The Aggies finished with 525 total yards while the Raiders had just 293. The Aggies held the ball for 35:11 while their hosts' time of possession checked in at 24:49.
NMSU finished the contest with 28 first downs and held Middle Tennessee to just nine. But as the Aggies walked off the AstroTurf at Floyd Stadium, they were on the short end where it matters the most: the scoreboard.
NMSU lost 35-18 to fall to 1-5 on the season and 0-2 in Sun Belt Conference play. Middle Tennessee picked up its first victory of the year and improved to 1-5 overall and 1-0 in league action.
On a day when 135 plays were run from the line of scrimmage, five loom large. Middle Tennessee accounted for 219 of its 293 yards on just five plays: a 61-yard touchdown pass, a 46-yard run, a 41-yard pass, a 39-yard touchdown pass and a 32-yard touchdown pass.
NMSU head coach Tony Samuel summed up the day. "The big plays hurt us and the turnovers definitely hurt us, that is how the game went," Samuel said as he stood outside the team's locker room. And add to that list missed opportunities. Not only did the Aggies commit four turnovers and surrender four touchdown plays of 30 or more yards (counting an 89-yard interception return), but they also twice drove the ball inside the 10-yard line only to come away with no points.
Another trip inside the 20 also produced no points, at least for the Aggies. Down 28-18 late in the fourth, quarterback Paul Dombrowski threw his third interception of the day and MTU defender Michael Woods returned the ball 89 yards for the game's final touchdown.
NMSU QB Buck Pierce, who split time behind center for NMSU, had the second-best rushing day of his career. He finished with 72 yards on 12 carries, but after the game he talked about the one that got away.
Down 14-10 in the second quarter, an Aggie drive was sparked by a 22-yard run by Pierce and NMSU moved down to the Middle Tennessee nine-yard line. Then, with both signal callers on the field, Pierce pitched to Dombrowski who passed to Chris Duncan on the goal line. Duncan was tackled just short of a score and, when he came down, the ball squirted loose and into and out of the end zone. The officials conferred and then ruled that the ball was indeed fumbled and would be a touchback.
Thus the Blue Raiders took over at their own 20-yard line. "That hurt," Pierce said. "We had a good drive and then it stops. It's hard when you move the ball as well as we did. You have to score points."
Instead of taking the lead, the Aggies watched as the Blue Raiders came right back at them. MTU quarterback Clint Marks hit Wright with a 41-yard pass and then, two plays later, he found Wright again who broke several NMSU tackles and ran the ball 39 yards into the end zone to give MTU a 21-10 advantage at halftime.
"That was one series I thought was critical," Samuel said. "He fumbles and the ball went into the end zone for a touchback. That just shows you it's a game of inches, it goes into the end zone instead of rolling out of bounds."
MTU coach Andy McCollum said he was happy to get to the locker rooms with the lead. "In the second quarter we couldn't get off the field," the Blue Raiders coach said. "It felt like they had 500 yards, but we kept them to 10 points." Still, down 11 points, the Aggies came out in the third quarter and controlled the flow of the game. But while NMSU held the ball twice as long in the quarter, the Aggies still were not able to score any points.
"I was feeling pretty good going into the third quarter," Samuel said. "I thought we were in great shape." Less than two minutes into the fourth, Pierce scored on an option play to cap a 12-play, 40-yard drive that, with a successful two-point conversion, pulled the Aggies to within three points of the lead at 21-18.
That, however, would be the NMSU high-water mark. "In the fourth quarter we just let it slip away," Samuel said. After Wright scored his last touchdown of the day to put Middle Tennessee back up by double digits, 28-18, NMSU proved to have one more drive left. Pierce led the Aggies to the MTU 2-yard line where they were faced with a fourth-down and one. Even though his team needed two scores anyway, Samuel decided to not go for a 19-yard field goal attempt and NMSU ran an option play. I-back Tony Bostic took the pitch but was dropped for a four-yard loss. Placekicker Dario Aguiniga twice had kickoffs go out of bounds and has dealt with a muscle injury this week, but Samuel said that did not affect his decision.
"We have to score a touchdown anyway, so we decided to just go for it right then," the coach said. In the first half, Middle Tennessee struck early. On the first play from scrimmage, after a long kickoff return by Sean Allen, Marks hit Wright with a 32-yard touchdown pass. So, with just 17 seconds elapsed, the hosts held the lead. The Aggies responded with a 12-play, 65-yard drive that ended with an Aguiniga field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.
But then again, the big play reached up and bit the Aggies. After Dombrowski was intercepted on a poorly-thrown pass he lobbed up for grabs while under pressure, running back Eugene Gross found a seam in the NMSU defense and exploited it up the middle for a 46-yard run. NMSU, though, once again refused to cede momentum to its hosts. Fueled by a 30-yard run on an option play by Dombrowski and a 27-yard pass from the QB to Ronshay Jenkins, the Aggies put the ball in the end zone for the first time of the afternoon when Dombrowski himself took it across the goal line.
But just when it seemed as if the Aggies would take their first lead, the fumble through the end zone stopped them cold.
Brook Stockberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org