Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Five questions for New Mexico State beat writer Jason Groves

Liberty and New Mexico State met four times between the 2018 and 2019 seasons in creative home-and-home series for the FBS independent programs. Both of those campaigns concluded with the Aggies making the cross-country trek to Lynchburg. The teams are meeting at Williams Stadium to close this season, and they will meet on a yearly basis moving forward when both join Conference USA in 2023. That means a familiar staple returns with the Q&A with an opposing beat writer to help preview the Flames’ matchup. Jason Groves covers New Mexico State football as part of his role as lead sports reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. He stops by to answer five questions about New Mexico State. For his coverage of the Aggies, follow him on Twitter: @JPGroves.

N&A: New Mexico State had not hidden its desire to join a conference for football. How excited is the program to be moving to Conference USA?

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JG: I think relieved is a better word. Scheduling independent games is not easy, and NMSU does not have a TV deal or access to College Football Playoff money, so just from a financial standpoint that will be over $1 million to the athletic department that didn’t exist before. From a competitive standpoint, getting to a bowl game and competing for a conference championship are both on the table now as well, which makes recruiting easier than it has been when the main selling point you had was getting to play against multiple Power Five teams.

N&A: Jerry Kill has made considerable gains in his first season in Las Cruces. The four wins are the most in a campaign since 2017. What has he done so well to get the Aggies back in the win column?

JG: To be honest, they have been fortunate in some of the games against G5 opponents, who have struggled this season from coaching changes (Nevada, Hawaii) and who just aren’t good ever (New Mexico). But the biggest difference on the field has been the play of the Aggies defense, which was in the Top 40 before last week’s game at Missouri after finishing No. 127 last year in total defense. They have done a good job limiting the explosive plays, especially through the air, that hurt them over and over last season.

N&A: The Aggies’ running attack seems to be more potent. Has there been improvement with the running backs, offensive line or both?

JG: I would say there is just more of a commitment to run the football. The offensive line is probably the worst position group on the offense and will only get better through recruiting. Both quarterbacks, Diego Pavia and Gavin Frakes, are capable runners as well and they have at least three good running backs with Jamoni Jones and Star Thomas as physical runners with TCU transfer Ahmonte Watkins, who has been used sparingly with injury but shows signs as a freshman.

N&A: Have there been any changes made on defense that have led to the improved play this season?

JG: The Aggies had nine returning starters on defense, so there was some talent here and experience who have flourished in a new 4-2-5 scheme. Their middle linebackers Trevor Brohard and Chris Ojoh are their best players and graduate transfer safety Bryce Jackson from UNLV has made a big impact in terms of quarterbacking the secondary. He’s also good against the run.

N&A: What are your keys for New Mexico State against Liberty?

JG: Although they want to run the football, teams have been daring them to throw and I don’t blame them. But Pavia was good against UMass and Lamar and the receivers were able to get separation. I’m sure Liberty will do the same, so they have to complete some passes down the field in order to get their run game going as the game goes along. Defensively they have been good against the run in most G5 games, and they will have to start there. There haven’t been many blown coverages or receivers getting wide open down the field but limiting big plays and getting off the field have been keys for the Aggies defense in their wins.

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