ALBUQUERQUE — Things got a little bit dicey for the Aggies in the second half, but a strong second quarter was surely enough to lock down a bowl bid.
Utah State exploded for 24 points in the second quarter — a season high for any quarter — and rode its 25-point halftime lead to a hard-fought 38-25 victory over Mountain Division rival New Mexico on a chilly and windy Saturday afternoon at Dreamstyle Stadium.
"Well, (this win) definitely feels good, man," said USU senior cornerback DJ Williams, who intercepted two passes, including a diving pick that sealed the win late in the fourth quarter. "This team is the definition of fighting through adversity. I mean, there's been a lot of ups and downs this year. It's not the way we planned it to go, but no matter what, you go turn on the film and we always finish every single game and we play hard. And just to finish off the regular season with a win like this is a really great feeling. ... Like I said, this senior class is a blessing to me, man. I love them, they're my brothers and they always will be, and I'm just glad we were able to finish this off strong for them."
In the process, the Aggies prevailed in six conference games for just the sixth time in program history. USU (7-5, 6-2 Mountain West) will surely receive its eighth bowl invitation in the last nine seasons next weekend.
"To get to 6-2 in this conference, no matter what anybody says, is not easy," USU head coach Gary Andersen said. "It's hard to get to 6-2 in the Mountain West Conference, and these kids did it."
The Lobos (2-10, 0-8) scored 21 points and racked up 250 yards of total offense in the second half to force the Aggies to sweat out their third road victory over a MW foe this season. And while it was a challenging final two quarters for the Aggies defensively, they made enough big plays to prevent the Lobos from getting too close.
USU's defense forced four turnovers, recorded a trio of sacks — two by Tipa Galeai in the first quarter — and only allowed UNM to convert on 4 of 13 third downs. Additionally, the Lobos, who ended their season on a nine-game losing streak, went three and out on six possessions.
"(Our) defense had its issues, but the defense made plays when they had to at the end," Andersen said. "And, what did we get, four turnovers I believe it was at the end? And two of them led directly to scores, which was huge, and the last one ended the game, so those are huge plays by the defense. And so, I'm just proud of these kids."
Although the two teams combined for 63 points, it was tough sledding offensively for both of them in the early going. The Lobos only managed 13 total yards on 14 plays in the first quarter, while the Aggies gained 17 yards on their first three possessions.
The Aggies looked sharp on their fourth possession, though, as they easily marched 87 yards in eight plays. Gerold Bright gashed the Lobos on the ground, and Caleb Repp caught two passes for 49 yards. The tight end's second reception was an 7-yard TD, giving the visitors a 7-0 lead with 2:20 remaining in the opening quarter.
USU then proceeded to score on its next two drives. A blind-side block penalty wiped away a golden opportunity for the Aggies to take a 14-0 lead, and they eventually settled for a 45-yard Dominik Eberle field goal on the first play of the second quarter.
The Lobos finally showed some life offensively as they advanced the pigskin 75 yards in eight plays. The drive culminated with a 7-yard scoring pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Trae Hall to Jordan Kress, who did an excellent job of getting both feet down inbound in the corner of the end zone. UNM kicker Andrew Shelley missed the extra point attempt.
It took USU less than three minutes to bounce back. A one-handed 35-yard reception by Siaosi Mariner set the stage for Jordan Nathan, who used his speed to find paydirt on a 11-yard fly sweep. It was a play the Aggies ran a few times Saturday, and the junior wide out parlayed it into his first career rushing TD, giving the visitors a 17-6 lead.
The Aggies failed to pick up a first down on their next two possessions, but still retained momentum because the Lobos self-destructed offensively. The hosts turned the ball over on three straight possessions, and the visitors fully capitalized on two of them.
The first UNM turnover was a nice interception by Williams to terminate a promising Lobo drive.
Utah State didn't score off that takeaway, but it did on the next two. Aggie defensive end Justus Te'i pounced on a bad snap — his team-leading third fumble recovery of the 2019 campaign — giving the visitors the ball on the UNM 13-yard line late in the second quarter. USU scored two plays later on a 1-yard plunge by Bright.
On the Lobos' ensuing possession, Hall coughed up the pigskin without getting hit, and USU defensive tackle Christopher 'Unga recovered it. The Aggies struck again with 23 seconds remaining in the half on a gorgeous 16-yard scoring strike from Jordan Love to Derek Wright on a slant play.
USU outgained UNM 249-133 in the first half and took a seemingly commanding 31-6 advantage into the locker room.
To their credit, though, the Lobos fought back. New Mexico pieced together TD drives of 75 and 69 yards within a four-minute stretch of the third quarter to pare its deficit to 31-18. The Lobos failed to convert on either PAT, and the first one was blocked by Logan High product Jacoby Wildman, who made a handful of big plays for the Aggies.
Just when it looked like the wheels might come off for the Aggies, they responded with a 14-play, 77-yard march to paydirt. USU converted on three third downs — all on passes by Love. Mariner burned the Lobos on a 10-yard slant to cap off the drive and give USU a 38-18 advantage with 2:43 remaining in the third quarter.
"It was really big because you can't win games if you can't score points," Bright said of that fruitful possession. "And you can't win if the defense doesn't get great stops and get the ball back to the offense, so we played pretty well. We played well and together, and we came out with the dub."
Bright headlined a strong rushing performance by the Aggies, who gained 196 yards on 41 attempts. A trio of victory game formation snaps put USU below the 200-yard barrier. Bright finished with 113 yards on the ground on 19 carries, and he has now rushed for more than 2,000 yards during his time in Logan (2,051 total). No. 1 is only the 10th Aggie to reach that milestone.
It was a balanced offensive attack for the Aggies as Love completed 18 of 35 passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns, vs. one INT. Nathan and Bright caught four passes apiece, while Repp and Mariner each had three.
"You can't be one-dimensional in the offense, period," Bright said. "You've got to be able to establish the run and make explosive plays, and then deliver catchable balls to the receivers, So, that was our mindset like it always is."
The Lobos fought hard in an attempt to overcome their second-quarter mistakes in the final game of head coach Bob Davie's eight-year tenure in Albuquerque. The school announced earlier this week that Davie would not return in 2020.
New Mexico pulled to within 38-25 in the fourth quarter when a 14-play, 92-yard drive culminated with a 7-yard TD run by the elusive Hall. Unfortunately for the Lobos, that scoring march took 8:11 off the clock, making an already uphill battle even more difficult.
Williams' spectacular INT — his sixth in his two seasons at USU — slammed the door with 2:01 left in the contest. No. 7 also picked off a pair of passes on this field in the New Mexico Bowl a year ago.
"I don't know, man," Williams said with a big smile when asked why Dreamstyle Stadium brings out the best in him. "To be honest with you, I know that was all God tonight. I mean, that was just God working in me tonight ... and I can't take the credit for it."
Eric Munoz and Shaq Bond tied with a team-high nine tackles for the Aggies. Alexander Vainikolo recorded a game-best 11 tackles for the Lobos, who didn't record any sacks and only had two tackles for loss. Andersen praised the effort of USU's offensive line.
Another Aggie who played a big role in this win was punter Christopher Bartolic, who flipped field position a couple of times in the first quarter despite punting into a 25-or-so-MPH headwind. The wind dissipated for the most part in the second half.
Bartolic punted seven times for a 41.6-yard average and boomed a career-long 64-yarder.
"It was good," Andersen said of his punter. "He got a couple of nice bounces of them, which was nice to see, and he needs to keep answering the bell in those situations. ... He did a nice job of punting the football when we needed him."
Hall rushed for 115 rushing and threw for another 107 for the Lobos, who gained a season-high 276 yards on the ground. UNM amassed 268 rushing yards last week against Air Force.
Notes: USU pulled even in the all-time series with UNM, 13-13. ... The Aggies went 4-1 this season following a loss.