The New Mexico State football team has played well the past two weeks of the season, with the latest improved performance coming against Boston College this past Saturday at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
Yes, NMSU lost 48-34. But was it nice to see an entertaining game where the team was competitive on their homefield? Absolutely it was.
A wild contest ensued, one that saw the Aggies trail just 20-17 at halftime and the score tied 34-34 in the final quarter.
Yet with that, it was a game that could also be broken down by three plays that went against NMSU: a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown from Myles Willis to make the score 34-27 Boston College; an 80-yard touchdown run from running back Andre Williams, which proved to be the go-ahead score at 41-34; and then the last TD of the day, a Williams 47-yard run for the final margin.
And with that, the Aggies biggest issue this season was exposed again: giving up big plays, particularly in the run game and occasionally on special teams.
NMSU's problems in run defense have been documented - the team ranks last in the FBS this area (312.9 yards per game), total defense (555.0 yards per game) and scoring defense (giving up 46.4 points per game). In this case, going against Williams was a bad recipe - the senior currently leads the nation in rushing (1,471 yards, 163.4 per game) - and he rumbled for 295 yards on 30 carries.
In truth, the Aggies had some moments defensively against Boston College: they forced a turnover with the score tied 34-34, and came up with the occasional big stop. But it's also been an all-or-nothing unit for much of the year, and such was the case Saturday.
BC - which has had a good season to this point, playing in a strong Atlantic Coast Conference - is a grind-it-out group. Even Williams is more of a pounder and grinder than gamebreaker. But they banged away at the the Aggies on the ground and eventually broke off some long ones (35 carries, 320 yards on the day).
In terms of special teams, the Aggie kicking game was solid: Maxwell Johnson went 2-for-2 on field-goal attempts (making from 43 and 32 yards); kicker Cayle Chapman-Brown was superb (a 51.9 yards per punt average, four punts downed inside the 20-yard line); and Brock Baca had four touchbacks on seven kickoffs.
But head coach Doug Martin said Baca made an error on the TD return by kicking it down the middle of the field, adding the kick-coverage unit doesn't have enough speed to adequately cover.
This season the Aggies have given up two kickoff-return touchdowns (while surrendering 24.52 yards per return) and also a punt-return touchdown. Saturday's return came after Johnson's 32-yard field goal tied the score 27-27.
With that, the Aggie offense has performed about as well as one could have hoped at this point of the season.
Lets put it this way: going into the past two games, if someone said the unit would have scored 35 and 34 points against Louisiana-Lafayette and Boston College, would that have been fathomable? After all, those are two good football teams with good defenses, and the Aggie offense topped the 30-point threshold once prior this season (in their 34-29 win over Abilene Christian).
Yet this is a team that's received good coaching on that side of the ball, and the recent success can be attributed, at least in part, to the apparent connection developed between quarterback Andrew McDonald and wide receiver Austin Franklin.
McDonald has put together back-to-back strong performances: against Lafayette (24 of 34, 327 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) and BC (41 of 55, 384 yards, three touchdowns, one interception). In this his senior season, McDonald's found success down the stretch drive.
Franklin's addition to the offense was crucial at midseason, and offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon is finding ways to get him the football (against BC, the wide-receiver bubble screens to Franklin was a bread-and-butter play for the Aggies). As Franklin's gotten into a groove and the offensive personnel continues to build continuity and familiarity, here's been the junior wide receiver's numbers: vs. Abilene Christian (11 catches, 122 yards, two touchdowns); vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (13 catches, 140 yards, two touchdowns); and vs. Boston College (10 catches, 145 yards, two touchdowns).
While the offense's performance is coming on, the wide receivers as a whole continue to play well and look like a well-coached group. Eight different players made receptions on Saturday, while such contributors ran well after the catch and blocked well in the screen-passing game.
The offensive line continues to perform well and to its level this season.
And while there's been injuries in the backfield - running back Brandon Betancourt is out for the season with a torn ligament in his left foot, while senior Germi Morrison has missed the past two weeks with an injured shoulder - freshman Xavier Hall's been a pleasant surprise. While he isn't the biggest of players, Hall's ran well the past two weeks, carrying the ball 14 times for 95 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles. He also caught four balls for 32 yards in the passing game on Saturday.
The coaching staff is getting the most out of the group at this point of the season, and the results and statistics speak for themselves.
Can the Aggies beat Florida Atlantic and/or Idaho to close out their season (the team has a bye before traveling to FAU next weekend).
Why not? Florida Atlantic isn't exactly a model of stability at the moment, although that game will be on the road in Boca Raton. We'll see.
Idaho does in fact come to Las Cruces, although the Vandals offense has shown some life.
The Aggies are going to have to continue to play better and, if they do, a win or two down the stretch would appear very possible.
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