It’s been a frustrating season for Utah State’s football team, and it reached a boiling point on Senior Night.
New Mexico scored the final 18 points of the game — all in the second half — to stun USU, 24-21, in front of a crowd of 15,212 late Saturday night at Maverik Stadium. Jason Sanders booted his third field goal of the contest, a 40-yarder, with 66 seconds remaining to propel the Lobos (7-3, 5-1 Mountain West) to their fifth straight victory.
With the loss, the Aggies (3-7, 1-6) are assured of their second straight losing record and will miss out on a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
“That’s a tough way to lose a ballgame,” USU head coach Matt Wells said. “Congratulations to (New Mexico). I’m proud of those guys in (our) locker room. (They showed) a lot of resolve, a lot of fight.”
The Aggies, who honored their 25 seniors prior to the game, frantically marched into field goal range in the waning seconds of the contest. Back-to-back huge plays by LaJuan Hunt, coupled with a roughing the passer call, gave the hosts a fighting chance.
USU actually appeared to take the lead with 16 ticks left on the clock on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Kent Myers to Ron’quavion Tarver, but Tarver was whistled for offense pass interference on what appeared to be a very questionable call.
“I’m going to chose my words very, very carefully as you can probably imagine,” Wells said. “I hope they’re (the officials) right. That’s a hard one to take away from a kid. I’ll just leave it at that and let the Mountain West comment about it on Monday morning.”
Facing first-and-25, Myers scrambled for nine yards, but USU was out of timeouts. Wells admitted there was some confusion as to what down it was. Ultimately, the Aggies failed to get kicker Brock Warren on the field in a timely enough manner — the hosts choose not to spike the ball on second down — and it appeared they didn’t even get the snap off in time.
The Aggies certainly got off to an ideal start offensively. In fact, they found paydirt on their first two possessions for the first time since their home and season opener against Weber State.
New Mexico failed on a fourth-down pass from the USU 38-yard line nine plays after receiving the opening kickoff. Utah State then proceeded to take the lead on a 13-yard run by Tonny Lindsey, who tip-toed down the west sideline on the play.
The Aggies made it a two-possession game when Myers found Tarver on a quick slant, and the sophomore broke a tackle and scampered in for a 22-yard score. Myers, who was injured in the third quarter last week against Wyoming and did not return, completed 7 of 9 passes in the first quarter for 82 yards.
“I thought we started off fast,” Myers said. “That was exactly what we wanted to do coming into this game. We didn’t start off well against Wyoming, (but) I think we should have put more points on the board. We had opportunities at the end of the game, despite the penalty on Tarver in the end zone.”
However, USU’s offense bogged down in the second quarter, and New Mexico proceeded to methodically march the pigskin down the field — just like it has all season long. To their credit, the Aggies buckled down defensively when they needed to.
Marquan Ellison broke up a third-down pass to force the Lobos to settle for a 36-yard field goal by Sanders. The junior booted a 37-yarder with 44 seconds remaining in the quarter to pare the visitors’ deficit to 14-6.
New Mexico also advanced the ball deep into USU territory on its second-to-last possession of the second. Unfortunately for the Lobos, Aggie linebackers Brock Carmen and Anthony Williams stuffed Richard McQuarley for no gain on fourth-and-one from the USU 16.
USU received the opening kickoff of the third quarter and needed less than three minutes to find the end zone. Myers hit Jaren Colston-Green in stride for a 48-yard bomb, and a hands-to-the-face penalty moved the ball inside the red zone. Tonny Lindsey scored his second rushing TD of the tilt three plays later, this time from 4 yards out, to give the hosts a 21-6 advantage.
The Lobos were undaunted, though, as they scored 15 unanswered points to pull even at 21-21 late in the third quarter. USU’s defense struggled mightily to contain New Mexico’s option pitch in the quarter, and arguably a large part of that was set up because of backup quarterback Austin Apodaca’s success through the air.
Teriyon Gipson scored both of the visitors’ TDs in the third quarter, on runs of 5 and 4, respectively. UNM went for the 2-point conversion following Gipson’s second score and converted on a pitch to McQuarley.
The Lobos had a chance to take the lead when Ryan Santos stepped in front of a Myers’ pass for an interception in the final 80 seconds of the third. UNM took over at the USU 36, but went backward on first down and never recovered.
It was arguably the Aggies’ best defensive possession of the contest, if not the season. The Aggies also forced the Lobos into a three-and-out series the next time they had the ball. USU punter Aaron Dalton pinned New Mexico at its own 6 on that possession.
USU had a golden opportunity to take the lead in the fourth quarter. Myers found Tarver for a back-shoulder 41-yard reception to the UNM 9. The Aggies had three plays inside the Lobos’ 2 to punch it into the end zone, but couldn’t get the job done.
“That was my call,” Wells said. “You know, it’s less than one yard (on fourth down) and I believe in our guys. ... I felt comfortable doing it and if we didn’t get it, it was going to have to be a 99-and-a-half-yard drive (for UNM to score a TD).”
The Lobos didn’t march 99 yards, but they did advance the pigskin 76 yards on 11 plays to set the stage for Sanders, who has been outstanding this season on field goals and kickoffs.
Myers ended up completing 21 of 27 passes for 263 yards. Tarver led the Aggies with six catches for 84 yards. USU fared pretty well running the ball as six different players combined to gain 128 yards on 28 attempts.
Gipson led the Lobos with 107 yards on 18 carries. New Mexico finished with 249 rushing yards — 109 behind its season average, which ranks No. 1 nationally. Apodaca completed 6 of 13 passes for 109 yards — 18.1 yards a completion.
For the second week in a row, USU senior linebacker Anthony Williams matched his career high with 13 tackles. Gaje Ferguson added a career-best 11 stops, one more than he had last week.