LOGAN, Utah — One for the thumb, but there’s still another hand.
A late goal-line stand, a clutch drive by the offense and a 40-yard Jason Sanders field goal with 1:06 to play gave the New Mexico Lobos a 24-21 victory over Utah State Saturday night at Maverik Stadium.
It was the fifth straight win for the Lobos (7-3, 5-1 Mountain West Conference). New Mexico has two games left, its chances for a division championship still intact. Coupled with Wyoming’s loss at UNLV earlier Saturday, the Lobos’ win puts them in a tie for first place in the Mountain Division.
To secure the victory, UNM had to withstand a desperation Utah State drive that ended with a field-goal attempt that was ruled to have come after time had run out. Earlier on that drive, an apparent Aggies touchdown pass was nullified by a disputed offensive pass interference penalty.
To put Sanders in position to hit the game-winner, the UNM offense, guided by senior quarterback Austin Apodaca, took the ball from inside its 1-yard line to the Utah State 23. It was Sanders’ third made field goal of the game In as many tries.
“So many things,” UNM coach Bob Davie said afterward. “So many things. I thought Austin played great. And Jason Sanders was terrific.”
As Sanders watched Apodaca and the offense move from the shadow of the UNM goal line across midfield with the game clock winding down, he said, he was preparing himself mentally.
“I tried to go out there calm and confident of what I can do,” he said. “I’d made two field goals before that, which I think made a big impact on that last kick. It was just about the confidence going in there.”
The Lobos’ victory would have been far more difficult to achieve, if not impossible, had not linebacker Dakota Cox and cornerback Nias Martin teamed to stop Utah State running back Tonny Lindsey short of the goal line on a fourth-and-goal rush from the 1.
“We kind of had an idea what they were gonna do because they scored (earlier) when they kind of overloaded everyone in there and brought some big guys in to run the ball,” Cox said. “We kind of suspected that, and just played hard and filled our gaps and did our job. Tremendous effort by this defense.’
It was then left to Apodaca and the offense to put Sanders in position for the game-winner. Runs of 11 and 15 yards by Teriyon Gipson and an 11-yard Apodaca-to-Patrick Reed pass kept the sticks moving.
“It just seemed like the plays we made were big and really timely,” said Apodaca, whose modest statistics — 6-of-13 passing for 109 yards, 26 yards rushing — don’t begin to describe his impact on the outcome. “…I feel like we played a whole 60 minutes tonight, and it showed with the win.”
Still, for the Lobos, this was an uphill battle most of the night. After trailing from the 5:56 mark of the first quarter, New Mexico finally drew even late in the third.
After a bad Utah State punt, the Lobos, trailing 21-13, started on their 44-yard line. On the first play, Apodaca rolled to his right and found Q’ Drennan for a 37-yard gain. Four plays later, Gipson scored from the 4. Richard McQuarley then made the corner of the end zone on a tying 2-point conversion.
Utah State (3-7, 1-6) had threatened to pull away on the first series of the second half. A 48-yard pass from quarterback Kent Myers to wide receiver Ron’quavion Tarver led to a 4-yard Lindsey touchdown run, giving the Aggies a 21-6 lead with 12:26 left in the third quarter.
But Apodaca, stepping in for a largely ineffective starter Lamar Jordan, drove the Lobos 76 yards for their first touchdown of the game. A 26-yard run by Apodaca put UNM on the Utah State side of midfield. Seven plays later, on a third-and-9 play, he hit Reed for a first down at the 6. Gipson scored from the 5 two plays later, and the Lobos trailed by eight.
The Lobos failed to score a touchdown in the first half of a game for the first time since their loss to Arizona State in the third game of the 2015 season. Trading field goals for touchdowns, they went into halftime trailing 14-6.
Three times in the first half, UNM failed to convert on fourth down. Meanwhile, the possibility of a blowout loss of Boise State proportions reared its head in the first quarter.
On the game’s first possession, the Lobos drove from their 18-yard line to the Utah State 38 before a Jordan pass intended for Dameon Gamblin was incomplete on fourth-and-6.
The Aggies then drove 62 yards on eight plays for the evening’s first touchdown. A 26-yard pass from Myers to Andrew Rodriguez set up a 13-yard Lindsey run for the score.
After UNM went three-and-out on its next possession, Myers hit Tarver for a 22-yard TD to complete a six-play, 71-yard drive with 2:25 left in the quarter and a 14-0 Utah State lead.
But the rout was not on. The remaining three Utah State drives of the first half totaled just 30 yards and produced one first down. UNM’s offense, meanwhile, got itself into the game.
On the first play from scrimmage after Utah State’s second touchdown, Jordan hit Drennan for 41 yards to the USU 34. The Lobos got to the 12, but after a Jordan 7-yard loss and an Apodaca incompletion they settled for a 36-yard Sanders field goal.
After the defense forced a Utah State three-and-out, a 15-play UNM drive that consumed 8 minutes, 17 seconds put the Lobos on the Utah State 16. But on fourth down, McQuarley was drilled for a 1-yard loss.
Another defensive stop gave the ball back to the Lobos with 3:05 left in the first half. A 34-yard pass from Apodaca to Matt Quarells gave UNM a first down on the Utah State 20, but three incompletions brought Sanders back on the field. He hit a 37-yard field goal with 44 seconds left.
New Mexico 24, Utah St. 21
New Mexico 0 6 15 3—24
Utah St. 14 0 7 0—21
First Quarter: UTS—To.Lindsey 13 run (Warren kick), 6:05 UTS—Tarver 22 pass from Myers (Warren kick), 2:25 Second Quarter: NM—FG Sanders 36, 14:49 NM—FG Sanders 37, :44 Third Quarter: UTS—To.Lindsey 4 run (Warren kick), 12:35 NM—Gipson 5 run (Sanders kick), 6:40 NM—Gipson 4 run (McQuarley run), 2:24 Fourth Quarter: NM—FG Sanders 40, 1:06
First downs 22 20
Rushes-yards 57-249 28-128
Passing 154 263
Comp-Att-Int 8-17-0 21-27-1
Return Yards 61 50
Punts-Avg. 3-35.0 4-33.5
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 6-64 7-75
Time of Possession 36:36 23:24
RUSHING—New Mexico, Gipson 18-107, McQuarley 14-44, Owens 10-37, Apodaca 2-26, L.Jordan 8-17, Chestnut 3-12, Gamblin 1-5, Woodhouse 1-1. Utah St., Hobbs 5-42, To.Lindsey 12-26, Hunt 3-21, Myers 4-18, K.Williams 2-14, Bright 2-7.
PASSING—New Mexico, L.Jordan 2-4-0-45, Apodaca 6-13-0-109. Utah St., Myers 21-27-1-263.
RECEIVING—New Mexico, Reed 3-32, Drennan 2-78, Quarells 1-34, E.Harris 1-6, Gamblin 1-4. Utah St., Tarver 6-84, Rodriguez 3-46, Roberts 3-18, Hunt 2-30, Bright 2-13, Colston-Green 1-48, Houston 1-10, R.Lewis 1-8, Van Leeuwen 1-6, K.Williams 1-0.