Forget about easing into the 2016 football season.
The New Mexico State Aggies will gladly admit they’ve had tonight’s opener at UTEP circled on the calendar for quite some time.
“We’ve really been thinking about it since the spring,” sophomore wide receiver Royce Caldwell said. “We know (the Miners) stole one from us last year, so I think we have more of an edge going in. We don’t want that to happen again.”
Actually, UTEP has held the upper hand in the annual Battle of I-10 for some time. The Miners have won the last seven meetings between the two border rivals and will look to make it eight when the teams kick off at 6 p.m. at the Sun Bowl.
Even so, few if any of those previous losses stung more than UTEP’s 50-47 overtime victory last year in Las Cruces. NMSU led 44-30 with just 4:07 remaining in regulation but allowed two long UTEP drives that ultimately forced overtime. The Aggies settled for a field goal in the extra period, and the Miners answered with a game-winning touchdown.
It’s fair to say the Aggies are looking forward to a shot at redemption.
“The next game is always the most important,” senior defensive lineman Noah Brown said diplomatically, “so this is the most important game of our season right now.”
“Yeah, going to the Sun Bowl to open against our rival is pretty exciting,” Brown added.
Aggies coach Doug Martin also sees the game from a glass half-full or empty perspective. Martin conceded he’d prefer to open against a Football Championship Series opponent like his team’s other rival, New Mexico, did.
That said, Martin did not try to downplay the importance of tonight’s rivalry game.
“There’s not much better way to kick off the season against a bitter rival,” he said, “especially one you haven’t beaten in a while. Motivation won’t be a problem for us.”
Injuries, however, might be an issue for the Aggies, who are looking to improve on last season’s 3-9 record.
Star running back Larry Rose III and linebacker Derek Ibekwe, NMSU’s leading tackler last season, remain doubtful for today’s contest. Both underwent surgery to repair sports hernias in August.
Big deals? Well, after previously being listed as 3½-point favorites, the Miners were 9½-point picks Friday.
UTEP, on the other hand, has a key weapon back in its arsenal. Junior running back Aaron Jones, who missed most of last season with an injury, is healthy and a definite cause for concern among NMSU’s coaches.
“He’s a special player,” Martin said. “He’s going to be an NFL running back at some point, so we better get a lot of hats to the ball whenever Jones touches it.”
New Mexico State’s defense has been porous at best in recent seasons, but the combination of improved depth and new defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani have fueled hopes for significant improvement. Martin conceded that previous Aggies defenses had trouble matching up against physical squads like UTEP in recent years.
“UTEP is always one of the most physical teams we play,” Martin said. “Until last year, we couldn’t match them. Last year we matched up physically but didn’t win. We’re deeper up front now, so it’ll be interesting to see how we do in the trenches. That’s where the game will be won or lost.”
Senior quarterback Tyler Rogers is expected to start for the Aggies despite an arrest on misdemeanor battery charges in mid-August. The 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office announced this week it would not prosecute Rogers, and Martin has said he would start barring further complications in the case.
NO RADIO BROADCAST: As of Friday afternoon, New Mexico State had not secured a radio affiliate to broadcast Aggies games in the Albuquerque area this season. Athletic director Mario Moccia said earlier this week that Learfield Sports, which controls NMSU sports broadcast rights, was “working feverishly” to secure an Albuquerque affiliate but nothing was finalized by Friday.
Today’s game will be televised on beIN Sports, which is available on DirecTV (channel 620), Dish (392) and Comcast (268). Live streaming is also available at beINsports.com.