New Mexico State broke college football’s longest postseason drought by winning six games and qualifying for the Arizona Bowl, 57 years after meeting Merlin Olsen’s Utah State team.
One year away seemed long enough for USU.
Both groups of Aggies appreciate Friday’s opportunity — even the team that played in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl only two years ago. The bowl game is “a privilege that we take seriously,” USU running back LaJuan Hunt said.
USU is appearing in a bowl game for the sixth time in seven years. Even so, coach Matt Wells said Thursday, “We’re experiencing it in some ways for the first time.”
That’s because only 10 current players took the field in December 2015 in Boise, Idaho. If the NMSU Aggies’ theme is the bowl game’s novelty, the same sense of freshness and excitement applies to USU, playing on the University of Arizona campus.
Four seniors started for USU (6-6) in a loss at Air Force to end the regular season. With freshman Jordan Love established as the quarterback and more than 50 letter-winners returning, USU is positioned for bigger things in 2018.
And by beating New Mexico State, USU could overcome the curse of the New Mexico Bowl.
The recent downturn of the program in Logan could be traced to a victory over Texas-El Paso in the 2014 New Mexico Bowl, completing a 10-win season. If you don’t believe the winners of that bowl game are hexed, remember the career of former BYU quarterback Jake Heaps. He won an offensive MVP award as a freshman in 2010 and ended up transferring to two other schools.
USU’s Kent Myers also received an MVP award in the New Mexico Bowl as a freshman, having become the Aggies’ fourth staring quarterback of that season. Myers’ up-and-down career will end Friday, after he lost his job to Love in October.
The winning teams of the New Mexico Bowl have had trouble following through, going a collective 59-76 in the next season. Since beating UTEP in Albuquerque, USU is 15-22 overall with no winning seasons or bowl victories. So multiple breakthroughs are available to USU, facing a New Mexico State program that itself has come to an interesting stage.
How those Aggies got to Tucson is a good story, and so is what’s ahead of them. NMSU’s late touchdown drive produced a 22-17 win over South Alabama in the regular-season finale, which marked the end of the school’s Sun Belt Conference affiliation.
The NMSU Aggies will become independent next season. Idaho, the other western member of the Sun Belt, is dropping to the FCS level in the Big Sky Conference. NMSU will persist as an FBS program, with some creative scheduling in 2018 that includes two byes, a home-and-home series with Liberty University (in October and November) and visits to USU in September and BYU in November.
Coach Doug Martin eventually would love to get a Mountain West invitation. “Every Saturday, we’re auditioning now,” he said.
NMSU should make a good impression Friday, in the school’s first bowl appearance since the 1960 Sun Bowl. Tucson is 275 miles from the NMSU campus in Las Cruces. With an easy drive on I-10 and the newness of a bowl game, NMSU may bring as many as 15,000 fans. USU is prepared for something resembling a road environment — much like the 2014 scene in Albuquerque, where UTEP was well supported in a losing effort.