Utah State football’s 2017 campaign ended Friday night in front of nearly 40,000 fans, as New Mexico State’s Larry Rose III walked in a game-sealing touchdown in overtime to win the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl.
While the decidedly pro-NMSU crowd erupted in celebration, USU seniors Jalen Davis and Dallin Leavitt found each other, hugging out the final seconds of a tumultuous season. A year’s worth of emotional highs and lows were all represented in the Aggies’ final outing — game-changing interceptions and timely runs made brief appearances, as did failed third down conversions and crucial missed opportunities. Every element that made Utah State’s 2017 season such a wild ride could be found somewhere in the team’s last 60 minutes of playing time.
In the end, it was quite literally the most Aggie game that could’ve been played.
Utah State’s defense began the game giving up chunk yardage but allowing just a field goal. The offense responded in the blurry form of Savon Scarver, who scorched NMSU’s kick coverage for a 96-yard touchdown return. New Mexico State then set an Arizona Bowl record with a 100-yard kick return on the very next play.
All this, and five minutes had yet to run off the clock.
The game slowed. Third down conversions proved hard to come by for either offense. Utah State’s defense held, and held, and held again — giving up field goals but not touchdowns, trading field position, and ultimately forcing two turnovers to set up a pair of field goals from Dominik Eberle. By halftime, the Arizona Bowl was tied at 13-13, and all signs pointed to a storybook finish.
A dramatic finish did ensue, just not the one Utah State expected. Eberle’s sudden surprising struggles seized the game’s scoring narrative, as the Lou Groza award finalist missed three kicks from 44, 48 and 49 yards out. The third quarter also saw Jordan Love fumble away a touchdown on the goal line, attempting a quick pitch to Hunt.
And yet, the score remained tied.
A shift in USU’s favor finally signaled a change of pace, after an errant punt set Utah State on the NMSU 24-yard line. The costly mistake gave USU the spark (and field position) it needed to break the tie, as LaJuan Hunt muscled his way to the game’s first true offensive touchdown.
The 20-13 lead held until the fourth quarter’s 6:30-mark, when Jaleel Scott turned what was originally called an incomplete pass into the biggest play of the night. Almost non-existent in Friday’s game until the fourth quarter, Scott dragged his left cleat through the end zone turf enough to overturn the call on the field, resulting in a New Mexico State touchdown.
Over the last five minutes of regulation, Utah State’s offense reverted back to disappointing three-and-outs, deciding instead to settle the Arizona Bowl in overtime.
Then chaos descended. Love’s first pass of the extra period was nearly picked off in the end zone, then nearly recovered in the end zone by Braelon Roberts. The Aggies managed a first down before stalling, sending the kicking unit to redeem itself.
It did not. Eberle missed a field goal try from 29 yards out, and a New Mexico State team full of 57 years of bowl game angst took over on offense. Somewhat fittingly, Larry Rose III rumbled through a Utah State miscommunication and sealed the game for his Las Cruces Aggies, 26-20.
The win marks an emphatic bookend to the nation’s longest bowl draught, as NMSU famously last attended a bowl game in 1960 — a 20-13 win over Utah State.
Love completed 25-of-44 passes for 254 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions. Hunt supplied most of the Aggies’ ground game, carrying the ball 20 times for 133 yards and a touchdown. Ron’quavion Tarver led all USU receivers with eight catches on 12 targets for 97 yards. Linebacker David Woodward recorded three pass breakups, an interception and four tackles while Leavitt added an interception and pass breakup of his own. Utah State completed its 2017 campaign with a final record of 6-7.