Wyoming and New Mexico State cap the first Saturday of games for the 2018 college football season with a late-night meeting in Las Cruces. Both programs enter the year with momentum and will look to get the 2018 campaign started with a big victory.
In his fifth year at the helm last fall, coach Doug Martin guided New Mexico State to a 7-6 mark and the program’s first bowl trip since 1960. The seven-win season also represented the Aggies’ first winning mark since 1999. As he enters his sixth year in Las Cruces, Martin’s task of turning this program into an annual bowl team got a little tougher over the offseason. In addition to the personnel losses of quarterback Tyler Rogers, running back Larry Rose and receiver Jaleel Scott, the 2017 season was New Mexico State’s last year in the Sun Belt Conference. This path is familiar for Martin. After all, the Aggies spent the 2013 season as a FBS Independent. While life as an FBS Independent has its challenges, New Mexico State is trending up after last season and has a bowl tie-in with the Arizona Bowl – if the Sun Belt and Mountain West fail to fill their allotment of teams.
Wyoming enters 2018 looking to build off back-to-back eight win seasons under coach Craig Bohl. The Cowboys claimed the Mountain Division title in 2016 and finished 8-5 with a victory over Central Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last fall. This program has made considerable progress under Bohl and is aiming for its third consecutive bowl trip for the first time in school history. Bohl’s biggest challenge in 2018 rests with an offense that must replace quarterback Josh Allen and struggled to generate consistent production out of its ground game last year.
Wyoming and New Mexico State have only one previous matchup. The Cowboys defeated the Aggies in 1953 in a 47-0 shutout in Laramie.
Wyoming at New Mexico State
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 25 at 10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Wyoming -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New Quarterbacks
Both Wyoming and New Mexico State enter Saturday night’s matchup with a first-time starter under center. Junior college recruit Matt Romero edged senior Nick Jeanty for the starting job for the Aggies. On the other sideline, redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal beat out senior Nick Smith.
New Mexico State finished sixth nationally in passing offense last season and attempted the second-most passes (641) of any FBS team. Needless to say, Martin won’t be shy about allowing Romero to open things up. The California native spent two years at Palomar College and started 21 games during that span. Romero threw for 2,915 yards and 26 touchdowns in 11 contests last season and also eclipsed the 2,500-yard mark in ’16. Romero won’t have standout receiver Jaleel Scott (76 catches in 2017) to throw to, but the Aggies still return OJ Clark (47), Izaiah Lottie (20) and Johnathan Boone (31) on the outside.
Vander Waal inherits big shoes to fill after holding off Smith for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. As if making your first career start on the road wasn’t enough on Saturday night, Vander Waal is also replacing first-round pick Josh Allen. While Vander Waal is inexperienced, Bohl and coordinator Brent Vigen have a strong track record of finding and developing quarterbacks.
Which first-time starter will settle in early and avoid the big mistake on Saturday night? With a tight game expected, the play of both quarterbacks will be under the spotlight.
2. Wyoming’s Defense Versus NMSU’s Offense
The strength of Wyoming’s 2018 team is the defense. This unit held opponents to 17.5 points a game and just 4.7 yards a play. Coordinator Scottie Hazelton boasts all-conference talent at all three levels, including end Carl Granderson (9.5 sacks last season), linebacker Logan Wilson (119 stops) and Athlon Sports second-team All-American Andrew Wingard at safety.
As mentioned above, New Mexico State’s offense leaned on its passing game last season. Wyoming’s pass rush generated 33 sacks in 2017 and will test an experienced offensive line for the Aggies. The Cowboys hope to disrupt New Mexico State’s passing game from there, but if Romero has time to throw, it won’t be easy against Bohl’s secondary. In addition to Wingard, the Cowboys return senior Marcus Epps at safety, and junior Antonio Hull is back from injury to solidify one cornerback spot.
New Mexico State lost star running back Larry Rose after the 2017 season, but Jason Huntley is a capable replacement and a breakout candidate for ’18. Huntley averaged a healthy six yards per carry on 70 attempts and caught 39 passes last fall. The junior’s versatility presents a valuable outlet for Romero out of the backfield and will challenge a Wyoming front that gave up 160.3 rushing yards a game in 2017.
A matchup between a high-powered offense against one of the top Group of 5 defenses in the nation is on tap for Saturday night. Which side wins out? Is it Wyoming’s rugged and standout defense? Or will Romero and Huntley prove to be too much?
3. New Mexico State’s Pass Rush Against Wyoming
Under veteran play-caller Frank Spaziani, New Mexico State has made considerable progress on defense in recent years. In 2015 – the year prior to Spaziani’s arrival – the Aggies surrendered a whopping 45 points a game. However, that total decreased to 38.8 in 2016 and fell to 29.7 last fall. A big reason for the improvement on the stat sheet has been the pass rush. New Mexico State recorded 43 sacks last season – up from 11 in 2016.
With Vander Waal making his first start, Spaziani will certainly try to throw a few different looks to confuse the offense and generate pressure. The Aggies return their top three performers in sacks last season, including Cedric Wilcots (8.5) and Terrill Hanks (7.0). This trio could be a handful for Wyoming’s offense on Saturday night. In addition to a young quarterback, the Cowboys will start three freshmen on their offensive line, including center Patrick Arnold. If Vander Waal has time to throw, junior Austin Conway and senior James Price will be the top targets. New Mexico State’s secondary will counter with experience (two seniors and two juniors), with former Minnesota defensive back Ray Buford providing a boost at corner.
How the young offensive line handle an active New Mexico State pass rush isn’t the only concern for Wyoming on Saturday night. The Cowboys averaged only 108.8 rushing yards a game last season and question marks remain about the ground game for 2018. Senior Nico Evans is slated to start at running back, but Xazavian Valladay and Jevon Bigelow are two freshmen poised to push for carries. While the Aggies had an active pass rush, this group was vulnerable to the run (166.5 ypg allowed) last year.
Of the four games on the first Saturday of college football action in 2018, this is the game with the most appeal. Both Wyoming and New Mexico State enter the year with momentum and are trending up after successful campaigns last fall. In addition to the overall program aspect, this matchup features several interesting battles. How will the new quarterbacks fare in their first opportunity of game action? Can Wyoming’s young offensive line generate a push on the ground to alleviate some of the pressure off of Vander Waal? And when New Mexico State has the ball, will Romero be able to consistently put together drives against one of the top defenses in the nation? Look for a tight game that goes deep into the fourth quarter. However, the Cowboys get one or two key stops on defense to give Bohl’s team the victory and a 1-0 record to start the 2018 season.