College football: Improved Aggies will test depth against Kentucky

There’s no way to describe New Mexico State’s coming visit to Kentucky without calling the Aggies prohibitive underdogs.

NMSU signed up for the football road game against a bigger, faster SEC opponent knowing full well it would likely be signing up for a long day. The contract includes a $1.3 million paycheck, but that’s little consolation to New Mexico State’s players, who won’t receive a cut.

So rather than focus on the long odds they’re facing (the Wildcats were 18- to 19½-point favorites Tuesday), the Aggies are looking at their date in Lexington as a measuring stick.

How will they measure up in terms of depth, conditioning and even on the scoreboard? Compared to recent New Mexico State squads, that is.

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“It’s an opportunity for us because we haven’t played well against an SEC team yet,” linebacker Dalton Herrington said during Tuesday’s media conference. “We’ve only played well in spurts. We want to show we can compete for four quarters and really be competitive with these guys.”

Saturday’s game will be NMSU’s fifth against an SEC team since 2012, and the first four did not end well for the Aggies. New Mexico State lost road games against Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss and Florida by an average margin of 55-8.

Can the 2016 Aggies do better?

Coach Doug Martin and his players believe so, primarily because of improved depth and conditioning. Both factors seemed to play into NMSU’s 32-31 victory over New Mexico last week, when the Aggies outscored the Lobos 17-7 over the final 25 minutes and appeared to be wearing the visitors down.

Players were quick to credit a rigorous offseason program and the work of NMSU director of sports performance Don Decker. The praise was music to Martin’s ears.

“Getting that win was huge,” Martin said, “partly because it validates us and what we’ve been telling (the players) about getting stronger and being in better condition. At some point you have to have results or they stop believing you. I think they believe us now.”

NMSU also has a full allotment of scholarship players this season for the first time in Martin’s tenure, which can only help against a physical SEC foe.

“This is the first year we’ve had depth at each position,” senior running back Xavier Hall said. “… In previous years we had some solid guys starting, but (SEC opponents) just wore us down.”

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Depth and conditioning improvements aside, the Aggies (1-1) expect to face an emotional firestorm in Lexington. Kentucky is 0-2 and has been outscored 63-7 in its last six quarters.

“They’re going to be upset,” Hall said of the Wildcats. “We have to be ready for that.”

GETTING THEIR KICKS: New Mexico State’s kicking game has shown tremendous improvement through two games this season. Sophomore place-kicker Parker Davidson is 5-for-5 converting field goals, while freshman punter Peyton Theisler is averaging 50.6 yards per kick. Neither position has been one of strength in recent years.

“You don’t appreciate a kicker until you don’t have one,” Martin said. “Parker has been so solid with field goals, and Theisler’s been a weapon in the field-position game.”

Theisler’s most impressive punt did not count toward his statistics. It came against UNM, when he scooped up a bad snap, avoided pursuit and kicked on the run from his own end zone. The ball ended up at the NMSU 42 and was classified as a “team” punt because of the bad snap.

“Getting that ball out of the end zone was one of the biggest plays of the game,” Martin said. “For a freshman to keep his poise and make that play was tremendous.”

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