New Mexico State quarterback Jonah Johnson looks to pass against New Mexico on Sept. 11, 2021, in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Jay Norvell did his best this week to praise the New Mexico State Aggies.
“We have a good New Mexico State team coming to Reno this week,” said Norvell of the non-conference matchup at Mackay Stadium on Saturday (7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network). “This is a real talented team.”
New Mexico State’s talent hasn’t added up to much success on the field. The independent Aggies are 1-5 this season and have already lost to four Mountain West teams, falling to San Diego State (28-10), New Mexico (34-25), Hawaii (41-21) and, last week, San Jose State (37-31).
“Their record is not great,” said Norvell, finally mixing in some reality with his comments about the Aggies.
The Aggies have rarely had a great record. New Mexico State has had just one winning season (7-6 in 2017) since 2003 and has had just four seasons in its 128-year football history with more than seven victories.
That history now seems to be stuck in limbo. The Aggies have been a program without a conference since 2018. The majority of New Mexico State’s sports play in the Western Athletic Conference. The WAC, though, stopped playing football after the 2012 season. The Aggies played as an independent in 2013 and joined the Sun Belt Conference from 2014-17 and returned to independent status in 2018.
The last thing Norvell wants this week, however, is for his team to study the Aggies’ history. The Pack is coming off an important 41-31 victory at Boise State, generating momentum that can likely only be spoiled by overconfidence this week. That’s why Norvell reminded everyone of the Aggies’ strengths this week.
“They have athletes that run around,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack is 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the Mountain West. “They have good athletes on this team. They really do.”
New Mexico State quarterback Jonah Johnson, who played at Fresno City College in 2018 and 2019, has passed for 1,024 yards and five touchdowns this season. Johnson threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns, completing 30-of-44 passes, against San Jose State last week.
“He’s a dual threat guy,” Norvell said. “They put up points on people (an average of 22 a game). We have to be on top of our game. This is a team capable of scoring points and going up and down the field on you.”
Norvell, though, then praised the New Mexico State defense, a unit that has allowed an average of 34 points and 447 yards a game.
“This is a quality, quality defense, very capable of giving you a lot of problems,” Norvell said.
The Aggies are 102nd in the nation among the 130 Division I-A teams in passing yards allowed (254.7 a game), 107th in rushing yards allowed (194) and 114th in total defense (448.7). They are also 115th in points allowed (34.2).
Not even New Mexico State coach Doug Martin would label the Aggies’ defense as quality right now.
“Defensively, it’s just a struggle right now,” Martin said this week.
New Mexico State now gets to play a Nevada offense that is averaging 32.2 points and 420.5 yards and is ninth in the nation in passing offense (330.5).
“These Mountain West teams we’re playing are in the top half of their conference,” Martin said.
The Aggies will play seven games against Mountain West teams this year (two against Hawaii). They will host Nevada and also play Hawaii next year, San Diego State and Hawaii in 2023 and Hawaii, Wyoming and Fresno State in 2024.
New Mexico State has lost its last 10 games against Mountain West teams. It’s last victories over Mountain West teams came in 2017 when it beat New Mexico in the regular season and Utah State in the Arizona Bowl.
“There’s nowhere to hide on this schedule,” Martin said.
The Wolf Pack and Aggies were once members of the Big West (1992-99) and Western Athletic Conference (2005-11) at the same time. The Pack has won 13-of-15 games against New Mexico State with all 15 coming in conference play.
The last game in the rivalry was a 48-34 Wolf Pack victory in Las Cruces, N.M., in 2011 when the Pack‘s Lampford Mark rushed for 185 yards on just eight carries. The last time the Aggies came to Mackay Stadium was 2010, the week before Nevada’s thrilling 34-31 overtime victory over Boise State at home. The Pack beat New Mexico State easily 52-6 in 2010 as just 10,906 fans showed up at Mackay Stadium.
This year the Aggies-Pack game is the week after a thrilling Pack win over Boise State. Norvell and the Wolf Pack are hoping for at least double the attendance on Saturday compared to 2010. The Pack hasn’t played a home game since a 49-10 victory over Idaho State on Sept. 11 that attracted a crowd of 23,965 at Mackay Stadium.
“We have to get this community excited about this football team,” Norvell said.
New Mexico State’s only two victories in the rivalry, strangely enough, took place at Mackay Stadium and by the same exact score (48-45).
New Mexico State beat the Pack in 1998 despite a Big West-record 611 yards and five touchdowns from Nevada quarterback David Neill. The Aggies then stunned the Pack in 2008 despite 188 yards rushing and four touchdowns (two receiving) by Pack running back Vai Taua (now the Nevada running backs coach and brother of Pack back Toa Taua). New Mexico State also returned a fumble by Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick 83 yards for a touchdown in the 2008 game.
The Aggies head coach in 2008 was Hal Mumme, the father of current Wolf Pack offensive coordinator Matt Mumme. Matt Mumme was the Aggies’ offensive coordinator in 2008.
Both losses to the Aggies in 1998 and 2008 demoralized the Pack.
“We just played like we’ve never been coached,” defensive coordinator Ken Wilson said in 1998.
“To play like that at Mackay Stadium, it’s just unacceptable,” head coach Chris Ault said in 2008.
A Pack loss on Saturday would likely bring the same sort of response by the coaches.
“We’re a team that is still growing,” Norvell said. “We have to continue to improve week in and week out.”