TUCSON, Ariz. — Flat on his back in the end zone, eyes to the skies, Grayson Castillo was in 60-degree Arizona heaven.
A 26-20 New Mexico State Aggie bowl victory was just how it was in his imagination.
“I don’t know what to do, man,” Castillo said as he picked himself up.
But an Aggie bowl loss, well, that was Utah State’s problem.
“It’s not like the other bowl games — a blowout,” Castillo said, referring to teams other than New Mexico State, which virtually never goes to bowl games.
“My whole life …” the Las Cruces native began. “I don’t know what to say.”
How about “Let’s do this again next year”?
There’s no getting around the way Utah State sabotaged itself with fumbles (two lost) and field goals (four missed). USU led down the stretch, only to lose in overtime.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was.
A perfectly suspenseful way to spend a late December night.
And a perfectly awful way for Utah State to end the season with a 6-7 record.
So when NMSU fans stormed the field after a 57-year bowl absence, it was hard not to give them this much: They made the most of their opportunity. Ninety percent of the crowd appeared to be NMSU fans. It’s a 275-mile drive.
When Utah State took the lead at 20-13 with 13 minutes remaining, it seemed the New Mexicans were history. But USU’s Dominik Eberle missed a field goal that may have put it away. NMSU tied the score with 6:31 left after a long, long, long wait on an end zone ruling.
A half-century wait, actually.
So there it was. The nation’s No. 4 passing offense vs. the country’s No. 19 pass defense.
The red Aggies got the ball back with 5:16 to go.
USU took possession with 3:37 to go.
New Mexico State got it back with 1:49 remaining.
USU got it back with 23 seconds to go.
The viewers got it back in profusion — they got 3½ hours of suspense.
You can’t say the teams didn’t deliver a show. It was a 10-10 tie after one quarter and five seconds. After one quarter and three minutes, it was still 10-10. After one quarter and 3½ minutes, it was 13-10.
Two schools looked like they’d been holding a grudge for 57 years.
They entered the locker rooms tied at the half, thanks to Eberle’s 30-yard kick as the clock expired.
After 60 minutes of nonstop action, they were still tied.
USU got to the 1 in the third quarter, but QB Jordan Love misplayed the pitch and it was recovered by NMSU.
The red Aggies finally prevailed in overtime on a 21-yard run by Larry Rose III.
Fans came tumbling out of the stands in joy mixed with disbelief.
Give this to New Mexico State: It makes the most of these things. Last time these teams met in the postseason, it beat USU in the Sun Bowl.
In the fluid bowl landscape, the 3-year-old Arizona Bowl is another young hopeful. Nevada and Colorado State played in the first one. Air Force and South Alabama filled the second. This year, Utah State and New Mexico State, both 6-6, edged out several other bowl-eligible contenders.
It’s not the Rose Bowl, but since NMSU hasn’t been bowling in decades, and USU narrowly made the cut, no one was complaining. Tucson in December is alluring, with its 80-degree daytime temperatures.
Not that USU coach Matt Wells was getting nostalgic. The two Aggie teams played together in the Western Athletic Conference from 2005 to 2012, joining the conference the same day. They meet again in a non-conference game next September in Logan. While most of the attention has been directed at the long-ago bowl game, the two Aggie teams have now met 38 times, with USU winning 30. Last time they played, it was a 41-7 USU win in 2012.
Not a lot of room for sentimentality there.
On one hand, the officially named Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl was just as advertised — no fancy insurance company names, no elaborate parades, etc. The official opening hour for the press box was just two hours prior to kickoff. That’s later than a regular season game in Logan.
A placard for Logan Herald Journal beat writer Jason Turner said, “William Turner from the “Harold Journal.”
The form of the Arizona Bowl might have been slightly off, but the substance was just right.