As the Aggies head toward their game against Kentucky, what can we glean from the first two games that might point to what we can expect on Saturday in Lexington?
At 1-1 the Aggies head into this matchup with some confidence coming off their 32-31 victory over in-state rival New Mexico while things at Kentucky aren’t so rosy right now. The Wildcats are 0-2 and since leading Southern Miss 35-10 with about 56 seconds left in the second quarter, they’ve been outscored 79-7 over the last six quarters giving up 79 straight points from the end of the second quarter against Southern Miss until just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter against Florida when the Kentucky offense finally got back on the board with a touchdown.
A cursory look at the statistics show that the Wildcats are allowing 542 yards per game while the Aggies are giving up 427 yards per game. Offensively the Wildcats are averaging just 279 yards per game (95 rushing and 184 passing) while the Aggies are averaging slightly more at 326 yards per game (120.5 rushing and 205.5 passing). Let’s take a deeper look into those numbers and how they’re getting there.
When Kentucky has the ball, what can the Aggie defense expect? For one, if form holds, the Wildcats will run the ball on first down. Of their 45 first down play calls this season, 31 of them have been runs and they’re averaging a solid 5.0 yards per carry on those first down runs. When they have passed on first down, they’ve been pretty efficient, certainly more efficient than on any other down completing 64.3 percent of their passes for 171 yards.
Defensively teams have tried to run the ball against the Aggies on first down with relative success, 50 attempts for 4.94 yards per carry so based on Kentucky’s numbers that likely won’t change much. The Aggies have done a relatively good job on first down defending the pass as teams have completed just 6-of-15 attempts for 92 yards, though four of the six completions have gone for first downs.
Kentucky has been abysmal on third down converting just 5-of-21 third downs. Unfortunately for the Aggies, they’ve allowed teams to convert on 14-of-27 third down attempts and perhaps more alarmingly, they’re allowing an average of 9.55 rushing yards on third down and even worse yet, teams are averaging over 20 yards per carry when faced with a third down of 10 or more. Opposing teams have also converted on 4-of-7 third downs through the air when faced with a 3rd down of 10 or more yards. That being said, last week against UNM one of the Aggies’ keys to winning the game was their defense getting off the field. The Lobos were just 3-of-10 on third down.
So what can we expect out of the Kentucky offense in the game? Based on the first two games we would expect Kentucky to come out and try to run the ball against the Aggies in the first quarter, despite that going against what they have done in their first two games. The Aggies have given up 155 first quarter rushing yards with an average of 7.38 yards per carry. The Aggies have progressively gotten better defending the run as the game has gone on with averages of 4.07, 4.95 and 5.75 yards per carry in the subsequent quarters respectively. If you’re Kentucky, you probably want to get things going on the ground early before Frank Spaziani’s defense gets things figured out.
Will Kentucky try to test the Aggie secondary as UNM tried to do in last week’s game (effectively going against what they’re primarily built to do and that is run the option attack)? The Aggie defense has been the most vulnerable to the pass game in the second and third quarters giving up 132 yards and 97 yards respectively with all three of UTEP and UNM’s passing touchdowns coming in those two quarters. For Kentucky, their passing game has flourished in the first quarter with them throwing for 221 yards on 10-of-15 passing with three touchdowns and just one interception. In the second, third and fourth quarters however, there has been a dramatic decline with the Cats going just 9-of-24 for 147 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
What about the Aggie offense? Can NMSU take advantage of what has been so far a pretty leaky Wildcat defense? Through the first two games of the season it has become painfully obvious that the offense misses Larry Rose III and the impact he has on opposing defenses. The Aggies are averaging just 120.5 yards per game on the ground after averaging 180.5 last season. The Aggies clearly miss his 137.5 yards per game. They also miss his red zone running which is where he scored 10 of his 14 touchdowns last season.
For lack of a better description the Aggie offense has been underwhelming in the first halves of their two games this season — just 277 total yards and only one touchdown. Kentucky’s two opponents have found marginal success through the air in the first half against the Wildcats. Their two opponents threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns against UK in the two first halves but they also threw four interceptions, something that Tyler Rogers has thus far been able to avoid. Their two opponents have found relatively equal success against Kentucky on the ground in both halves rushing for 238 yards and two touchdowns on 56 attempts in the first halves and 268 yards and three touchdowns on 62 attempts in the second halves. This could be good news for the Aggie ground game as they’ve been pretty consistent in both halves running the ball with 127 yards on 28 carries (but no touchdowns) in the first halves of their two games and 114 yards on 37 carries but three scores in the second halves of their two games.
The passing game from a statistical perspective has come alive in the second half for NMSU having thrown for 261 yards and a touchdown on 23-of-40 passing from Rogers and have found the most success throwing the ball from their own 20 to the opponents 40 yard line accounting for 248 of the Aggies’ 411 total passing yards. Again, the Aggies miss Larry Rose III’s running in the red zone as Rogers has completed just 5-of-13 of his passes inside the red zone but both of his touchdown throws have come from that area of the field.
Also, the Wildcats have been not that great on third down defense allowing their two opponents to convert 23-of-37 third downs (62 percent) including 7-of-9 third downs where the opponent had to gain between seven and nine yards for the first down and called a pass play. Good news for the Aggies? They’re 4-for-4 in that exact situation.
So what do we expect the Aggies to do on offense? Well, Coach Martin has repeatedly said he wants to throw the ball to open up the run game (which we suspect would be reversed were Larry Rose III healthy and playing). The problem is that so far that hasn’t worked out too well for the Aggies. The Aggies have just 150 passing yards in four first half quarters and just 127 rushing yards in those same quarters. The Aggies have not been successful running the ball on first down averaging just 2.63 yards per carry but they’ve also been average throwing the ball on first down completing 17-of-33 attempts and just seven first downs. That means that 43 of the Aggies’ 60 first down plays have resulted in them facing a second down of over seven yards and 16 of those have been 2nd and 10 which has led the Aggies to face 17 third downs where they needed to gain seven or more yards for the first down. They have successfully converted just five of those third down situations. Regardless of Kentucky’s porous third and long defense, the Aggies simply can’t put themselves in third and long situations against Kentucky.
So what should the Aggies do? This is a tough one for NMSU. They clearly want and/or have to throw the ball because their run game just isn’t what it would be with Rose. However, Southern Miss and Florida both took the opposite approach running the ball 118 times combined for 506 yards. In fact, the two teams must have had similar strategies because the rushing attempts by the two through all four quarters is surprisingly consistent — 28 attempts in the first quarter, 28 in the second quarter, 32 in the third and 30 in the fourth with similar rushing totals by each quarter, 107, 131, 126 and 142 respectively. Regardless of how it gets done, whether through a pass first approach or a run first approach, if the Aggies are going to have any shot at an upset they’re going to have to be able to run the ball and they’re going to have to do it much more effectively than they did in the first two games.