MURFREESBORO, TN – You don’t have to look far for a fan of New Mexico State head football coach Jerry Kiel. And one doesn’t need to dig deep to find out why.
In Year 2 at the helm of the Aggies, there’s an argument to be made that the former Minnesota head coach is now NMSU’s most accomplished leader on the gridiron since 1960. At 6-3, NMSU is just one win away (thanks to a 13-game schedule) from ensuring the program makes a second straight bowl game for the first time since 1960.
Off the pitch? Well, Kiel has long been one of the most respected coaches among his peers in the profession, for reasons the head coach of Middle Tennessee Rick Stockstill made clear at this week’s press conference.
“When you do it the right way, that means more to me than anything,” Stockstill said. “That’s why I respect Jerry so much, he’s always done it the right way. He has always put his players first in everything he does.”
At 2-6, every game remaining in 2023 is a must-win for the Blue Raiders to salvage even a bowl trip in the first year in the new-look Conference USA. However, the Aggies have the inside track to the CUSA title game if they win the rest of the way. And the talent that Kill has gotten on the field in Las Cruces provides many unique challenges.
It all starts with quarterback Diego Pavia, who on paper looks like an efficient dual-threat quarterback, ranked fourth in CUSA in total offense and third in total TDs. But while his passing and running abilities flashed on tape, everyone on the Blue Raiders said Pavia’s impact went beyond just his performance on the field.
“This team, on both sides of the ball, is centered around their quarterback,” Stockstill said. “He doesn’t blow you away with a lot of off-the-charts stats. But he’s a super competitive guy, he plays extremely hard and you can tell he’s the heart of their team.”
Keeping Pavia in the pocket while making sure the rest of the game doesn’t chew up the clock for the Aggies at home will be the key to the Blue Raider defense.
“He holds everybody together,” safety Between Fluellen said of Pavia. “With all due respect, this guy did a great job. We just have to come through, play our game and finish better.”
Defensively, the Aggies like to make their mark in the backfield, ranking second in CUSA in both sacks and tackles for loss.
“They fly to the football,” defender Nicolas Vatiato said. “It starts with the D-Line. The ball snaps and they fly off the soccer ball.”
And while the Aggies have the worst-rated pass defense in CUSA in average yards gained per attempt, their third-rated scoring defense suggests that getting points will be a bit more complicated than making sure Vattiato has time to make his readings. The redshirt sophomore signal caller explained why.
“Sometimes you’re going to play defense where you look at it and it looks like there’s a lot of room,” Vatiato said. “New Mexico State does a really good job of covering the grass and space, rebounding the football and making good tackles. They are not as good as they are for no reason. They work hard and it shows on record.”
To learn more about the Aggies, GoBlueRaiders.com staff writer Sam Doughton spoke with KTSM Sports Director Colin Deaver, who covers NMSU (and UTEP!) for the El Paso-area NBC affiliate. Deaver discussed Jerry Kiel’s strong start to his tenure in Las Cruces, Diego Pavia’s comparisons to Johnny Manziel, names to know on defense and more!
1. Looking through tweets from Las Cruces and around the country during the #WeekdayCUSA games this year, I’m not sure I saw a single negative word about Jerry Kill and the job he did in just two years at New Mexico State. With the Aggies just one win away from making back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1960, what led to the Kill’s early success in Las Cruces?
The job Jerry Kiel has done in his first two seasons at New Mexico State has been nothing short of spectacular. You can make an argument that NMSU is the worst FBS football program in college football history; they played just one game between 1960 and 2022 and had just five winning seasons since 1970 before Kill arrived after the 2021 season. Kill is a high-profile coach who had to leave Minnesota in 2015 due to health issues reasons. A Power-5 program probably won’t take a chance on him anymore because of that X factor, but a place like NMSU will happily hire him and see what happens. So far, the results have been almost all positive for the Aggies, with a bowl win last season and a shot at a Conference USA title this year. He recruits well, has hired a good coaching staff and his players respect him and play hard for him.
2. Diego Pavia was, in my opinion, the most fun player to watch in Conference USA this October. Rick Stockstill said that while Pavia’s stats don’t appear on paper, his tape shows his competitiveness. What does he do well when he’s most effective on the field, and how does the offense thrive with him under center?
I call Diego Pavia the poor man’s Johnny Manziel of late last season because of the way he plays. He’s small (he’s listed at 6’0, but I don’t believe that for a second), but he’s got a lot of heart and his dual-threat abilities make him tough to game plan. Not only does he lead NMSU’s passing attack, but he is also the Aggies’ leading rusher at the quarterback position. He has a shooter’s mentality that NMSU is willing to live with because he has big-play ability. The Aggies are 5-1 in their last six games and the biggest reason is Pavia. He has 1,700 total yards through the air and on the ground, along with 16 total touchdowns. He also took care of football; Pavia has just one interception in the last six games, and the Aggies have just two turnovers overall in that stretch. Kill likes to see that even more than the big plays Pavia makes for the Aggies.
3. Much of NMSU’s success in football has come from Pavia, but the tandem of Monte Watkins and Starr Thomas are both productive off the field. Is there a stylistic contrast between the two running backs? What does each excel at when playing their game?
Star Thomas and Monte Watkins are true “Smash and Dash” back players. Thomas is 6’0, 225 and is the middle running back that NMSU will rely on in short yardage situations, but he also has big play ability. Watkins, meanwhile, is the fastest at 5’11, 195 pounds. Simply put, I don’t think there is a single player in Conference USA like him. He ran the 100 meters in high school in 10.4 seconds. He’s electric in the open, which is evident by his yards per carry this season (11.2 yards/carry) and the fact that he has 459 rushing yards on just 41 carries. Compare that to the fact that Thomas has 409 yards on 77 carries, and you can see how dynamic Watkins can be and how these two match up against each other. Kill has been open about the fact that they haven’t gotten Watkins enough this year, but that has started to pick up over the past few weeks, so that might be something to watch out for on Saturday.
4. While the Aggies give up a lot of yards through the air, their sacks and tackles for loss clearly help keep teams off the board. Who are some people in the front seven that Blue Raider fans should know are creating havoc in the backfield?
NMSU’s defense really stepped up after the Sept. 16 win over New Mexico. They allowed 17 or more points just twice during five wins in six games and were able to get timely stops and turnovers when they needed to. This front week has been a big part of that, led by Arizona defensive end Dion Wilson, linebacker Buda Peletti (leads the team with 4.5 sacks) and leading tackler linebacker Keyshawn Elliott. In the second, cousins Myles Roser (50 tackles, one forced fumble) and Andre Seldon (37 tackles, one interception) lead the way for defensive coordinator Nate Dreiling, who I think you might see coaching at the Power-5 level sooner rather than later. later.
5. Most people have been anticipating a tight game in the first weekend game of the two programs for more than a month. What do you think will be the key games NMSU will need to win to officially become bowl eligible for the second year in a row?
It’s a cliché to say, but Diego Pavia is the biggest key to every game NMSU plays, both for the Aggies and their opponents. Teams that have consistently slowed him down or forced him to turn the ball over (UMass and Liberty) have beaten the Aggies fairly easily, but in the last six games absolutely no one has been able to stop the Aggies offense because Pavia has been the consummate maestro. If Middle Tennessee allows him to settle in, it could be a long night for the Blue Raiders. NMSU’s rushing attack in general would also bother me if I were an MTSU fan because that’s an area the Blue Raiders struggle to defend.
Conversely, for NMSU, Kill mentioned this several times in his press conference Nicolas Vatiato is as good as any quarterback the Aggies have seen this year and the overall passing attack could challenge NMSU in that regard. The way MTSU has played against some strong opponents stands out, despite their record. They certainly have the ability to play and beat NMSU.
However, I think the Aggies will realize the importance of the moment on Saturday, with the chance to secure a second consecutive bowl bid for the first time since 1959-60. If they win, they will also be playing for a CUSA title. Kill has laid it all out for his team, now it’s up to them to do it. Give me NMSU to win on Saturday, 28-24.