The Liberty Flames and New Mexico State Aggies are prepared to meet for the first of two games scheduled this season. This rare occurrence will be the first time two Division I teams have played twice in the same regular season since UConn and UMass did so in 1998.
NMSU is coming off a bye week and will host the Flames as part of their homecoming festivities. Sound familiar? That was the same exact scenario for New Mexico last week. The Aggies are 1-4 on the season, having lost their first 4 games to Wyoming, Minnesota, Utah State, and New Mexico. Their last time out on the field they picked up their first win of the year by defeating UTEP.
Doug Martin is in his 6th season as head coach at New Mexico State. He guided them to their first bowl appearance in 57 years in 2017, advancing to the Arizona Bowl where they defeated Utah State, improving their record 7-6 on the year. Turner Gill and Martin are familiar acquaintances, having met on the gridiron on 4 previous occasions as head coaches when Gill was at Buffalo and Martin was the head coach at Kent State. Gill’s Buffalo teams went 3-1 against Martin’s Kent State squads. Gill has faced NMSU on one prior occasion, in 2010, when his Kansas team defeated the Aggies 42-16.
The Flames are looking to win road games in back-to-back weeks for the first since November 2014, when Liberty defeated Coastal Carolina to advance to the FCS playoffs where they defeated James Madison. The last time Liberty won two straight road games was in 2016.
The Aggies have struggled on offense this year as they look to replace veteran quarterback Tyler Rogers who threw for over 10,000 yards in his NMSU career. Through 5 games, the Aggies are being held to just 16.4 points per game. They have been improving as their points scored has increased every game from 7 in the opener against Wyoming to 27 scored in the win at UTEP.
“This year, they’ve already played 3 quarterbacks,” Coach Gill said. “It’s maybe been a little more challenging for them to settle in to what they want to do offensively.”
Redshirt-freshman Josh Adkins made his first career start in the Aggies’ last game against UTEP, and he’s expected to be the starter moving forward. Adkins completed 9 of his 18 pass attempts for 156 yards and 1 touchdown against the Miners.
Quarterback hasn’t been the only position that has struggled though. New Mexico State is averaging 82.4 yards rushing per game which ranks 127th out of 129 FBS teams. In their season opener, they were held to negative 9 yards rushing. That total has increased each week, topping out at 155 yards on 34 carries against UTEP. Christian Gibson and Jason Huntley lead the way rushing. Huntley has 49 carries for 156 yards, and Gibson has rushed for a team leading 170 yards on just 24 carries. Gibson went over 100 rushing yards on just 10 carries against UTEP.
“Jason Huntley is very explosive, does a great job of creating and making young men miss,” Liberty defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly said. “We’re going to have to corral him.”
“This is a tough situation for us to be in because we know they’re going to make some adjustments and show some things that we haven’t seen before,” Gill said of the Aggies’ offense coming off a bye week. “That’s why it’s going to be a very big challenge for us in a lot of different ways.”
Wimberly says that his defensive unit is improving, and that really showed up in the first half of the New Mexico game. He’s hopeful that it will carry over into a full game Saturday.
“We are improving. When you look at the first half (against UNM), we played really good. We’ve got some young men that we brought in that are really starting to gel. The majority of the guys we have playing didn’t get here until June. In the first half, we have been very competitive in all 4 games,” Wimberly said. “We need to do that in the 2nd half, as well.”
It hasn’t been much better on the defensive side of the ball for the Aggies, who are giving up 262.8 yards rushing and 39.8 points per game. Looking at the stats, NMSU is holding its opponents to 171.4 yards passing, but that stat can be deceiving. In most games, the Aggies fell behind and the opposing team leaned heavily on the ground game. Even in their lone win, UTEP rushed the ball 64 times compared to just 16 pass attempts.
Their pass defense will certainly be tested against a Liberty team that set a school single game record for 472 yards passing at New Mexico. The Flames are averaging 338.5 passing yards per game. Liberty will be without slot receiver Damian King who will miss at least 4 weeks due to injury. Filling in for King will be D.J. Stubbs. We could also see Kevin Shaa and true freshman JT Wood get more playing time in King’s absence.
“DJ has been preparing himself for this moment his entire career,” Liberty offensive coordinator Joe Dailey said. “Last year, he was in a backup role and made plays on key downs and distances, and this year he’s taken on the role as a split starter. He’s made phenomenal progress and phenomenal plays for us. You feel really good knowing that you got a guy preparing to be the workhorse. Going forward, it’s going to be that much more important for the next couple of guys to have that same mentality and come to work every single day and be ready for their moment.”
Former Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani is New Mexico State’s defensive coordinator. He has orchestrated a defense and defensive line that is very good. The Aggies were 2nd in all of FBS with 43 sacks. They’ve followed that up with a solid 14 sacks through 5 games so far this year.
“They recruit to a certain standard,” Dailey said. “They want some length on the perimeter of the defensive line. The interior of the line they want some strength and some size. These guys have played a lot of football together. Last year’s defense was really salty. You can’t tell any difference, in terms of attitude and effort, from last year to this year. You turn on the tape and you see those guys flying to the football, rallying to make tackles. The only difference is it’s a new year, they’re still good. We’re going to have our hands full because they play aggressive.”
“Having been a coach at the FBS level, played at the FBS level, you can’t be too far ahead,” Gill said. “It’s a tremendous challenge, a great opportunity to win 2 games on the road the first year as an FBS program. Our first year as an FBS team, every game is so vital. You have injuries that come up, things are always coming up every week. We have to tell our guys every single week, ‘you have to play your best. You cannot take a day off.’ I don’t look too far ahead. I think my challenge as a coach is to get the players to look at it game by game, day by day.”
Liberty 35, New Mexico State 24
The Aggies are still trying to find their identity on offense, and they haven’t been able to slow down opposing offenses. Meanwhile, the Flames are rolling on offense and are beginning to show some swagger on the defensive side of the ball. If Liberty is able to overcome the back to back trips to New Mexico and playing at higher elevations, the Flames will move to 3-2.