Although the regular season didn’t end the way Utah State wanted, the Aggies are itching to get back on the field with plenty at stake in the postseason.
UTEP is looking to cap its turnaround under coach Sean Kugler by living up to its preseason motto.
As Utah State tries to bounce back with its third consecutive bowl victory, the Miners seek their first bowl win in 47 years when the teams meet in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday.
Utah State (9-4) had its bubble burst in the season finale Nov. 29, falling 50-19 at No. 21 Boise State that caused it to lose out on its second straight Mountain West Conference Mountain Division title.
The Aggies, however, aren’t hanging their heads as they get ready to play in a fourth straight bowl game. They have their sights set on reaching double-digit victories for the second time, joining the 2012 team that won a school-record 11.
Utah State has gone 3-6 in its previous nine bowl games, but won 21-14 over then-No. 24 Northern Illinois in the 2013 Poinsettia Bowl and 41-15 over Toledo in the 2012 Idaho Potato Bowl.
“I can promise you, we’re very, very hungry,” coach Matt Wells said. “The comment that I always make to the team is you’re only as good as your last game. Your body of work, your resume, is the last video that you put out there. For Utah State and everybody in this program, (the last game) wasn’t very good. It wasn’t up to our standards. We have a great desire to go and end this thing right.”
The Aggies can start by getting their previously dominant defense back on track. They had allowed 18.3 points and 116.5 rushing yards per game before surrendering a season-high point total and 283 yards on the ground to the Broncos.
Zach Vigil, the MWC defensive player of the year, ranks ninth in the country with 145 tackles and 12th with 19 1/2 tackles for loss. The senior linebacker needs one tackle for loss to match the MWC single-season record he set a year ago, and he’s 2 1/2 shy of tying Jermaine Younger’s school record of 22.0 set in 1993.
Safety Frankie Sutera is tied for third nationally with seven interceptions for the Aggies, who are tied for the seventh with 29 turnovers forced.
“It’s going to be, for us seniors, the last time we’re in an Aggie uniform, and we’re going to want to go out with a bang,” defensive end B.J. Larsen said. “We’re going to want to go out with a ‘W.'”
Utah State faces another difficult challenge in Aaron Jones, who averages 112.1 rushing yards. The sophomore running back’s rushing total of 1,233 is sixth in UTEP history.
Jones ran for 147 yards and a touchdown and added a 72-yard TD reception in a 24-21 home win over Middle Tennessee on Nov. 29 that secured the Miners’ first winning season since 2005.
UTEP (7-5) ranks 32nd in the nation with 212.7 rushing yards per game.
The Miners rallied after a poor start to win five of seven en route to their first postseason berth since the 2010 New Mexico Bowl, which they lost 52-24 to BYU.
The Miners, 2-10 in their first season under Kugler in 2013, have dropped their last five bowl games since a 14-7 win over Mississippi in the 1967 Sun Bowl.
“It’s been a long time since UTEP has won a bowl game, so the theme going into the year was ‘make history,'” Kugler said. “We have an opportunity to do that if we win our last game.”
Kugler’s team ranks last in Conference USA with 144.3 passing yards per game, though Jameill Showers has thrown one interception over the past seven contests. The senior has also rushed for 201 yards and three scores in that stretch.
“I think (the Aggies) have a very physical defense and a lot of good players that make plays, especially their linebackers and safeties that come down and fill holes,” Showers said. “I think it’s going to be a good matchup for us.”
Before losing to Boise State, the Aggies managed to put together a five-game winning streak despite losing quarterbacks Chuckie Keeton, Darell Garretson and Craig Harrison to injury.
Kent Myers has completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 798 yards with five touchdowns and two picks since taking over six games ago. The freshman rushed for 135 yards and four scores in his last two contests.
Utah State’s JoJo Natson ran for 293 yards and three touchdowns in a three-game stretch before rushing four times for minus-three yards against the Broncos.
UTEP gave up 259 yards on the ground against Middle Tennessee after allowing 86.0 per game over its previous five. It’s allowing 201.5 yards per game through the air.
The Miners have dropped both meetings with the Aggies, with the last matchup coming in 1961.