It was a game which was largely decided early on despite the box score, as the New Mexico State Aggies (7-6) set the tone from the opening kickoff in a mostly-dominant 24-19 victory over the Bowling Green State Falcons (6-7, 5-3 Mid-American Conference) on Monday afternoon in Detroit, Michigan.
The first half was filled with nightmares for the Falcons.
BGSU starting quarterback Matt McDonald, playing in what is likely his final college game, tossed an interception in the direction of four Aggie defenders on the Falcons’ first drive on a target in the direction of Odieu Hilare, with his counterpart Diego Pavia eventually finding running back Star Thomas for a 15-yard score to go up 7-0 early.
The second drive was even worse, with McDonald getting knocked out of the game on a late hit out of bounds after converting on a third-and-nine scramble. Backup signalcaller Camden Orth would take his stead, but the offense couldn’t get it together after getting into Aggie territory, settling for a 51-yard attempt from Mason Lawler which fell short of the crossbar.
The Aggies found the endzone once again after an exchange of punts, riding a 10-play, 80-yard drive over 4:11 of game clock to convert on a two-yard touchdown strike to fullback/tight end Evan Marsh to double their lead to 14-0.
Bowling Green once again met frustration in NMSU territory, stalling out at the Aggie 23-yard line with 4:19 remaining in the first half, but Mason Lawler missed the 42-yard kick wide right, squandering another opportunity for points.
There was brief elation after BGSU defensive back Chris Bacon fell under a tipped fourth-down pass in Falcons territory to give them the ball with 22 seconds to go. The moment faded at the triple-zeroes, however, as a Hail Mary attempt by Orth at the end of the half was met by the swatting hand of NMSU defensive back Dylan Early.
The Aggies would add to their lead with a 35-yard field goal off the foot of Ethan Albertson, his only attempt of the day, putting NMSU up 17-0, but BGSU running back Ta’ron Keith answered back in style, housing the ensuing kickoff return 75 yards for a score to cut the gap to 17-7.
Ahmonte Watkins ensured the BGSU scoring streak would stop at seven, taking a carry 45 yards to score a touchdown and put the Aggies up to 24-7 with 3:26 remaining in the third quarter.
After fumbling away a possession, the Falcons would start to put on some pressure at the midway point of the fourth quarter, with a blocked punt resulting in a safety on special teams and Camden Orth connecting with Tyrone Broden for a 19-yard scoring strike with 6:27 remaining to get BGSU within a touchdown at 24-19.
The defense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain in the end, allowing the Aggies to drain the clock with a 13-play, 43-yard drive to wrap the game up in a bow.
Orth finished 14-of-22 for 191 yards and one touchdown to lead the passing game after McDonald’s injury. McDonald was 2-of-4 for 30 yards and an interception, with an 11-yard run. Jaison Patterson led all BGSU runners with 23 yards on six carries, while Christian Sims (four catches, 56 yards) and Odieu Hilare (four catches, 43 yards) led in receiving.
Defensively for the Falcons, Trent Simms and Darren Anders topped the charts with eight tackles and each had a tackle-for-loss. Anders also had a forced fumble, while Jordan Anderson (five tackles, three tackles-for-loss, fumble forced) also starred. Three Falcons each had one pass break-ups.
NMSU quarterback Diego Pavia was the star of the game, finishing 17-of-29 for 167 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, with an additional 65 yards on eight runs. Ahmonte Watkins (nine rushes, 76 yards, one touchdown) led Aggie rushers, while Kordell Davis (five catches, 54 yards) led in receiving.
Chris Ojoh set the defensive pace for New Mexico State, with seven tackles (six solo), a tackle-for-loss, a forced fumble and a QB hit. Linebacker Trevor Brohard had the team’s other solo tackle-for-loss and the game-opening interception, while Dylan Early had a hand in a lot of early plays with five tackles (four solo), a half-tackle for loss, and a pass break-up.
The Falcons continue to look for their first postseason win since the 2014 Camellia Bowl, and will likely be happy with a joint-second place finish in the MAC East division in a year which was expected to be a bottom-of-the-barrel effort. They’ll reorganize for a fifth season under Scot Loeffler.
NMSU, meanwhile, preserves their undefeated postseason streak, which now sits at 4-0-1 in five appearances dating back to 1935. Under first-year head coach Jerry Kill, the FBS independent will get ready for Conference USA action in 2023, affiliating themselves with a conference for the first time since leaving the Sun Belt in 2017.