LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The New Mexico State football program had to have had quite the stockpile of fireworks.
Long considered one of the worst FBS programs in the country, the Aggies haven’t had much reason for celebratory displays at Memorial Stadium. More than a decade of consecutive losing seasons. A bowl drought going back to the election of JFK. A three-game losing streak to Cal Poly.
That brand of distinction made the FCS Mustangs a betting favorite to pull off the road upset of the Aggies in Thursday’s season-opener. As oxymoronic as it sounds, it was certainly the case.
Instead, Cal Poly players walked up the ramp to the locker room with explosions of color showering from above, kicking themselves for what could have been after a sound 28-10 defeat at the hands of the home team.
“We came out fast,” sophomore slotback Kori Garcia said. “It looked like we had speed. We pride ourselves on speed. We came in knowing they couldn’t catch up to our speed, and we looked fast in the first half. It was clicking, and then just, I don’t know, we have to keep pushing it.”
The Mustangs did look ready to make some of those bettors happy early on, but they did themselves in with two costly turnovers, and the New Mexico State defense seemed to figure out the triple option well enough to shut Cal Poly out in the second half.
Taking the starting spot of 2013 team MVP Kristaan Ivory, who is one of five suspended players charged in connection with an alleged attempted armed robbery, Garcia ran for a team-high 84 yards on 11 carries.
Senior slotback Chris Nicholls ran for 67 yards on eight carries. Junior quarterback Chris Brown ran 17 times for 66 yards before giving way to Dano Graves in the fourth quarter.
Fullback Brandon Howe had 24 yards on eight carries, including a 3-yard touchdown to cap the Mustangs’ first drive of the game.
Altogether, Cal Poly ran for 259 yards. Only 74 of those, however, came after the half. Add an ineffective passing attack that accounted for just 6 yards on two completions, and the Mustangs had just 265 yards of total offense.
Cal Poly slotbacks did find plenty of room running to the outside in the first half. In the second, New Mexico State defensive backs were able to close those lanes.
“The first half, we did what we should do,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “I know we only threw it two times, but I think we had almost 200 yards rushing at the end of the first half. If that’s what we have, yeah, it’s the flow of the game. We never really got into any rhythm in the second half, and that’s really the difference of the game.
“They did some good things with their defensive ends. They did some good things with their free safety running the alley that caused us some problems, but we do have answers for them. We’ve just got to do them.
“Play selection and our execution led to the dismantling of ourselves in the third quarter.”
The Aggies also played a consistent game, scoring a touchdown in every quarter.
True freshman Larry Rose III ran 30 times for 149 yards and a touchdown in his collegiate debut. Junior College transfer Tyler Rogers passed for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Teldrick Morgan had six catches for 51 yards, including a 30-yard score on the opening drive of the game where he muscled through a tackle attempt.
“I missed a lot of tackles,” said senior linebacker Nick Dzubnar, who had a team-leading 12 tackles. “I’m sure other guys missed a lot of tackles maybe doing too much instead of just their assignment. I know I was guilty of that. I’m sure a couple of those big runs were probably due to me.
“Maybe I got out of my gap. But I would say the biggest thing is tackling and assignments. When we learn that and we tackle better, I think we’ll be fine.”
The Mustangs were crippled by two turnovers, a second-quarter interception by Brown that killed a potential go-ahead scoring drive and a third-quarter fumble where Garcia was unable to haul in a wild pitch by Brown.
The second turnover especially stung since it came just one play after junior cornerback Chris Fletcher snagged a leaping interception of Rogers in New Mexico State territory.
The Aggies scored touchdowns following each of those turnovers and caught another break when a 40-yard run by Brown that would have set Cal Poly up inside the New Mexico State 15 was called back on a holding penalty.
The Aggies might sit at the bottom of the FBS power rankings, but this is close to the level of competition Cal Poly can expect to face playing in the Big Sky Conference.
“Pretty close,” said Dzubnar. “I think eight times out of 10 we would have won if we stuck together as a team and played the way we know how to play, but they’re a pretty good team, and they played better as a team than we did.”