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PREVIEW: More than you need to know about the Cougs vs. Aggies

The Cougs host New Mexico State to open the season. Find out the players to watch for the Aggies and key factors to the game.

Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl - Utah State v New Mexico State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s finally here. The Washington State Cougars play a competitive football game for the first time in nine months on Saturday. The opponent will be the New Mexico State Aggies (7 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks), and the location will be Martin Stadium.

The Aggies finished 3-9 last season, logging wins over UTEP, Liberty, and Alcorn State. NMSU doesn’t have a conference home for football, having been kicked out of the Sun Belt along with Idaho in 2017. Unlike the Vandals, New Mexico State marches on as an independent FBS program rather than dip down to FCS. All of its other sports are attached to the WAC, which no longer exists as a football league.

Doug Martin is the head coach with the tough challenge of winning at an independent school in Las Cruces. He has taken the Aggies to a bowl game as recently as 2017, but sports a 20-53 record at the school overall.

To prepare you for NMSU’s trip to Pullman, let’s examine the key players and factors on offense and defense for the Aggies.

When New Mexico State has the ball...

Thanks to some key returning pieces, offense is likely the stronger side for New Mexico State, but that doesn’t mean a lot. The Aggies finished 116th is offensive SP+ in 2018. The rushing attack was the relative strength, finishing 89th in SP+, while passing was near the very bottom at 125th.

Leading that Aggie passing effort will be redshirt sophomore quarterback Josh Adkins. He started for the first time in last year’s fifth game against UTEP and remained the starter for the rest of the season. Overall, his numbers look solid for a freshman, including 6.5 yards per attempt (YPA) with 13 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

However, digging deeper you see that Adkins racked up stats significantly in his two best games. He tossed four touchdowns and no picks against first-year FBS Liberty at home, then did the same against FCS Alcorn State. He was 66 of 95 (69 percent) for 798 yards passing and 8.4 YPA combined in those two outings.

The rest of his season, though, he put up just a 52 percent completion rate for 1765 yards, 5.9 YPA, and five touchdowns against nine interceptions. That low completion rate likely played a role in New Mexico State finishing 120th in Success Rate (also known as the ability to stay on schedule each down—WSU is very good at this typically).

Adkins does seem to have some mobility. The Aggies gave up their fair share of sacks (40 overall), but he was still able to log 117 rushing yards. This is where you are reminded that NCAA counts sack yardage against rushing totals, a very dumb statistical thing.

Logic dictates that Adkins will be improved in his sophomore campaign with eight starts under his belt, but the Washington State defense is likely to be the best he has faced in his young career. He’ll get plenty of opportunity to test WSU’s revamped secondary, as New Mexico State averaged 45 passes per game in 2018. An uptick in completion percentage could go a long way.

One of New Mexico State’s top targets for Adkins is senior running back Jason Huntley. He’s a versatile back with some real wheels and the ability to bust big plays, like this catch-and-run against UTEP.

Huntley tops the depth chart at running back, but expect rushes to be split with fellow senior Christian Gibson, who carried 96 times for 590 yards and six touchdowns last season. That’s more yards on fewer carries than Huntley, who logged 505 yards and seven touchdowns on 109 attempts.

Where Huntley separates himself is in the passing game—he was second on the team with 529 receiving yards and tied for the team lead with three receiving scores. What was most impressive was his 11.3 yards per catch, an exceptional number for a running back. Gibson is not the nearly the same threat in the passing game, having caught just eight passes as a junior.

Both Huntley and Gibson possess the ability to create explosive plays, and the two of them are major reasons why NMSU ranked 77th in explosiveness (points per play adjusted).

Beyond the running backs, the top returning wideouts are OJ Clark on the inside and 6’3 Drew Dan on the outside—he could certainly give WSU’s 5’10 corners some issues. Expect Baylor transfer Terry Nicholson to get plenty of looks—he caught 41 passes as a sophomore in Waco.

NMSU also expects to start an JuCo transfer receiver named Robert Downs III. If his nickname is not “Iron Man”, it definitely should be.

The Aggies are shorthanded along the offensive line. Sage Doxtater, the 6’7, 330-pound presumed starter at left tackle is not listed on the depth chart and has been held out of practice with a shoulder injury. That’s not even close to the end of New Mexico State’s injury woes up front, per Jason Groves of Las Cruces Sun News:

“Junior college transfer center Eligah Hunter had his football career come to an end when a spinal condition was revealed prior to spring practice. Projected starting right tackle Blake Walker is likely out for the season with a stress fracture and backup tackle Evan Tafoya-Vallo suffered a season ending knee injury during fall camp.”

What’s left is a group that is big, but lacking experience overall. Brian Trujillo (6’4, 315) has logged 27 starts in various positions and he’s likely to check in at left tackle should Doxtater be unavailable. Senior Tony Bello (6’4, 300) seized a starting role for the first time in the final seven games of his junior year and projects to start again this season at left guard.

Beyond that, guard Austin Young (6’5, 330) and center Max Wilhite (6’4, 300) are redshirt freshmen, while right tackle Jalen Guerrero (6’6, 300) is a junior, but has never started a game.

WSU’s front seven is the strength of its defense. The Cougs are likely to attack early and often, and that could cause trouble for NMSU’s depleted offensive line. Putting pressure on Adkins can exacerbate his inaccuracy, which could ultimately lead to lots of third and longs for the Aggies.

Keep NMSU off schedule, and it will be a long night for its offense. In fact, the Aggies were 19th in adjusted tempo last season, so that long night is almost guaranteed for everyone in attendance.

When WSU has the ball...

New Mexico State’s defense dealt with plenty of injuries last season—three of its top four tacklers actually missed at least two games. In 2019, middle linebacker Javahn Fergurson is the only one among those top four returning for a defense that finished 113th in SP+.

The Aggies deploy an attacking style—they finished 19th in sack rate a season ago. Roy Lopez is one of the chief disruptors. He logged an impressive 63 stops from the nose tackle position last year, including 4.0 sacks and 12.5 total tackles for loss (TFL). He’ll be flanked on the right by Cedric Wilcots II, who logged 9.5 TFL and 7.0 sacks last season despite missing two games.

Converted tight end Xander Yarberough rounds out the starting defensive line at tackle. His 6’6, 256 frame could prove to be an asset.

Ferguson is joined in the linebacking corps by senior first-time starter Jonathan Hood, who logged 42 tackles as a junior. Redshirt freshman linebacker Devin Richardson will be seeing his first collegiate action, as will true freshman Ja’Marvin Hartfield at the “star” ($) position.

NMSU features more starting experience at corner, where junior Shamad Lomax has started 30 games with 7 interceptions over his career. On the other side, former Last Chance U-er Ray Buford Jr. returns after starting the first three games and last three games of his junior season.

As an aside, Buford was at Minnesota in 2016, but did not play in the Holiday Bowl against WSU because he was among the group of players expelled from the university for sexual misconduct that year. He’ll have a reunion of sorts with Tracy Claeys, his former head coach who now serves as defensive coordinator for the Cougs after being fired for supporting a player boycott related to that same incident.

On the back end, senior free safety Austin Perkins has seen plenty of action in his time at New Mexico State, but has just five starts that all came during his sophomore season. He played as a reserved last season, logging 26 tackles and an interception. The strong safety position is a a bit of wild card—redshirt freshman Rodney McGraw II gets the nod backed up by true freshman Jason Simmons, Jr.

Much like when the Aggies have the ball, the front for both sides will be key to success when the Cougs are slingin’ it. New Mexico State will bring pressure, and WSU’s offensive line and running backs will be tasked with keeping Anthony Gordon clean.

If NMSU can get home early, it could rattle Gordon, who is making his first career start and will likely have an extra set of butterflies in his stomach. Given how the Aggies operate, there will certainly be times when Gordon is bothered.

How much that impacts the offense remains to be seen. New Mexico State’s defense is not good—SP+ projects it be 120th nationally this season. However, this will likely be about blowout management. If the Aggies are able to get a hand on the quarterback, it could slow down the Cougar attack enough to keep the score somewhat reasonable.

Bottom Line

WSU has the clear advantage on both sides of the ball, particularly with its stacked offense against NMSU’s suspect defense. The Aggie offense could certainly be improved over last season, and has just enough playmakers to put a couple touchdowns on the board.

Given Washington State’s propensity to start out seasons slow on offense, there’s a chance this isn’t the massive blowout it could be in, say, late September. This might end up resembling WSU’s methodical, and somewhat boring, blowouts of Montana State and San Jose State the past two seasons (both 31-0 in favor of the Cougs).

All-in-all, this is a nice soft landing for WSU as it tests out a mostly new secondary and a new quarterback.