Saturday night's 26-16 New Mexico State football loss to the San Diego State Aztecs was a tough one, simply because it was a game the Aggies could have won, in quite possibly their best showing of the season to this point.
NMSU led 16-0 early in the second quarter (it quickly became 16-2 after the team's extra point attempt was blocked and returned the other way for an Aztecs two-point conversion), and 16-5 at halftime.
But the Aggies couldn't move the ball in the second half (they gained just 84 yards total in the final two quarters) and were outscored 21-0 during that span.
The Aggies began the game by throwing the ball very effectively. Quarterback Andrew McDonald was 14 of 18 early on for 174 yards and two touchdowns, throwing to a group of wide receivers playing very well in the passing game - they ran good routes and came back to the ball effectively. The offensive line, it must be pointed out, held up fairly well in pass protection.
But the Aggie offense fell flat after that. Two drives late in the first quarter and going into the second were hampered by penalties (two holding calls and a false start). And, while the offense couldn't establish a rushing attack despite trying to do so (running the ball 27 times for just 40 yards) the passing game lost some of it's effectiveness, and perhaps aggressiveness (finishing the evening 23 of 35 for 228 yards and the two early scores). The Aggies committed only one turnover on the evening, when wide receiver Josh Bowen fumbled late in the fourth quarter.
The Aggie defense deserves credit for its performance. The unit played hard and tough, and had some big red-zone stops during the contest. Of course, there was an NMSU fumble recovery that set up one of the Aggie touchdowns. And the team played the pass well (Aztec quarterback Quinn Kaehler was not particularly impressive) and stopped the run for a good portion of the contest (SDSU had 90 rushing through three quarters, although ended the evening with 212 rushing yards total).
But the unit was on the field too long (SDSU held a time-of-possession advantage of 35:40 to 24:20 despite NMSU's fast start to the contest). That, and the Aztecs featured freshman running back Donnell Pumphrey more in the second half and the speedster had a big evening, gaining 167 yards on 19 carries, to go along with three touchdowns.
Again, the Aggies couldn't get a rushing attack going against the Aztecs, a key factor in the contest.
Still, we can understand why NMSU tried to get the ground game going. Last week the Aggies rushed for 187 yards against UCLA, and if they came close to such a number against the Aztecs, a victory would have been very attainable.
The question is, can the Aggies generate a consistent running game in 2013? The week before against UCLA, freshman King Davis III started at quarterback, and his mobility could have very well aided in the ground game's overall performance.
Andrew McDonald got the starting nod against SDSU (Davis suffered a concussion against the Bruins), and while the senior is the more consistent passer - and an underrated runner - he also doesn't bring the same athleticism to the table.
With that being said, the Aggies just might have the potential for a dangerous passing attack if McDonald is the starter this weekend against the University of New Mexico. Again, the wide receivers have played well in 2013, and now have marquee player Austin Franklin back in the fold after his academic ineligibility the first four games of the season. Yes, he can provide the big-play punch this team needs. That, and McDonald has proven he can run the offense and the Aggies can be competitive under his watch.
Should they go with a more unbalanced attack, one that leans more heavily on the passing game, for the time being? Having a balanced offense is a preferred method, although perhaps such a pass-happy approach could be put put into effect this weekend, when the team visits Albuquerque to take on the Lobos.
On the other side of the ball, the most intriguing storyline going into this weekend's game will be the Lobos rushing attack against the Aggie rush defense. UNM currently ranks third nationally in rushing offense (324.5 rushing yards per game) while the Aggies rank last (No. 123) nationally in rush defense (300.8 yards per game).
With that being said, UNM seldom even tries to throw - the Lobos have attempted 54 passes all season, and rank No. 122 in the nation with 78.3 passing yards per game. And, on top of that, the Lobos actually average 31 points per game despite having such a ground-based style.
In other words, they are what they are offensively and execute it well. How things shake out in this area of the game could very well tell much of Saturday's storyline.
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