In its Sun Belt Conference opener, the NMSU football team held leads of 28-0 and 31-7 in the second half, but could not hold the advantage. In front of an announced crowd of 18,624, the Aggies squandered their lead and lost 35-31. NMSU falls to 1-4 on the season while Idaho improves to 1-5.
"I don't know how to explain it," NMSU quarterback Paul Dombrowski said after the letdown. "I can't believe it right now." Down 21-0 at halftime, Idaho coach Tom Cable decided to leave his players alone. "I took the coaches out of the room and left the players in there and they knew they were at a crossroads and needed to do something," he said. "Obviously our leadership came through in the long run."
Idaho quarterback Brian Lindgren - a senior who was benched in August but made his first start of the season against NMSU - shook off a three-interception performance in the first half to throw five second-half touchdowns to lead the Vandals to their first victory of 2003. His final throw was a 10-yarder to wide receiver Jeff Stow and came with 14 seconds on the clock to give Idaho its first lead of the game and send shock waves through the Aggies and their partisans.
"We hung in there, we knew we didn't have much time and no timeouts, but we had a plan," Lindgren said. "The offensive line was great and we were able to get open. We felt confident we could move the ball and we were very sharp on that final drive."
Said Aggie safety Matt Griebel, who intercepted Lindgren in the first half: "Defensively we weren't playing well and we weren't stopping the pass and that was our number one priority coming into the game. We failed to stop the pass and that's what beat us."
The Idaho signal caller finished with 408 yards passing, 284 of which came in the final two quarters. His last scoring strike came at the end of a five play, 94-yard drive that lasted 55 seconds.
That drive originated after NMSU appeared to have finally closed the door on its guests. With 1:09 left on the clock and the Aggies clinging to a 31-28 lead, I-back Tony Joseph converted a fourth-down run into a first-down run and, with the Vandals out of timeouts, most of those in the stadium thought the game was all but over.
But the ball popped free of Joseph's hands and Idaho pounced on the pigskin. The Vandals were given new life and drove nearly the length of the field to snatch victory away from the Aggies.
"I thought the ground caused the fumble, personally," Joseph admitted after the contest, indicating he did not think the play should have been ruled a fumble at all. "But I just have to hold onto the ball."
Up until his last carry, Joseph was having the game of his career. Taking a lot of carries because starting I-back Eric Higgins was on the bench with a bad hip, the redshirt freshman ran the ball 21 times for 163 yards and a touchdown. He led the Aggies in rushing ahead of Dombrowski who finished with 122 yards on the ground. Dombrowski said that the blame should not be placed on Joseph's shoulders.
"He ran his ass off tonight," the QB said of the I-back. "He's trying to make a play (when he fumbled). You can't talk that kid down. He ran harder than anyone in a long time. There is no knock on Tony."
Said NMSU head coach Tony Samuel: "I thought we did a good job on offense. (But) we didn't finish them off. That was a tough, tough loss." As with any squandered lead, several plays loom large after the clock struck 0:00.
• NMSU quarterback Buck Pierce was tackled two yards shy of the goal line as the clock expired in the first half.
• Aggie kicker Dario Aguiniga missed a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter.
• The play before Joseph fumbled, Dombrowski was pushed out of bounds by the Vandal defense which stopped the clock at a time when Idaho had no timeouts left.
In the first half, NMSU wasted no time lighting up the scoreboard. And the Ags' first two scores came about due an unusual situation: a pair of interceptions by two different defensive ends. On its opening drive, Idaho ran a middle screen pass but Lindgren bounced the ball off the back of his intended receiver.
The pigskin jumped up into the air where it was hauled in by Aggie rush end Chris Sneed who ran it back half the length of the field for an apparent touchdown. But an illegal block penalty gave the Ags the ball at the 39. Three plays later Dombrowski could not find an open receiver so he tucked the ball in and did not stop until 34 yards later when he crossed the goal line.
Idaho's next possession ended in a similar fashion as the first. NMSU defensive end Aubrey Dorisme dropped back into pass coverage and picked off another Lindgren offering. A 14-play drive ensued in which Dombrowski completed four passes of more than 10 yards each and also ran for 13 yards himself. The QB capped the drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Chris Duncan. But after the Aggies went up 21-0 at the half, the tide turned.
Lindgren led five scoring drives in the third and fourth quarter to set the scene for the dramatic ending. "We just have to come back and get ready for Middle (Tennessee)," Samuel said of the Ags' next opponent. "That's all we can do. This team has a lot of heart."