LOGAN – For the Utah State football team, the whole season has come to this.
Saturday’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl is a chance for the Aggies to finish their injury-riddled season on a high note. It’s a chance for players like Zach Vigil, Jaron Bentrude, Brian Suite and Kevin Whimpey to put on the Aggie Blue and Fighting White one last time and finish their college careers with a win. It’s a chance for freshmen like Kent Myers and LaJuan Hunt to prove themselves in a bowl game for the first time. It’s a chance to for Aggie football to hit the 10-win mark for the second time in program history. It’s also a chance for Utah State’s football program to win three-straight bowl games.
“It’s never been done here before, three straight,” USU head coach Matt Wells said. “Ten wins will be the second-most amount of wins in this program’s history. Each of us that were here two years ago to be a part of that, that’s something that we’ll have for a long time. We’re doing a lot of things that have never been done before in Utah State football, and those two are right there at the top of that list.”
The Aggies upset No. 24 Northern Illinois 21-14 in last year’s Poinsettia Bowl and defeated Toledo 41-15 in the 2012 Potato Bowl. This year’s bowl game will be against UTEP, a team that the Aggies haven’t faced on the gridiron since 1961.
UTEP has a 7-5 record and finished 5-3 in Conference USA, a big improvement from last year’s team that finished with only two wins. The only common opponent the two teams had this season was New Mexico, who UTEP defeated opening week 31-24 and who the Aggies beat 28-21 on November 15. This will be the UTEP’s first bowl game since 2010. Senior defensive end B.J. Larsen said the bowl game is the “icing on the cake” for UTEP’s turnaround season.
“The seniors are going to be getting everyone going,” he said. “They’re going to have a good game, I know they will. They’ll come out to play.”
Wells said he thinks the biggest reason for UTEP’s turnaround is their offensive line and run game.
“The five big boys up front come off the football,” he said. “They get together and do a really good job. (Nathan) Jeffery and (Aaron) Jones are a good one-two punch at running back. One’s big, physical. The other one has got some speed and some shiftiness.”
The Aggies have been capable of stopping the run for most of the season, but struggled in their most recent game against Boise State, giving up 283 yards on the ground.
“It’s really our job, and really a pride issue, to get that back,” Larsen said. “We’ve been a top-10 run defense for the last three years, and we want to get back to that status, absolutely. This is a chance to get back to that and prove that we are that caliber of a team, which I know were are and we’ve proven in the past.”
The UTEP offense is led by senior quarterback Jameill Showers who has thrown for 1,732 yards this season.
“They don’t ask him to open it up and throw it like crazy, because the strength of their football team is that running game, those two backs and that tight end,” Wells said. “He has got some quickness, he throws it well on the run, and the guy won some games for them.”
According to Wells, UTEP’s defense likes to pressure and play a lot of man coverage. He said they will often have the offense outnumbered in the box, so the Aggies will have to take advantage when they can. Junior receiver JoJo Natson said because they play a lot of man coverage, it will be up to him and other receivers to make plays on the perimeter.
“We just see it as a challenge,” Natson said. “A challenge saying, ‘You know, we want the ball more than you guys.’”
The game will kick off at 12:20 p.m. MT. It will be part of the first day of the college football bowl season.