Who: New Mexico St (10-4) v. Fresno State (8-4)
Where: University Stadium, Albuquerque, NM
When: Saturday, December 16, 2023- 2:45PM
How to Watch: Bowl is on ESPN/ESPN+
After a tough 3 game skid took Fresno St from Mountain West favorites to also-rans sitting at home on championship weekend, they have one more shot at redemption without Jeff Tedford. The Bulldogs’ head coach has stepped away from the program again due to health concerns, leaving the team in charge of linebackers coach Tim Skipper as they take on former WAC foe New Mexico St. The Aggies were one of the best stories of the college football season, as they surged to their most wins since 1960, upset Auburn, and secured a place in the C-USA Championship game in their first year in the league. Two programs going in seemingly opposite directions this season will meet trying to end their seasons on a high note and build momentum for a 2024 season where the highest ranked G5 champion is now guaranteed a place in the College Football Playoff. Let’s preview the game, and see what the odds look like for the MWC to start off bowl season with a win.
The biggest contributor to Fresno St’ slide to end the regular season was injuries at the worst times. Left tackle Jacob Spomer was lost in the first plays against San Jose St, defensive tackles Jacob Holmes and Gavriel Lightfoot both went down later in that game, Mikey Keene suffered a concussion, Mose Vavao left with injury, Cameron Bracha and Dean Clark were hurt, and Cam Lockridge went down for the season with a chest injury. Yes, excuses and whatnot, but they are all starters that got hurt. The three weeks off between the end of the regular season and the bowl game may have come at the best possible for them to get healthy and back on the field. Spomer and Lockridge are done for the season, but it’s possible that everyone else gets back for the bowl game. Whether that is enough to turn the tide and put the team back to where it was during their 8-1 start remains to be seen, but it certainly can’t hurt.
The true key here for Fresno St will solely be on defense. Their defense absolutely collapsed after the Boise St game, and as the injuries piled up. Now they’ll face an incredibly dynamic quarterback in Diego Pavia. The junior signal-caller led the team in passing and rushing yards this year, combining for almost 4,000 yards in 14 games. He did improve in almost every metric in his second year in Las Cruces, but has thrown 8 interceptions this season. He threw 4 of those in the first two losses of their season, and then threw 2 more in a close win against Jacksonville St at the end of the regular season. While Fresno’s defense was good this year at forcing turnovers, this may not be something that they can rely on for extra possessions or to slow down the Aggie offense.
If there’s one spot where the Aggie offense is vulnerable, it is giving up sacks. Just like the Bulldogs, their offensive line is liable to give up sacks and lost yardage, also surrendering 19 this year. So if the now healthy defensive line can gain penetration and put New Mexico St behind the chains, they may have a chance at slowing down their offense and keeping them off the board. Keeping Pavia contained, and unable to use his legs to escape might be the best bet for success on Saturday.
Looking around at the various sites, they have NMSU as the favorite here, and I get it. Fresno St fell apart at the end of the year, while the Aggies are a feel-good story that appeared in their conference championship game against a team now in the Fiesta Bowl. Vegas sees NMSU as a 3.5 point favorite, with the O/U sitting at 51.5. They see it as a 28-24 sort of game, and Bill Connelly’s numbers aren’t far off from that either. He has the game ending in a razor-thin 27-26 victory for New Mexico St. ESPN’s FPI sees the Bulldogs as a favorite though, having them as a 54% favorite to win. Fresno is looking for their 19th win all time over the Aggies, while NMSU looks for its second ever win over the Dogs. This also serves as an interesting preview of a 2024 regular season matchup at Valley Children’s Stadium.
Sadly, I think that the end of Fresno St’s season paired with Tedford stepping away puts them in a hole, and New Mexico St’s offense shovels the dirt on top. They come close, but Fresno’s OL just isn’t good enough to keep Mikey Keene upright long enough to lead a late comeback. Prediction for the New Mexico Bowl is-
New Mexico St 38-34 Fresno St