The first Wednesday night football game in Las Cruces, NM was a celebration for the home team. New Mexico State (3-3, 1-1 CUSA), which transitioned from independent status this offseason, earned its first-ever CUSA victory in weeknight action, pushing past FIU (3-3, 0-3 CUSA), 34-17.
It was a revenge game of sorts for head coach Jerry Kill and the Aggies, which fell 21-7 to the Panthers in last year’s non-conference meeting in Las Cruces. The star of this year’s grudge match was dual-threat quarterback Diego Pavia, who contributed three total touchdowns in the victory. Pavia threw for 256 yards and added 46 as a rusher, helping New Mexico State outpace FIU, 439-397, in the battle of offensive production.
Pavia launched the scoring effort on the evening with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Chris Bellamy in the middle of the first quarter. The quarterback mailed a deep ball in the second quarter to Jordin Parker out of an RPO, serving as the facilitator of a 49-yard strike for his second touchdown of the night. But his most impressive highlight Wednesday transpired on the first play of the fourth quarter when he faked a handoff to the motion man and sprinted 43 yards down the field to break a 17-17 tie.
After Pavia’s 43-yard sprint to hand New Mexico State the lead, the Aggies created the first two-score margin of the night when Star Thomas punched in a 3-yard run to create a 31-17 fourth quarter advantage. Upon securing a 14-point lead, New Mexico State’s defense played a hand in maintaining it. The Aggies stifled FIU’s offense by recording back-to-back interceptions — including one near the goal line — and put an exclamation point on the victory with a late fourth down stop in the final three minutes. Prior to that pair of fourth quarter picks, New Mexico State had not intercepted a single pass this season.
FIU’s costly fourth quarter interception from the Aggies’ 5-yard line was one of two major blown opportunities for Mike MacIntyre and the Panthers. They came up scoreless on two of their five red zone possessions, and the first miscue occurred in the first quarter on the 11-yard line. FIU lined up in the Philadelphia Eagles’ signature QB sneak formation, but a mishandled snap ultimately led to a turnover on downs deep in New Mexico State territory.
Misfortune only grew for the Panthers as the game progressed. After the result was well determined in the final minute, quarterback Keyone Jenkins left the game due to an injury suffered by drawing contact in the midst of a slide — although targeting was not ruled on the play. Prior to the injury, the freshman posted 250 yards on a 25-of-32 showing, adding 34 rushing yards and a touchdown on the side.
New Mexico State’s defense was the prevailing unit in the second half, limiting FIU to a mere field goal after a 14-14 halftime score. The Aggies recorded four sacks and nine tackles for loss and were led by linebacker Keyshaun Elliott who produced a team-high nine tackles and two pass breakups in the victory.
New Mexico State reverts to .500 on the season as the Aggies remain in the hunt for their second consecutive bowl bid — a feat which hasn’t been accomplished since 1959 and 1960. The Aggies remain in weeknight action next week, remaining in Las Cruces to host FBS newcomer Sam Houston.
FIU also matches the Aggies with a .500 record, but the Panthers’ CUSA title hopes are in serious jeopardy after losing each of their first three conference matchups. FIU returns to the East Coast next Wednesday where it will host UTEP in a nationally televised battle.