The New Mexico State Aggies met a highly-challenging test this past weekend, a road game at UCLA that saw them fall 59-13.
UCLA, ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25 Poll, is the best team the Aggies have faced to this point of the season and should be from here on out. The Bruins dominated the game, from gaining 692 total yards of offense to converting 12 of 14 third-down attempts (the Aggies, conversely, were 1 of 11 on third-down conversions).
UCLA continued to exploit an Aggie defense that's been beaten during the year. NMSU did win the turnover battle 3-2, with all three UCLA turnovers coming in the red zone (two of which came in the first quarter). But the Bruins didn't punt on the evening, either, and scored 24 second-quarter points to take a 31-0 lead at intermission.
The Aggies 605.5 yards surrendered per game is ranked last in the NCAA (No. 123) as is their 50.3 points-per-game against.
The hope is that such numbers will be reduced moving into the second half of the season (the first four games of the 2013 have been brutal, with three BCS opponents on the docket). The next two weeks, prior to the team's bye, against San Diego State and New Mexico, don't figure to be easy contests by any means, however.
The Aggies started a brand-new offensive backfield in freshman quarterback King Davis III and junior running back Brandon Betancourt.
And the team was able to get a running game going, gaining 187 yards on 41 carries (4.6 yards per rush).
Betancout, a Mayfield High School alum, played well, gaining 95 yards on 18 carries while scoring his third touchdown in three weeks. He's been a bright spot for the Aggies throughout the early portion of the 2013 season.
Davis, on the other hand, was a freshman quarterback making his first career start against the UCLA defense in the Rose Bowl. Overall, he didn't necessarily play poorly and showed his athleticism, rushing for 64 yards on 12 attempts. The team did not assert itself throwing the ball with him in the game, however (6 of 13, 48 yards and an interception). Davis also lost a fumble on the evening.
Initially, UCLA had some trouble defending the Aggies rushing attack, although quickly made adjustments. Davis began taking some hard hits and was eventually knocked out of the game after taking a shot on a pass play, with the Aggies trailing 31-0 in the third quarter.
Davis' arms went stiff, and he was on the ground momentarily before the medical staff could tend to him on the field.
In any event, senior Andrew McDonald - who started the first three games of the season - did come into the game and to his credit played well. McDonald was ready and quickly led the Aggies on a five-play, 74-yard scoring drive that ended on his 33-yard scoring pass to Adam Shapiro to start the fourth quarter.
Later in the fourth, the Aggies went on another scoring drive - this time a 10-play, 85-yard drive - that culminated on Betancourt's four-yard touchdown run.
McDonald finished the evening 9 of 13 for 98 yards and a touchdown and the offense seemed more settled under his watch. He could get the starting nod this weekend against San Diego State, depending on the severity of Davis' injury.
Special teams continues to struggle for the Aggies.
The game's initial kickoff saw the Bruins return the ball inside the NMSU 20-yard line.
The Aggies botched a field-goal attempt just before halftime when McDonald bobbled the snap - somehow, it was the Aggies first field-goal attempt of the 2013 season.
The team also managed to miss an extra point following the game's final touchdown.
Safety Davis Cazares had a standout game on defense - 12 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Overall, it was a nice homecoming for the Monrovia, Calif. native.
Is this team missing Austin Franklin? The answer to that question is, unequivocally, yes.
The Aggies just don't have any home-run hitters on offense, and have to manufacture most drives with very few gamebreakers.
With that being said, I think the wide receiver unit has performed about as well as one could expect in 2013.
Players such as Jerrel Brown, Joshua Bowen, Joseph Matthews, Perris Scoggins, Jordan Bergstrom and Adam Shapiro have played within themselves and generally hang onto the ball.
Shapiro, a Rio Rancho native, caught his first career touchdown against the Bruins.
I'll say the same thing about the offensive line, which has performed about as well as one could expect in 2013.
Overall, the game followed an unsettling script for the Aggies, once again against an elite UCLA team.
NMSU did run the ball better, although needs to be more consistent offensively.
Defensively, the unit's struggles were apparent and somewhat expected.
And from a special teams standpoint, there doesn't seem to be any cohesion.
The takeaways from the contest were small steps: the three forced turnovers; Betancourt's and Cazares' performances; along with Shapiro's touchdown grab.
The Aggies return home next weekend against a San Diego State team that sits at 0-3, although could be close to figuring things out. The Aztecs had a real chance at victory this past Saturday against Oregon State (they lost 34-30) and are coached by former University of New Mexico head man Rocky Long.
It doesn't figure to be an easy contest, one where the Aggies likely will have to play their best of the 2013 season to pull off.
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