Missouri’s first season in the Southeastern Conference suffered a major setback in November 2012 when Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib found Alec Lemon on the touchline with 25 seconds left for a game-winning touchdown.
The Tigers led 17-3 just before halftime and 27-24 with less than two minutes left, but they lost 31-27, picked up their sixth loss of the season and eventually missed Bowl qualifiers a week later. Since then, Missouri has not played another non-conference opponent in its penultimate game of the regular season. But that changes on Saturday when the Tigers take on New Mexico State at 6:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
“I don’t think the opponent counts,” defensive coordinator Blake Baker said Tuesday. “Especially after our performance last weekend, I think our boys are hungry. We just had a great day and the preparation and intensity was there so I think we’ll be ready.”
Playing against a non-conference opponent before the traditional “rivalry week” is not a new concept in the SEC. Take the Iron Bowl for example. Since 2008, Alabama has not played a conference opponent before their biggest rivalry game, while Auburn, on the other side of the rivalry, has not played an SEC team before the Iron Bowl since 2013.
It just wasn’t Missouri’s MO
This Saturday offers the Tigers another opportunity to try out a late-season non-conference game that comes with its own set of challenges. With Missouri’s focus on hitting six wins and the guaranteed bowl eligibility that comes with hitting that mark, the Tigers can’t afford to overlook the Aggies.
“It’s no secret: It takes six games to make a bowl. We still have two games and four wins left,” said defender Darius Robinson. “You can watch the bowl game, but we have to focus on the state of New Mexico.”
After losing 24-66 to Tennessee, Missouri has the perfect opportunity to get back on the winning column this weekend. After seven straight SEC matches, can the Tigers maintain their focus for 60 minutes against a non-conference opponent?
New Mexico State has lost its first four games of 2022 but won four of its last five, doubling its two-win total from 2021. The Aggies’ four wins are their highest in seven games in 2017. Before that, you’ll have to go back to 2011 to find out when they last won four in a season.
“Four wins don’t come often,” said Jason Groves, a New Mexico state reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. “So for a first-year coach, doubling the overall wins from last year is impressive. They’re looking forward to next year when they join Conference USA. To get four or five wins this year would be quite a big step forward for them.”
New Mexico State defeated rival New Mexico 21-9 on October 15 and earned a 51-14 win over Lamar. Missouri, however, presents the Aggies with their toughest test since they lost 66-7 to Wisconsin on Sept. 17.
New Mexico State’s strength is its defense, which has made the jump from the 127th-best unit in the state in 2021 to 35th this season. Veteran linebackers Chris Ojoh and Trevor Brohard anchor the Aggies’ defense. Ojoh leads the unit with 78 tackles and five sacks while Brohard has 52 tackles and five quarterback hits.
The Aggies’ offense, on the other hand, was a different story altogether. It’s averaging just over 19 points per game and has two quarterbacks who receive consistent snaps. Junior Diego Pavia, who has amassed 670 passing yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions, will likely start against the Tigers. As a dual threat quarterback, Pavia also rushed for 239 yards and two touchdowns and had his best game of the season against Lamar. True freshman Gavin Frakes has 639 passing yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions this season.
While the visitors’ passing game is a mixed bag each weekend, the running game is what the Tigers defense is tuned for. Baker said the Aggies’ ground attack – who have three players with more than 230 rushing yards this season – is able to create several schematic problems and build up their passing game.
“They’re not one-dimensional,” Baker said. “Look at coach (Jerry) Kill’s background, he’s had success handling the ball everywhere he’s been. That’s their strength and then they’re explosive in passing when they throw the ball.”
Kill already transformed the culture in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in his first season as New Mexico State coach with his hard hat, lunch bucket mentality, a key step in the Aggies’ preparations for joining Conference USA. However, he still has work to do when it comes to getting his team ready to take on the bigger sharks in college football.
On paper, Missouri has the talent to comfortably defeat New Mexico State and grab its fifth win. The Tigers are favorites in Vegas with four touchdowns, but nothing is certain, a lesson they learned the hard way against Syracuse in 2012.