Liberty and New Mexico State met four times between the 2018 and 2019 seasons on creative home-and-home series for FBS’s independent programs. Both campaigns ended with the Aggies making the cross-country trek to Lynchburg. The teams meet at Williams Stadium to wrap up this season and will meet annually when both join Conference USA in 2023. match. Jason Groves covers soccer in the state of New Mexico as part of his role as senior sports reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. He stops by to answer five questions about the state of New Mexico. Follow him on Twitter for his coverage of the Aggies: @JPGroves.
N&A: The state of New Mexico had not hidden its desire to attend a football conference. How excited is the program to move to Conference USA?
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JG: I think relieved is a better word. Scheduling independent games isn’t easy, and NMSU doesn’t have a TV deal or access to college football playoff funds. So, financially, that’s going to be over $1 million for the athletic department, which didn’t exist before. From a competitive standpoint, attending a bowl game and competing for a conference championship are also now on the table, making recruitment easier than it was back when the main selling point was playing multiple Power Five teams.
N&A: Jerry Kill has had some notable success in his first season at Las Cruces. The four wins are the most in a season since 2017. What did he do so well to get the Aggies back into the Victory Column?
JG: To be honest, they got lucky in a couple of games against G5 opponents who were struggling with managerial changes this season (Nevada, Hawaii) and just never did well (New Mexico). But the biggest difference on the field was the play of the Aggies defense, which was in the top 40 before last week’s game in Missouri after finishing at No. 127 in total defense last year. They did a good job of limiting the explosive plays, especially through the air, which kept hurting them last season.
N&A: The Aggie’s running attack seems to be stronger. Has there been improvement in running backs, offensive line, or both?
JG: I’d say there’s just more commitment to governing football. The offensive line is arguably the worst positional group on offense and only gets better with recruitment. Both quarterbacks, Diego Pavia and Gavin Frakes are also capable runners and they have at least three good running backs with Jamoni Jones and Star Thomas as physical runners with TCU transfer Ahmonte Watkins used sparingly through injury but showing signs as an A student in the first year.
N&A: Have there been any changes made to defense that have resulted in an improved game this season?
JG: The Aggies had nine returning starters on defense, so there was some talent and experience here that has blossomed in a new 4-2-5 scheme. Their middle linebackers Trevor Brohard and Chris Ojoh are their best players, and UNLV’s transfer security graduate Bryce Jackson is a big influence on the secondary’s quarterback. He’s good against the run too.
N&A: What are your keys for New Mexico State vs Liberty?
JG: Despite wanting to take charge of football, teams have challenged them to throw and I don’t blame them. But Pavia was good against UMass and Lamar and the receivers were able to pull the break apart. I’m sure Liberty will do the same, so they’ll need to complete a few passes on the field to get their running game going as the game progresses. Defensively, they’ve been good against the run in most G5 games and that’s where they need to start. There weren’t many inflated coverages or receivers opened wide on the field, but limiting big plays and getting off the field were key to the Aggies defense in their victories.