New Mexico Lobos Football -- At Branch Field -- University Stadium
Saturday: 7 p.m., Utah State (3-4, 2-1) at New Mexico (2-4, 0-2)
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
For a change, the spotlight on the opposing team doesn’t shine down on a quarterback.
It shifts to the defense. It beams down on Jake Doughty and Zach Vigil – a tenacious duo of headhunting Utah State linebackers, who defend their turf like a junk-yard dog guarding a meaty bone.
These Aggies do not like running backs. They do not like quarterbacks. They do not like giving up first downs. Doughty had 19 tackles vs. Boise State. Vigil had a mere 12 stops.
They will be looking to greet Lobos at the line of scrimmage and they are good at seeking out their targets. Doughty, a senior, is No. 5 in the nation with 11.9 tackles per game. Vigil, a junior, is No. 25 with 9.7 per game.
They are the core of an Aggie defense that is ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West and No. 31 in the nation in total defense.
More appropriate to their mission on Saturday, the Aggies are ranked No. 1 in the Mountain and No. 29 nationally in rushing defense.
Utah State has an ornery defense. They hold opponents to 129.1 yards on the ground and 351.6 total yards. This also is a defense that has an extra challenge knowing that its offense lost a special player in quarterback Chuckie Keeton.
Here’s how good Keeton is: He has missed two games and is still No. 3 in the nation in touchdown passes with 18. Keeton led the Aggies to 52 points at Air Force, to 70 points vs. Weber State and 40 points at San Jose State.
The Aggie offense is looking to redefine its identity – and solidify its quarterback spot – but the Aggie defense has been good and is still good. It held the Air Force option to 20 points, held Southern Cal to 17 points and gave up 12 points to San Jose State.
Utah State gave up 34 to Boise State this past week, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad game for the Aggie defense – or any defense. The Broncos scored 60 the week before vs. Southern Miss and were averaging 51 points in their four games prior to Utah State.
The Aggies try to win the trench war first and challenge teams to beat them in the air. They do not make scoring easy. They are No. 1 in the MW in scoring defense and No. 31 on the national level allowing 21.4 points per game.
The Aggies also are No. 1 in the Mountain in third-down conversions which is good for the No. 24 spot nationally.
The Aggie defense will be a challenge for UNM’s ‘Pistol’ and the quarterback question looms large for both teams when Utah State steps onto Branch Field.
For the Lobos, there is a question of whether Coach Bob Davie will go with Cole Gautsche (strained knee), Clayton Mitchem (concussion symptoms) or David Vega, who did a lot of good things Saturday in Wyoming including rifling a TD through a small hole in the Wyoming defense.
Utah State would like to start Keeton, but with their starter out for the season with a knee. The Aggies they probably will go with the two-headed huddle they used against Boise State.
Craig Harrison has the experience and has played in six games for Utah State going 30-of-63 with no interceptions. The junior went 7-of-17 for 105 yards vs. Boise State in his first start for the Aggies
Utah State also used freshman Dare Garretson, who went 9-of-14 for 116 yards and one aerial TD in the closing seconds.
It was a tough game for both hurlers because the Boise State defense can be exceptional as seen in the Broncos’ 34-23 loss in Logan, Utah. The Aggies were held to 221 passing yards vs. Boise State and 348 total yards. The absence of Keeton in the huddle was noticed on third down where Utah State converted 3-of-15. Utah State went into the Boise State game averaging 457.3 total yards and 267.4 yards passing.
The Aggies might not have Keeton in the huddle, but they do have some outstanding targets with four receivers pulling down at least 21 passes on the season. Bruce Natson has 32 grabs for 233 yards, Travi Reynolds has 30 for 495 yards. Reynolds had a career-high 142 receiving yards vs. Boise.
The Aggies are a lot like Wyoming in they like to establish a running threat to take pressure off the pass. Joey Demartino has 462 yards for a 66.0 average per game. Joe Hill has 252 yards for a 50.4 average. Keeton was the No. 3 rusher with a 40.2 average per game.
All Utah State opponents that get to face the Aggie minus Keeton obviously are getting a break. But there are no breaks when it comes to the Utah State defense. Against these Aggies, you usually need to make your own breaks.