A matter of moments. That's all that has stood between the New Mexico State Aggies and a pair of Sun Belt Conference Championships.
Last year the Aggies took a 27-24 lead into the final 10 minutes of their showdown for the league title with North Texas, but lost 38-27. It was the only blemish on a conference record that saw the Aggies go 5-1, tying for the most conference wins in school history.
But in 2003, the Aggies hope to get past the close calls of the last two seasons and to the top of the league.
New Mexico State is coming off its first seven-win season and first undefeated home season since 1967. Now the Aggies hope to win the Sun Belt Conference title and advance to the New Orleans Bowl, ending a bowl drought that dates back to the 1960 Sun Bowl.
Last year the Aggies entered the season with an entire new starting backfield and an entire new starting linebacking corps. NMSU entered the 2002 season having lost three offensive backfield players who combined for 3,349 yards.
No problem. Quarterbacks Buck Pierce and Paul Dombrowski along with running backs Eric Higgins, Tony Bostic, Marcus Dixon and Keith Mouton combined for 4,330 yards. And the good news is that they are all back.
On the defensive side, the Aggies lost three linebackers that combined for 227 tackles in 2001. All Jimmy Cottrell, Richard Glover and Tim Patrick did in 2002 was combine for 260 tackles. More good news, all three are back for the 2003 season.
The Aggies are willing to say that they have the most efficient quarterback duo in the country in Dombrowki and Pierce. The two combined for 3,324 yards of total offense, completed nearly 62 percent of their passes (265-163), threw just six interceptions compared to 13 touchdown passes and ran for 1,048 yards and 15 touchdowns.
That duo is joined by returning starting I-back Eric Higgins and returning starting fullback Marcus Dixon. Despite missing nearly four games due to injury, Higgins still rushed for 499 yards, three touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. He had a trio of 100-yard rushing games including a nine carry, 111 yard performance against nationally ranked South Carolina. Dixon started 11 of 12 games and averaged 4.3 yards per carry while providing key blocks throughout the season.
The Aggies return plenty of depth with senior I-back Tony Bostic (254 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) and sophomore I-back Keith Mouton (124 yards, 4.8 yards per carry).
New Mexico State lost its two top pass catchers from a year ago in H.B. Briscoe and P.J. Winston. Those two combined for 1,454 yards and eight touchdowns. But the Aggies return plenty of experience in seniors Chris Lumpkin and Ronshay Jenkins. That duo combined for 35 receptions, 554 yards and two scores. The Aggies have depth with returning letterwinners Chris Duncan and Preston Williams who combined for seven catches for 56 yards. The Aggies also expect redshirt freshman Tim Tolbert (6-3, 180) to make an impact.
Tight end is solid with the return of starter Alex Davis. Davis, who has started 32 consecutive games, caught a career high 12 passes last year.
The Aggies lost three starters along the offensive line, but return a solid group. Gone are center B.J. Van Briesen, guard Shalimar Jackson and tackle Steve Mascorro. But the Aggies return starters in left tackle Trevor Kine (6-6, 274, Sr.) and guard Steve Subia (6-3, 370, Jr.). The Aggies also return guard Nick Cole (6-2, 325, So.) and center Andy Dale (6-1, 282, Sr.).
Cole started the first two games of the 2002 season as a true freshman, but a broken hand sidelined him for a month before returning to play the rest of the season as a backup. Dale has started eight games at center the last two seasons. Junior Matt Sanchez (6-4, 296) saw significant playing time early in the year before an injury slowed his progress.
NMSU will depend on the development of red-shirts Justin Shopbell (6-4, 291), David Colston (6-6, 306), Jacob Jean (6-1, 298) and junior college transfer Cole Leslie (6-7, 285, Glendale CC) to provide depth.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Aggies return more depth on the defensive line than Coach Samuel has had in his previous six seasons.
Five players return that started at least five games apiece in 2002. Rush end Traydell Bullock started all 12 games, nose tackle Joe Olivo, a first team all-Sun Belt pick in 2001, has started 32 games the last three years, rush end Greg Scaffidi started eight games a year ago, defensive tackle Lionel Apineru started nine games in 2002 and Tommy Laborin started a total of five games at either rush end, defensive tackle or nose tackle last year after starting all 12 games in 2001. Then there is rush end John Sioui who did not start a game in 2002, but played in all 12.
Last year those six players combined for 147 total tackles including 19 tackles for loss and five and a half quarterback sacks.
The Aggies will also gain the services of redshirts Jeremy Weeks (6-2, 270), Chris Sneed (6-2, 210) and Brandon Hearne (6-2, 260) as well as senior rush end Julmar Howard.
The Aggies return a solid trio of returning linebackers in Jimmy Cottrell (102 tackles, 6.5 for loss), Richard Glover (95 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Tim Patrick (63 tackles, 6 for loss, 4.5 sacks). None of that trio had started a game for the Aggies before 2002, but Glover earned second team all-Sun Belt Conference honors and Cottrell led the team tackles as a redshirt freshman.
The Aggies lost all four starters in the defensive backfield (safeties Siddeeq Shabazz and Tyrone Gifford; cornerbacks Darrell Bernard and Robert Canidate), but return some talented players that hope to fill the void.
Cameron Wright (6-1, 177) and Chris Davis (5-9, 175) are a pair of sophomores that saw significant playing time in 2002 and look to be the Aggies' starters at corner this year. Redshirt senior Jeremiah Imperial should also play a significant role at corner after sitting out last year after transferring from San Diego Mesa Community College.
The safety spots will feature battles for playing time between sophomores Matt Griebel (5-10, 175) and Shukree Shabazz (5-9, 186), junior Wuan Harris (5-11, 206), returning redshirts Eric Carrie, Glenn McCrary (6-1, 185) and Nathan Nuttall (6-0, 195). Also in camp this spring is junior college transfer Dominique Jacobs (5-11, 200, Scottsdale Community College).
The placekicking game is the in capable hands of three-year starter and 2002 first team all-Sun Belt Conference pick Dario Aguiniga. Aguiniga set a school record for points by an Aggie placekicker with 83 points and led the Sun Belt Conference in scoring. He also made 17 of 23 field goals for nearly 74 percent while making five of eight kicks from 40 yards or better. He kicked a 52-yard field goal against New Mexico and a 50-yard field goal against California. He also booted a 41-yard field goal into a stiff breeze as time expired to give the Aggies a 31-28 win over UL Lafayette.
The Aggies lost a two-year starter in punter Brian Copple (37.7 yards per kick), but have junior college transfer Steven Smith (Trinity Valley College) in camp this spring.