The New Mexico State football team makes their 2016 home debut tonight against in-state rival UNM in the Rio Grande Rivalry. The Aggies have lost four straight in the series and are looking to bounce back from last week's 38-22 season opening loss at UTEP. The Lobos opened the season with a 48-21 win over FCS foe South Dakota. The Lobos rolled up 615 total yards of offense including 428 rushing yards. The Aggie offense struggled in the first game scoring just 16 points. Obviously the absence of Larry Rose III hurt the offense's productivity and it appears that he will not play again this week as he continues to recover from his sports hernia surgery.
The Aggie defense didn't fare much better giving up 518 yards of offense including 249 yards to UTEP's stud running back Aaron Jones. The defense looked much more fundamentally sound than it has at any point during the past three season in terms of being in the right places, however, it was their poor tackling that largely led to their undoing.
So where does that leave us for tonight's game? Without Rose this game is tough to predict. If the Rose were suited up and 100 percent healthy, we would have no problem predicting an Aggie victory. So much of what the Aggies were able to do on offense last year was dependent on the fact that Rose's rushing ability was going to loosen up things in the secondary because teams would bring in extra defenders to try to stop the Aggie ground game. In this game last year Rose rushed for 260 yards and three touchdowns and likely would have had similar results this year -- UNM gave up 183 rushing yards to South Dakota last week, albeit on 43 attempts (NMSU rushed for 308 yards on 39 attempts against the Lobos last year).
Head coach Doug Martin has stated that the Aggies will have plenty of one-on-one opportunities against the Lobos' secondary and seems to indicate that the Aggies will try to pass, a lot. How many pass attempts will that be? Without Rose in the backfield it could mean 35 or even 40-plus throws. In his career as the Aggie quarterback, NMSU is just 1-7 when Rogers attempts more than 40 passes and he has thrown 13 interceptions in those games (he did not throw in interception in last week's game in which he attempted 41 passes). Throwing the ball down the field could also lead to a lot of long third down situations if the Aggies don't complete passes on first and/or second down. Over his career at NMSU Rogers is just 49-of-92 on third down throws where the Aggies had 7 or more yards to gain for a first down and the Aggies have picked up just 25 first downs and 12 times he has thrown an interception. Suffice to say the Aggies need to keep their third down attempts manageable which means the Aggies will need to be able to run the ball effectively on first or second down or be able to complete some short passes on first and second down.
Defensively it's pretty simple. The Aggies HAVE to tackle better than they did last week. The Aggies were in position on many of the Miners' big plays but missed tackles cost them. If they replicate their tackling effort this week it will be a long night for the Aggie defense.
One other key will be to eliminate the untimely penalties. Last week the Aggies were flagged seven times for 40 yards. An interesting stat from last season, the Aggies actually committed more penalties at home than they did on the road despite only playing five home games. The Aggies committed 8.8 penalties for 81.8 yards per game. Obviously this is the Aggies' first home game of the season but it will be critical for the Aggies to not replicate the stat.
If the Aggies hit those three keys they'll have a great chance to win tonight's game and snap the losing streak to the Lobos. If they miss on any of the keys, in particular the first or second, it seems unlikely that NMSU can pull out a victory.
Tonight's game is scheduled for a 6:00 p.m. MDT kickoff and can be seen on AggieVision and Watch ESPN.