Air Pierce

It wasn't just Buck Pierce but a host of Aggies that helped New Mexico State crushed Florida International 56-31.

While it was a tale of two halves for the New Mexico State defense, the one constant for the Aggies throughout Saturday's game was quarterback Buck Pierce.

The senior completed 27-of-35 passes for a career-high 367 yards and three touchdowns as NMSU (3-5) beat Florida International 56-31 in a non-conference shootout.

The two teams combined for 1,144 yards in total offense -- 646 for New Mexico State and 498 for Florida International (2-4).

New Mexico State needed all the big plays it could get to hold off the Golden Panthers and senior running back Rashod Smith, who finished with 230 yards rushing on 24 carries and a school-record four touchdowns.

Smith had 204 yards in the first half, most of that coming on a pair of touchdowns that covered 73 yards and 76 yards.

The New Mexico State defense rallied in the second half to stop Smith and forced Florida International passers into four interceptions, two of which were returned by defensive backs Gill Byrd and Matt Griebel for touchdowns.

The Aggie defense also had two key fourth-down stops.

"It was like two different games for our defense," Aggie coach Tony Samuel said. "The offense played great the entire game, but defensively, in that first half, we just could not stop the run."

Samuel noted that the defense forced turnovers in the second half and helped close the deal.

"I think in the first half, everyone was trying to do too much," Byrd said. "Everyone was trying to make the big play. Everyone just calmed down and did what they had to do."

While the Aggie defense bounced back, the Golden Panther defense struggled throughout the game. Florida International coach Don Strock was disappointed in his team's tackling.

"It's not like we don't work on it," he said. "I would like to tell you that we don't and that's why it looks so bad, but we do.

The Aggies, who led 31-28 at halftime, took the lead for the first time when Byrd stepped in front of a Josh Padrick pass and returned it 48 yards down the sideline.

The first of what would be many Aggie big plays, Byrd's touchdown made it 10-7 with 8:36 to play in the first half.

After a long run from Smith gave Florida International the lead back, Pierce responded with a pair of touchdown passes -- one each to tight end Andrew Mooney and sophomore wide receiver Tim Tolbert.

"Our offensive mentality was different tonight," Pierce said. "It was real nice to see everyone respond after last week's loss (to North Texas)."

Smith added two more touchdowns in the second period, while Tolbert scored his second touchdown on a pass from Joey Vincent.

Pierce added his third touchdown pass of the night in the third on a 44-yard pass to Brandon Allen. Tailback Muammar Ali added a 21-yard scoring run, while Griebel's 64-yard interception return capped New Mexico State's scoring

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