New Mexico State had waited exactly 20,816 days to play in a bowl game when coach Doug Martin walked to the front of Thursday’s Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl news conference, and — with cameras rolling — introduced himself and his team to the college football world.
You could almost see the clock ticking down in his head. One. More. Day. Left.
“Of all the bowls, this is where we wanted to be,” he said. “We knew our fans would be here. … They’ve waited a long time to see a bowl game. They’ve waited a long time for a team to be eligible for a bowl game.”
New Mexico State will take on Utah State on Friday, snapping a streak of postseason futility that’s nearly unsurpassed nationwide.
NMSU went 11-0 in 1960, capping a perfect season with a 20-13 win over — that’s right — Utah State in the Sun Bowl. The football program was peaking under future Hall of Fame coach Warren Woodson, and the university had reason to celebrate a bright future. New Mexico State had changed its name from New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts earlier that year. Thousands of fans filled their cars with gas (at 29 cents per gallon) and drove the 46 miles from Las Cruces to the big city of El Paso for the big bowl win.
But Woodson’s next team went 5-4, and NMSU slipped slowly and steadily into football anonymity.
The Aggies left the Border Conference in 1962 to become independent, then, in 1971, joined the first of several mid-major leagues. Time in the Missouri Valley Conference led to stints in the Big West, the Sun Belt, the WAC and the Sun Belt again. The team had little on-field success: NMSU averaged 2.1 wins per season in the 1980s, 3.1 wins per season in the ’90s and 3.7 wins per season in the 2000s.
Between 2012-16, the team won 11 total games.
Things are different now. New Mexico State will return to Division I Independent status next season, a move that Martin says will keep the team regionally relevant.
NMSU (6-6) wants to eventually join another conference, and Martin praised the Mountain West on Thursday as the kind of place that would fit both geographically and culturally.
That Utah State (6-6) plays in the Mountain West, and that the conference is a stakeholder in the Arizona Bowl, isn’t lost on anyone wearing crimson. Martin said the game is critical for the future of both the program and the university. NMSU is hopeful that the national exposure leads to larger enrollment numbers starting next fall.
“Every (game day), we’re auditioning now. We’re auditioning for a new conference,” Martin said. “It’s us against everybody. That’s what we’re doing … Utah State, to me, is a program that we need to emulate.”
Utah State’s Aggies are appearing in their sixth bowl game in seven years. USU boasts All-America cornerback Jalen Davis, a potent offense and a résumé that includes, among other things, an opener against Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium and a road game at Wake Forest.
Utah State is a four-point favorite, but will almost certainly feel like an underdog. New Mexico State fans are expected to pack Arizona Stadium to near-capacity — the upper deck will be tarped off with a giant American flag — as they celebrate their team’s first bowl appearance in 57 years. The team sold out its bowl allotment instantly. School officials said Thursday that they expect heavy traffic on westbound Interstate 10 leading up to the game’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff. As of Thursday evening, nearly 40,000 tickets had been sold.
Wells, the Utah State coach, said the game is “all about who we are and what we do.”
“I don’t think them being in a bowl game for the first time in 57 years has any bearing on our players,” he said. “If it ends up being a road atmosphere, we’re fine. We’ve played well on the road, starting from the first game on the road all the way through. If tomorrow turns into a road game because of the (NMSU) fan base and how close they are to here, that’s great. Our guys will relish that a little bit.”
Of course, playing in front of home fans — and in a historic game — comes with its own problems.
Martin and New Mexico State officials have relished the postseason experience ever since the Aggies topped South Alabama last month to become bowl eligible. Their sixth win led to a feature on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” an invitation to the Arizona Bowl and, this week, a stay at the posh Westin La Paloma and trip to Old Tucson Studios. New Mexico State’s players arrived at Thursday’s news conference in sparkling white Under Armour jackets featuring their “Pistol Pete” mascot and an Arizona Bowl logo. They spoke in glowing terms about the bowl’s “gifting suite.”
“They’ve been spoiled … but there’s a game at the end of it,” Martin said.
“The coach in me wonders about the distractions: Are the guys going to be able to handle that? I think our guys have a good focus. We practiced well (Thursday) morning. They understand the importance of winning this game and what this game can do for our football program.”
New Mexico State boasts a strong-armed quarterback in Tyler Rogers, who threw for 3,825 yards and 26 touchdowns in 11 games, and a receiving corps that includes 1,000-yard receiver Jaleel Clark and a senior tailback, Larry Rose III, who is averaging 4.7 yards per carry. NMSU’s defense allowed just 27 total points in its final two games, wins over Idaho and South Alabama that made the team bowl-eligible for the first time since Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was a No. 1 hit.
Now, New Mexico State is the story of college football. A win Friday would keep the Aggies in the spotlight even longer.
“To get a win in this last game would be big,” Rose said. “We didn’t just come here to get in a bowl game; we came here to win a bowl game.”