No joke, Aggies are thinking of bowl bid

Updated: August 22, 2007, 1:01 AM ET
Associated Press

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- Guard Polo Gutierrez was the clown prince of New Mexico State's media day, taking on the journalist's role as he playfully interviewed teammates for an El Paso television station.

Amid the giggles, he posed a serious question: Which bowl will invite the Aggies?

"Fiesta Bowl!" running back Justine Buries declared.

Coach Hal Mumme was more reserved. "After 47 years of not going, we'll take any bowl," he said.

No joke, there's talk in Las Cruces about a possible bowl berth. It's remarkable, considering New Mexico State's teams for decades have been a picture of futility -- four winning seasons over the past 40 years.

The Aggies last reached the postseason in 1960, beating Utah State 20-13 in the Sun Bowl. Among their targets are Western Athletic Conference links to the New Mexico Bowl, Hawaii Bowl and Humanitarian Bowl.

Mumme feels it's time to end the drought.

"It's what we've been talking about for 30 months," said Mumme, starting his third year at New Mexico State. "It was in the dream realm at first. The last eight or nine months, it's been more in the realm of, 'OK, let's get this done."

By any measure, the Aggies have made strides.

After going 0-12 in Mumme's first season, they were 4-8 last year. One reason the Aggies believe the record will continue to improve is quarterback Chase Holbrook, who last fall had 4,619 yards passing and 4,541 total yards to set NCAA sophomore records.

"The first year coach Mumme was here was a tough one. Guys were learning the system," Holbrook said. "Last year, we were in a lot of games but we just couldn't finish. A few turns here or there, maybe a turnover or two, and we might have won a few more."

The Aggies have 19 starters back -- nine on each side. Receiver Chris Williams, who led the nation with a 117.9-yard average last fall, said another reason for a sunny outlook is that players know which mistakes to avoid.

"Too many turnovers, not having a quick start, getting down 21-0 to UTEP or Boise State," Williams said. "You can't do that. You're not going to win if you do that."

It helps that Buries, who averaged 4.2 yards per carry in 2005 but was injured early last season, returns after knee surgery. Sure, the Aggies throw like mad in the "Air Raid" offense, but no coach wants to be too one-dimensional.

"We need to improve our turnovers and the run game," Mumme said.

New Mexico State allowed 30.7 points and 389.4 yards per game last season. Obviously, the defense needs to get better.

But Mumme noted linebacker Dante Floyd has gained a year's experience as the defensive leader after being thrown into the fray following the death of Shana Leaupepe during the summer a year ago.

Defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer said the line is deeper and should create more pressure and force turnovers. He noted New Mexico State has done well at getting opponents off the field on third down in recent years.

So if the Aggies can hold opponents to, say, 25 points a game, Mumme is banking that Holbrook and the high-flying offense can score at least 26.

"Last year, we thought he could be a good player. He went out and proved he's a great player," Mumme said.

The schedule includes a Sept. 22 trip to Auburn. To make those bowl aspirations a reality, it would help to beat two non-conference rivals -- at New Mexico on Sept. 8 and visiting UTEP a week later.

The Aggies travel to play the teams projected to battle for the WAC title -- at Boise State on Oct. 7 and at Hawaii on Oct. 27.

There are two Division I-AA opponents, the Aug. 30 opener against Southeastern Louisiana and a Sept. 29 date with Arkansas-Pine Bluff. That means the Aggies will need at least seven wins, rather than the usual six, to qualify for a bowl.

"Six, seven, whatever it takes to be bowl-eligible," tight end Nick Cleaver said. "The goal is to make it to a bowl game. We haven't been in half a century -- quite a long drought."

New Mexico State might even get a boost from stadium enhancements.

There's a new 37-by-58-foot video board in the north end zone, near a recently constructed building with high-tech meeting rooms. There's renovated locker rooms and a new Hall of Legends, featuring portraits of past standouts.

Add it up, and Mumme is feeling good.

"This is, by far, my best comfort level since we've been here," he said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, my first year was a minus-5. Last year was probably a 2. This year, it's around a 5, which is probably as good as coaches can get."

Mumme was asked if he's ever rated above 5.

"No," he said, laughing.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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