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One college football team is anxious to bounce back from arguably its worst performance of the season, while the other is hungry to end what has been a trying season on a positive note.

Dreams of a Mountain West championship are still intact for Utah State, although the Aggies will need some help from San Diego State. But first things first for the Aggies, who must dispatch of a snakebit New Mexico squad to stay in the conference race.

The Lobos will host the Aggies in the regular season finale for both teams on Friday morning. The opening kickoff from University Stadium is scheduled for 11 a.m. The Mountain Division showdown will be televised by Fox Sports 1.

“I think we’re fortunate to be in this situation,” said USU head coach Blake Anderson, whose team saw its five-game winning streak come to an end in convincing fashion against Wyoming. “... We’ve got to get back up and dust it off and learn from it and move forward, and do it very quickly.”

And while there’s no question the Aggies (8-3, 5-2 MW) are reeling a bit, it still pales in comparison to the Lobos (3-8, 1-6). New Mexico entered the 2021 campaign with some relatively high expectations after capping off its COVID-19 shortened 2020 season with back-to-back wins over Wyoming and Fresno State. Unfortunately for the Lobos, they have been decimated by injuries this season. This has been especially apparent at the quarterback position as they will likely start a walk-on against the Aggies.

The Lobos won their first two games this season under second-year head coach Danny Gonzales, but have only reigned supreme once in the past two months. Additionally, New Mexico has failed to score more than 10 points in five of its last seven contests.

“Well, Danny Gonzales is a good, close friend of mine and (UNM defensive coordinator) Rocky Long is like my football dad, if that makes any sense,” Anderson said. “He gave me my first opportunity in Division I football, so yeah, I hate what they’re going through. This particular week, I tell them always I want them to win all of (their games) but one. I mean, this week it’s about surviving and I’ve been through that before. We had a season at Arkansas State where we had 19 guys out for the year and, at the end of the day, you’ve still got to find a way.

“They’ve done a really good job. They’re still playing great defense and they figure out a way to manage what they can on offense and stay competitive and stay very frustrating with the changes they’ve made offensively. ... I just have to assume that they’re going to play their best game (against us).”

Indeed, for all of the Lobos’ struggles in ’21, they have been rock solid on defense. This was even the case in New Mexico’s 37-0 loss at Boise State last Saturday. The Lobos only gave up two offensive touchdowns. UNM was ultimately undone by an offense that managed a measly 101 yards of total offense, plus a disaster of a performance on special teams. The Broncos blocked a pair of punts in the first half and returned both of them to the house.

The Lobos, led by the legendary Long, have only allowed 356.1 yards per game this season. Long was the former head coach at New Mexico (1999-08) and San Diego State (2011-19), and is the all-time winningest football coach in Mountain West history. This is Long’s second season back at his alma mater as the defensive coordinator. He is renowned for his 3-3-5 base defense.

“I think Rocky Long is the best defensive mind in football, in my opinion,” said Anderson, who was an assistant under Long at UNM from 1999-2001. “That’s just me, maybe I’m biased. But he finds a way to create havoc and he does it honestly with, I think, lesser bodies in terms of just depth and maybe size. He just always has. I’ve seen him do it up close when I worked for him and I’ve seen him do it every year since.”

New Mexico has one of the top defensive players in the conference in defensive end Joey Noble, who ranks second in tackles for loss (15.5). The super senior is also the Lobos’ leader in sacks (4.5) and their third-leading tackler (68).

USU must also be aware of several other UNM defensive players, including safety Jerrick Reed II, who was a first-team all-league selection a year ago. Reed II paces the Lobos in tackles (82) as a senior, and he came through with four interceptions in just seven games in ’20.

The Lobos got off to a pretty good start this season with Kentucky graduate transfer Terry Wilson Jr. orchestrating their pro-style offensive attack. Wilson Jr. went 18-7 as Kentucky’s starting quarterback and was the starter for the first six games this season before going down with a dislocated elbow.

New Mexico has used two different starting signal callers since then, but both of those athletes have been injured. As a result, the Lobos will likely turn to either walk-on Connor Genal or former student manager Bryson Carroll to direct the offense against USU. Both quarterbacks played against the Broncos.

Carroll, who last played in 2019, was coaxed out of retirement prior to UNM’s game against Boise State. Carroll was originally recruited by the Lobos as an option QB, but ended up being a big contributor as a running back in ’19.

Once Wilson Jr. went down, the Lobos completely changed their base offense.

“They’ve gone straight triple option, with kind of a pistol eye formation with a receiver in the backfield and quarterbacks that can deliver the dive and pitch, and pass action off of it,” Anderson said. “I think they realized with injuries and personnel mid-season that they had to make some changes. I remember talking to Danny mid-season and he kind of indicated ... he said, ‘I’m going to have to make some decisions.’ They changed to it against Wyoming and they got a win. They’ve developed and evolved every week (and have) become more and more diverse out of it.”

Former walk-on quarterback Isaiah Chavez completed 11 of 12 passes for 112 yards and one touchdown in New Mexico’s gratifying 14-3 road triumph over Wyoming on Oct. 23 — the team’s only win in Mountain West action. The Lobos also racked up 259 yards on the ground in that game, and had some success running the ball the following two weeks against UNLV and Fresno State.

However, UNM has also struggled mightily offensively in a few games and ultimately ranks dead last out of 130 FBS teams in total offense (238.0 ypg). The Lobos only gained 69 total yards in a 36-7 loss at home to Colorado State, which is an all-time Mountain West record for futility in conference games only.

Nevertheless, Anderson is leery of New Mexico’s ability to “pop some big runs” and get some favorable one-on-one matchups at the wide receiver position. However, the Lobos have struggled protecting their signal callers this season as they have given up 34 sacks, so “that’s going to be our job and our responsibility defensively to get back there and make it tough for them to create rhythm and get to all of their different options out of the triple (option),” Anderson asserted.

NOTES: USU leads the all-time series against UNM 14-13. The Aggies have a four-game winning streak in the series. ... Should the Aggies prevail Friday, they will become just the fourth team in program history to win all of their games on the road, plus the first team to go 6-0.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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