jacob Nwangwa, whose pick-six off a Metz throw gave the Aggies a 23-9 lead in the third quarter last year. “That was all it took for us to close out that game. We are playing 60 minutes this time.”
Both fourth quarter UTEP drives started with pass interference calls against NMSU cornerbacks to give the Miners breathing room.
Both drives also featured big plays, which has been a weakness in previous years that first-year defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani is hoping to address.
“They have a formidable running combination with a big offensive line, they have backs who can block, and a running back that is as good as any in the country,” Spaziani said. “The past is what it is. If they come out throwing, they are probably doing us a favor.”
UTEP pulled to within seven on a 48-yard pass to Cole Freytag with 3:08 to play.
After an Aggies three-and-out, the Miners started the next drive at their own 2-yard line with 2:01 to play, but a Lewis Hill pass interference call put them at the 17. Metz was 6 of 8 for 83 yards on the Miners game-tying 98-yard drive with no timeouts. Metz capped the drive and sent the game into overtime with an 8-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds to play.
“It’s definitely eating us up, and we can’t wait until Sept. 3,” Wright said. “We feel like we had them and beat them in all phases of the game, but we just have to finish.”
Spaziani’s group has played with a higher level of confidence in fall camp, partly due to another year of maturity by most of the returning players.
“I think the talent level is better and we are more disciplined,” said junior linebacker Dalton Herrington, who will start Saturday at weak side linebacker in place of the injured Derek Ibekwe (sports hernia). “(Spaziani) has us doing everything right, and guys aren’t making mistakes. If we put ourselves in position to make plays, I think we have the guys who can make those plays now.”
NMSU allowed 45 points per game last season, and it was evident in practice that the offense was the superior group. There has been a clear difference this fall against their offensive counterparts.
“The last two years we have been here, the offense has always got the best of us in any sort of live work we did,” Herrington said. “But going back to the spring game and all three scrimmages in fall camp, we feel like we played really well. It gives us confidence going into the first game.”
It remains to be seen just how different Spaziani’s defense will be from last year’s group, but it’s a defense that has rallied to the ball, blitzed more often and played more physical at the point of attack.
“With (Spaziani) being here in the spring, it really helped us, and we picked up where we left off playing fast and playing physical,” Wright said.
It’s UTEP and it’s the season opener, so there are plenty of motivating factors. Last year’s ending is just one of them.
“The fact that it’s a rivalry is almost enough. But for the guys who have been here and played last year knowing that we let one get away from us, definitely gives you a little more to play for,” Herrington said. “But we are trying to focus on us and being at our best when we show up Saturday.”