NMSU outgained the visitors 126-63 and had the ball for 10:20 in the final 15 minutes. NMSU is now 3-7 on the season and 2-4 in Sun Belt play, while Utah State is 3-7 and 3-2.
"Our team hung in there and I'm proud of what they did," NMSU coach Tony Samuel said. "Our kids didn't back down. They stood up and played hard and they have been playing hard."
NMSU led 19-14 after three quarters, but strung together a 13-play, 86-yard drive in 5:50 to go up 26-14 to start the fourth.
Quarterback Buck Pierce capped the drive with a 1-yard scoring run. But it was the running of freshman running back Tony Joseph that fueled the drive. He ran for 52 yards on the drive, while Pierce ran for 15 and threw for 20.
"Tony ran hard and he did a great job," said NMSU offensive lineman Trevor Kine of Joseph, who started in place of senior Eric Higgins. "We were able to run the ball effectively."
Utah State came right back and marched 70 yards on 18 plays to cut the led to 26-21 on a David Fiefia 6-yard run. But NMSU closed out the game by running out the final four-and-a-half minutes. Joseph, who gained 116 yards on 29 carries, along with Tony Bostic gave NMSU two first downs on strong running.
Then Pierce hit Ronshay Jenkins with a 17-yard pass on 3rd and 12 down to put NMSU on the USU 34. On the pass play, the UtAgs were called for roughing the passer and NMSU was able to run out the clock. "It was a gutsy call," said Pierce of the pass play. "But that's great because we're able to do those type of things and use our talents. We opened up things and we were able to keep them off balance."
Pierce was 18 of 23 on the night for 208 yards, while Jenkins led NMSU with six catches for 74 yards. "We were able to get some big plays from a variety of players," Samuel said. "We were missing about 10 guys due to injury. But we get a big sack from John Sioui to get us the ball back. Garrett Johnson made some plays at receiver.
There were a lot of others that did make a play. And that's what's great to see. It makes you feel good to see that." The third quarter was a shootout as NMSU outscored Utah State 16-7 to take a 19-14 lead entering the fourth quarter. NMSU scored first on a 26-yard field goal by Dario Aguniga on its first possession of the half.
Then on the ensuing kickoff, NMSU's Tim McManigal stripped UtAg kick returner Joe Killpack and NMSU's Johnathan Holland jumped on the ball at the Utah State 10. Three plays later and Pierce dove in from 1-yard to put NMSU up 12-7 after a failed two-point conversion.
New Mexico State's defense stopped Utah State again and the Aggie offense took advantage. NMSU went 73 yards on eight plays to go up 19-7 as Joseph scored from two yards out with 5:10 left in the third. Key plays on the drive were a 19-yard pass from Pierce to Jared Quick and a 26-yard pass to Jenkins.
Utah State cut the lead to 19-14 on the next drive going 62 yards on four plays in just 1:21. Quarterback Travis Cox hit Brian Majors with a 19-yard pass to cap the drive. Cox also hit Kenny Coleman for 32 yards on the drive.
"We executed better in the second half," Kine said. "We really didn't make that many adjustments. We just fought hard and made some key plays." Said Utah State coach Mick Dennehy: "Every game New Mexico State has played this season has been exactly this type of game.
Their kids will battle you and I just admire their toughness tonight. They lined up, played smashmouth football and kept our offense off the field."
For the first time all season, New Mexico State didn't commit a turnover, while forcing two Utah State turnovers. "We've been doing a better job of holding onto the ball," Samuel said. "We had just one last week and one the week before. That's a big key for us."
The final three minutes of the first half provided most the excitement of opening 30 minutes.
After a combined three missed field goals and a turnover, Utah State went 61 yards on 9 plays to go up 7-0 as Cox hooked up with tight end Chris Cooley on a 14-yard scoring strike with 49.4 seconds left. Cooley caught three passes for 43 yards on the drive, while Fiefia had 24 yards rushing on the drive.
But NMSU came right back to make the score 7-3 at half on a 40-yard field goal by Agiuniga right before the half ended. NMSU's drive started at its own 35 after the Utah State kickoff went out of bounds. Pierce promptly ran for 34 yards and passed for eight more to get the offense down to the Utah State 23.
Both teams failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities throughout the first half. Utah State drove to the New Mexico State 27 on the game's very first drive, but lost the ball on downs.
New Mexico State took its second possession of the game and drove to the Utah State 8-yard line, but a penalty and two negative yardage plays put NMSU back at the Utah State 22. Aguiniga then missed a 40-yard field goal. NMSU failed to move the ball much after its first drive until right before the half. Utah State on the other hand threw an interception and had two missed field goals by Justin Hamblin of 27 and 38. Hamblin is just 1 of 4 on the season.
Utah State outgained NMSU in the first half 256-140. Cox was 13 of 27 passing for 174 yards. NMSU managed just 64 yards rushing in the opening half. Pierce went 8 of 12 passing for 76 yards.
New Mexico State is at Arkansas next Saturday.