LOGAN — After losing five of its last six games, Utah State's margin of error to make it a bowl game is now officially gone. That makes it a spectacularly bad time for the Aggies to play a New Mexico team that has won five of its last six games.
"We’re facing a team that is playing with confidence, and they are on a streak," USU head coach Matt Wells said of the Lobos. "That’s something that is very beneficial for them in that locker room. Those kids are playing very confidently and playing very well.”
Utah State (1-5 in the Mountain West, 3-6 overall) will host New Mexico (4-1, 6-3) Saturday at Maverik Stadium in a Senior Night contest scheduled to begin at 8:15 p.m. in order to accommodate an ESPN2 broadcast.
Now in their fifth season under Bob Davie, the Lobos became bowl-eligible for the second straight season last week with a 35-26 home victory over Nevada. New Mexico rushed for 373 yards against the Wolf Pack (1-4, 3-6), helping to increase its single-game rushing average to 358.8 yards per game this season — more than 28 yards per game better than second-place Army.
"Offensively, they’re going to run the ball in triple- and double-options, and a lot of different variations of it," Wells said of the Lobos. "Both quarterbacks are playing well and both of them have played, whether it’s Lamar Jordan or Austin Apodaca. They have very good running backs who can hit home runs."
Freshman running back Tyrone Owens (890 yards and six touchdowns on 112 carries) leads the Lobos in total rushing, followed by senior Teriyon Gipson (817 yards and eight touchdowns on 85 carries) and junior quarterback Lamar Jordan (433 yards and two TDs on 72 carries). However, junior Richard McQuarley (401 yards on 90 carries) has been New Mexico's finisher this season, rushing for a dozen touchdowns in nine games.
“From just knowing who New Mexico is and watching a little bit of film on them, they’re looking for explosive plays," USU safety Gaje Ferguson said. "… They’ll just inch they’re way down the field and hope that someone gets out of their assignment and they create a play that goes for 40, 50 or however many yards.
"So, the key emphasis will be just doing our jobs, being consistent, getting off the field and trying to put them in long-down situations.”
Jordan (29 of 57 for 407 yards, four TDs and four interceptions) and senior quarterback Austin Apodaca (43 of 72 for 494 yards, four TDs and two interceptions) have been splitting time running Davie's offense, which is second in the Mountain West in overall offense (464.9 ypg) despite being last in pass offense (106.1 ypg).
Defensively, the Lobos are fourth in the conference in rushing defense (139.4 ypg) and ninth in pass defense (233.0 ypg). The Aggies, who have surrendered 667 yards on the ground in their last two games, now sit at eighth in the Mountain West in rushing defense (192.0 ypg).
"New Mexico is a team that can absolutely capitalize on a missed tackle or a missed assignment in terms of their triple-option," Wells pointed out. "They have the weapons coming out of the backfield, either the quarterbacks or the running backs, to be able to hit an explosive play on you."
In last week's 52-28 loss at Wyoming, the Aggies ended up using two quarterbacks themselves — partly because junior starter Kent Myers absorbed a couple of brutal hits, and partly because junior Damion Hobbs was so effective at running the football. Myers ended up completing 17 of 29 passes for 235 yards and one touchdown, while Hobbs was just 7 of 16 for 68 yards and one interception. But the Oregon transfer did rush for 24 yards and three touchdowns on just six carries.
On Monday, Wells suggested that Myers would probably start Saturday if he was healthy, but that Hobbs "did some good things, and he did some things that we're not coaching the quarterback to do."
"(Hobbs) did both," Wells continued. "But he did some nice things running the ball. We dropped a couple of passes for him and he missed a couple of throws. There was a little bit of everything, but he did a nice job coming in."
The Aggies, who will need to beat the Lobos and then finish up the regular season with road games at Nevada and BYU in order to become bowl eligible, also hope to have Devante Mays back on Saturday. But the senior running back, who led USU in rushing last year and opened the 2016 season with a huge game again Weber State before hurting his right knee at USC, is questionable once again after having his right leg yanked on in the second quarter of the game at Laramie.
"It’s not just him, but it’s frustrating for a lot of these kids who have put a lot of heart and soul into the offseason and getting themselves ready to play," Wells said of Mays' injury-plagued season. "When you’re hurt and banged up, and you still try to rehab and come back and you’re not able to be your old self, it’s hard. … But if you’re a competitive guy playing one of these team sports and it’s a collision sport, you’re going to get banged up and you’re going to be hurt, especially at this time of year. Some guys just can’t seem to shake it at times.”
Since rushing for 208 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries against the Wildcats, Mays has been limited to 19 attempts for just 51 yards.