New Mexico State Aggies (6-6) vs Utah State Aggies (6-6)
Location: Arizona Stadium, Tucson, AZ
Time: 3:30 PM MT Friday, December 29th
Line: NMSU -4, O/U 61
History: Utah State leads all-time series 30-7, won last three meetings (2010-12)
When New Mexico State has the ball
I’ve been covering New Mexico State enough this season that I don’t need to continue describing them. This team is capable of producing both yards and points in bunches. The tipping point for them is whether or not they can avoid turnovers (both at bad times and in volume) on offense and produce turnovers on defense so that by the time the offense finds its rhythm they aren’t trying to dig themselves out of an insurmountable hole.
The good news for NMSU is that Utah State is not the best at generating pressure on the quarterback (only 23 sacks on the season), and rely heavily on the blitz to do so; their sack leader is cornerback Jalen Davis. This USU squad gets most of what sacks they have in obvious passing situations but is also a near-lock to give up a big pass play if the sack doesn’t happen (because their best cover corner is usually the one blitzing, I presume).
Davis is the key for the USU defense; he’s one of only four Aggies to record multiple sacks this season, and his four lead the team. He’s also the leader in both pass breakups (13) and interceptions (5) by a substantial margin; he’ll probably spend the whole day covering Jaleel Scott, which may or may not be the best idea since he is their best cover corner, but he’s also giving up eight inches and 30 pounds in the matchup.
An NMSU line that has struggled with false starts all season long should have a somewhat easier time against a defense that really needs to be obvious when it brings enough pressure to matter, and they also have a bit of a size advantage that should help a bit more.
If they can keep Tyler Rogers upright then the intermediate routes via Jason Huntley, Conne Cramer, Isiah Lottie or Larry Rose should be available all day long, which is a big boost for an offense with speed at the skill positions against a defense that doesn’t solo-tackle well.
Wyoming was the only team to gain less than 450 yards and rush for less than 160 against Utah State, but they also finished +4 in turnover margin. UNLV was the only team to gain 450+ yards against USU and lose, but they were down 35-28 in the fourth quarter and then went -3 on turnovers in that quarter.
Run your offense, win the turnover battle, win the game.
When Utah State has the ball
Utah State has dined heavily on the big play since Jordan Love took over as the quarterback. In seven games with Kent Myers under center, they only scored 18 touchdowns, only four came on big plays, and one of those was a touchdown bomb by Love. In the five games with Love starting, the Aggies have scored 21 touchdowns, and nine of those were big plays.
Jordan Love has passed for just under 1,400 yards in 5+ games, but 16% of that has come on three plays (all 70+ yard touchdowns). The Aggies have rushed for just over 2,000 yards this season, but 14 percent of that has come on four plays (all 65+ yard touchdowns). Their nine touchdowns of 48+ yards account for roughly 15 percent of their full-season offensive yardage. You get the idea.
The offensive line played much better with Love under center, surrendering a sack rate of only 2.1% after allowing a whopping 9.6% sack rate for Myers. But that hasn’t been enough to turn the season beyond .500 – so what about those turnovers? USU is 4-0 with a positive turnover margin and 0-3 with a negative one, but what about their 2-3 record with a neutral margin?
In losses to Colorado State and Boise State, the Aggies neither turned the ball over nor forced a turnover, but they got so thoroughly dominated by the passing game in the first half (a combined 29-of-36 for 398 and 4 TDs for Brett Rypien and Nick Stevens) that it didn’t matter.
In wins over Idaho State and Hawaii, their turnovers didn’t occur until the game was well in hand. The lone oddity was against Air Force, but how they did against a triple-option team isn’t really going to tell us much about how their defense will fare against NMSU’s air-heavy attack.
NMSU has an aggressive defense that seeks out sacks and turnovers and lives with the consequences of the occasions where the pressure doesn’t hit home. The defense’s four best performances featured 11 forced turnovers, a +4 turnover margin, and 21 sacks; their three worst performances featured four forced turnovers, a -7 turnover margin and one sack.
So, how does that all sum up? If you can shut down Utah State’s offense, and maybe get a turnover at an opportune time, you can beat them, as long as you don’t have a rash of turnovers yourself. If your passing offense can get off to a hot start, this offense is not incapable of catching up to a degree, but it isn’t really built for that.
Good thing the boys from Las Cruces have never had a game where they’ve turned it over six times, or three times in short succession.
New Mexico State’s matchup against Idaho’s third-string freshman quarterback is the only time the offense played poorly and they still won, and Texas State and New Mexico were the two instances where the defense wasn’t great, but the offense was good enough that it didn’t matter.
USU also has only had one game where their offense has played poorly and they still won (New Mexico had three turnovers in their first four drives), and two games where the defense played poorly and they still won; UNLV (turnovers on their last three possessions) and BYU (seven turnovers, two pick-sixes). This team plays well against bad teams and bad against good teams unless they get a run of turnovers.
Obviously the wrinkle we can’t account for is things that teams install just for this game, whether that’s a play they’ve practiced all year but haven’t had a reason to use, or a player they need to start grooming for next season. For New Mexico State, that could mean plenty of Jason Huntley’s explosiveness in the run game; for Utah State, that means perhaps a lot more touches for Gerold Bright, especially if Eltoro Allen doesn’t play.
As long as Tyler Rogers isn’t forcing throws and they can hold onto the ball (Utah State’s defense was second in the country with 15 fumble recoveries) long enough to build some early momentum, this one will be over quickly. Granted, we know that things are never simple for NMSU, but with an offense that is better at playing catchup and a defense that is better at generating pressure, I like the odds.
New Mexico State 31, Utah State 17