After Larry Rose III skipped across the goal line for the winning touchdown, his New Mexico State teammates jubilantly sprinted onto the field at Arizona Stadium. Scores of NMSU fans jumped the fence to join the celebration.
It was a party 57 years in the making.
Nomadic New Mexico State, which had played in multiple conferences but no bowl games since 1960, had just won the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl in heart-stopping fashion. Rose’s 21-yard touchdown run gave NMSU a 26-20 overtime victory over Utah State in front of a record crowd of 39,132.
Most of them had made the four-hour drive from Las Cruces, filling the west-side stands with maroon and white. NMSU’s faithful had waited literally decades for something like this. There was a sense of elation — and disbelief — as fifth-year coach Doug Martin and his players accepted, held aloft and smooched the Arizona Bowl trophy at midfield.
“It’s just an example of what you can be if you have a group of people who believe in each other,” Martin told the crowd, which responded with a roar.
Players took pictures with their families. Fans exchanged hugs and high-fives. “How ’bout that?” one said to another. “That’s insane!”
Rose, the obvious choice for the game’s Offensive MVP award, described the postgame scene as “crazy.”
“I didn’t think it could get any better than the win over South Alabama as far as the fans and stuff,” Rose said, “but they proved me wrong.”
NMSU (7-6) needed to win a nail-biter over South Alabama in the regular-season finale to gain bowl eligibility. It was a critical step in Martin’s multiyear rebuilding plan. What happened Friday evening was the capper.
“This is the most rewarding experience that I’ve had in coaching because of where we came from,” Martin said. “I remember my first day of spring ball. All I wanted to do was get them to run on and off the field at full speed. It took weeks. I remember just putting my head down on my desk and thinking, ‘My God, this is going to take forever.’ It’s a long way from there.”
Martin took over a team that went 1-11 in 2012. New Mexico State hadn’t won more than three games in any of his first four seasons.
But Martin sold Rose and his teammates on a vision “when we didn’t have anything,” the coach said.
Now they have something: a championship trophy.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our players,” Martin said, “where they came from and where they are now.”
Utah State (6-7) had multiple opportunities to pull away but couldn’t. USU missed four field goals and converted only 1 of 18 third downs.
USU outgained NMSU and intercepted quarterback Tyler Rogers two times, but those issues and other mistakes were too much to overcome.
“We’re hurting right now,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “These kids, they fought with everything they had, spilled all their guts out there, and for that I am a proud coach.”
USU got the ball first in overtime but had to settle for a 29-yard field-goal attempt. Dominik Eberle’s kick caromed off the right upright — his fourth miss in six tries. He entered Friday having made 16 of 18 attempts, including 5 of 6 from 40-plus yards.
Martin planned to play it safe when NMSU took possession, running the ball to avoid negative plays and set up the winning field goal. On second-and-6, Rose ran through the left side and broke into the clear.
“It feels good. It feels great. I wouldn’t want to go out any other way,” said Rose, a senior, who had fumbled earlier in the game.
Before an ending that Martin described as “poetic,” the third Arizona Bowl lacked any sense of flow. If you like defense and special teams, then the 2017 version of the game was for you.
Before Rose’s run, the most exciting plays happened back-to-back in the first quarter — consecutive kickoff returns for touchdowns, an Arizona Bowl first.
After NMSU took a 3-0 lead, USU’s Savon Scarver returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. NMSU’s Jason Huntley immediately answered with a 100-yard TD of his own.
Each team attempted a fake punt. One worked, the other didn’t.
The defenses controlled the action for extensive stretches. After back-to-back field-goal drives early in the second quarter, this is how the rest of the first half played out: punt, punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, punt, fumble, field goal.
The third quarter was scoreless. Fittingly, USU’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth followed a shanked punt.
Payton Theisler’s kick off the side of his right foot netted just 13 yards, setting up Utah State at the New Mexico State 24. LaJuan Hunt took it from there.
The senior touched the ball on each of the next four plays, punctuating the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to give USU a 20-13 lead with 13:28 remaining in regulation. It was the first offensive TD of the game.
Utah State had a chance to go up by 10, but Eberle missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt.
New Mexico State took advantage. NMSU drove 69 yards in 11 plays, converting a third-and-9 and a fourth-and-6. New Mexico State was successful on just 4 of 22 third-down attempts. NMSU went 3 for 3 on fourth down.
The final conversion kept New Mexico State alive. A scrambling Rogers hit a sprawling Johnathan Boone for 10 yards to the USU 11. Rogers then connected with Jaleel Scott for the tying TD with 6:31 left in regulation. The fade route to the left edge of the end zone initially was ruled incomplete, but a replay review determined that Scott gained possession before tapping his foot down inbounds.
Neither team threatened thereafter. Then came overtime, and Rose’s run into New Mexico State lore.