TUCSON, Ariz. — Third-down conversions, missed field goals, fumbles inside the red zone; they all play a huge part in the game of football. Just ask the Utah State football team.
Utah State was 2-of-18 on third downs, missed four field goals and fumbled inside the New Mexico State 15-yard line and came out on the wrong end of a 26-20 score in the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl Friday afternoon at Arizona Stadium.
Dominik Eberle had a disastrous afternoon in the place-kicking department. Eberle was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, which goes to the nation's best place-kicker, but was just 2-of-6 in his field goal attempts. His biggest miss came on the go-ahead, 29-yard field goal attempt in overtime as it hit off the right upright.
The Utah State offense didn't help itself out either. Despite racking up 441 yards of total offense, the Aggies struggled to convert on third downs and finish drives. It may have been why Eberle missed four field goals on the afternoon. Eberle missed attempts from 44, 49, 48 and 29 yards, respectively. Penalties also hurt as USU racked up 74 penalty yards on the afternoon.
In his final game for Utah State, senior running back LaJuan Hunt Jr. had a stellar performance. Hunt ran for 133 yards on 20 carries, including a touchdown that put Utah State ahead 20-13 with 13:28 to play.
Junior wide receiver Ron'quavion Tarver had eight catches for 97 yards, and Savon Scarver returned a kickoff 96 yards to give Utah State an early 7-3 lead.
Third downs killed USU
Converting only 1-of-18 third downs is no typo. Utah State couldn't convert on third downs to save its life Friday afternoon. This was against a team that gives up almost 400 yards of total offense on the season. Additionally, New Mexico State's opponents convert on third downs about 34 percent of the time.
Utah State, however, couldn't overcome the third-down woes. Despite possessing the ball for 31:02, it seemed like the Utah State defense was always on the field. New Mexico State wasn't much better on third downs, but when they trailed late, they converted; it was the difference in the ballgame.
NMSU wins the battle of the Aggies — again
The last time New Mexico State and Utah State met in a bowl game was in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31, 1960. New Mexico State won 20-13 and hadn't been back to a bowl game until Friday afternoon. It was a 56-year-old rematch in the making. It lived up to the hype, too. Despite the third-down woes of both teams, it was an instant classic.
New Mexico State quarterback Tyler Rogers made plays when it was necessary, and running back Larry Rose III racked up 142 yards on 16 carries, including the game-winning 21-yard touchdown run in overtime.
USU struggles in close games
How's this stat for you: Utah State is 0-7 over the last two years in games decided by seven points or less.
The missed opportunities have already been discussed. On Friday, Utah State got key contributions from who it needed to down the stretch. Hunt put Utah State ahead in the fourth quarter and even had a 58-yard rush to the New Mexico State 22-yard line following the game-tying, New Mexico State touchdown.
But as has been the case all too often, the Utah State offense sputtered following the big gain. Eberle also missed one of his field goal attempts. Why not continue to go with the hot hand in Hunt? Instead, Utah State threw two passes that fell incomplete, picked up 7 yards on a rush — not by Hunt — and then lost a yard to force the field goal attempt.
The killer-instinct mindset is crucial, especially in close games. But Utah State struggled with that on Friday, continuing a two-yera trend.
Losing a bowl game in overtime is not easy. However, there is a bright spot for Utah State fans. Utah State returns 18 of its 22 starters, including redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan Love, who has looked good at times this season. Give him an entire spring and fall camp to work with the starters and you will see a much-improved quarterback.
Utah State finishes with a 6-7 record but played in a bowl game for the sixth time in seven years. Not all is bad in the world of college football in Logan.
Kyle McDonald is sports fan who loves the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter at @kylesportsbias