Las Cruces, N.M. • When the BYU Cougars look back at their first couple of years of football independence, Saturday’s game against the New Mexico State Aggies — one of the worst teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision — will likely stand as the low point of the venture.
At least, it would be hard to imagine much worse.
A holiday weekend crowd of fewer than 10,000 fans is expected at 30,343-seat Aggie Memorial Stadium as the 1-9 Aggies play host to 6-5 BYU in the regular-season finale for both teams.
“There won’t be many Aggie fans,” predicted BYU linebacker Spencer Hadley. “You watch on film, and even the front row is empty.”
When the Cougars announced they were going independent back in 2010 and started the journey in 2011, athletic director Tom Holmoe warned there would be days like this.
Moving forward, Holmoe and coach Bronco Mendenhall are promising bigger games in bigger stadiums against better teams, and they’ve seemingly delivered with games at Virginia, Utah State, Houston, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Hawaii dotting next year’s road schedule.
But for now, there’s this little business with the team known in the state of Utah as the “other Aggies” on the weekend that used to be reserved for the rivalry game with the Utes.
It will be the first, and probably last, time that BYU will play in Las Cruces, but Mendenhall is familiar with the place, having coached here several times as rival New Mexico’s defensive coordinator.
“Different [atmosphere] when I was at New Mexico, because that was more like BYU-Utah State, or Utah State-Utah, more intrastate, kind of a packed house, bragging rights, kind of a fierce environment,” Mendenhall said. “I am sure this will be different.”
New Mexico State drew an announced crowd of 9,121 two weeks ago for San Jose State and had a bye last week. Before that, the Aggies got 12,118 for Louisiana Tech, 14,341 for Texas-San Antonio, 25,211 for New Mexico and 12,118 for Sacramento State, their only win.
Early in the week, the Cougars were already talking about the expected low-key atmosphere and the need to avoid coming out flat for the second straight week.
“I think most of [the motivation] has to be done during the week, with our focus on just improving our team and playing better,” Mendenhall said. “You can’t really rely on the atmosphere to be what motivates us. We will try to do that during the week.”
If nothing else, Hadley and the BYU defense feel like they have something to prove, after giving up 295 yards and 20 points in the first half alone to San Jose State.
“We don’t need a crowd to get up for a game,” Hadley said. “We feed off each other defensively. And that is what we will do this week, too.”
Offensively, the Cougars are expected to give senior James Lark his first career start at quarterback, with Riley Nelson nursing a rib cartilage injury. If that’s the case, offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said the offense won’t change much and expressed confidence that Lark can do what Nelson did, with the possible exception of running the ball as effectively.
BYU at New Mexico State
P At Aggie Memorial Stadium (Las Cruces, N.M.)
Kickoff • 1:30 p.m. MST. Internet • ESPN3
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 6-5; New Mexico State 1-9
Series history • BYU leads, 1-0
Last meeting • BYU 42, NMSU 7 (Nov. 19, 2011)
About the Aggies • They have lost nine straight games after defeating Sacramento State 49-19 in their opener. ... They are 101st in the country in total offense, averaging 341.8 yards per game. They are No. 105 in total defense, giving up 466.8 yards per game.
About the Cougars • Receiver Cody Hoffman has 952 receiving yards and needs just 49 yards to become the first Cougar receiver since 2008 to surpass the 1,000-yard plateau. ... Freshman Jamaal Williams has 11 rushing touchdowns and is tied for second-most rushing TDs by a freshman in school history.