Three things that will determine the New Mexico-New Mexico State football game

Sep. 16—In previous seasons, with different teams, Danny Gonzales hasn't minced words when talking about his rival.

He didn't back off much this week, either. But New Mexico's head coach did shift the focus slightly.

"I hate to use the word 'hate,'" Gonzales said on Tuesday. "And I've used it plenty of times but there's a lot of hate involved. I mean, there's a lot that goes into this. Because I grew up here (Albuquerque), because I played here (UNM), because I'm passionate about it, our kids know my passion for this.

"But it's about going 1-0 this week. "

Before New Mexico (1-1) looks to go 1-0 against New Mexico State (1-2) in Saturday's highly anticipated rivalry game, here are three things to look for:

How UNM stands up to NMSU's rushing attack

Maybe it hasn't shown up in a massive way, in a massive game for NMSU, but through three games, they're quietly averaging a stout 6.31 yards per rush, good for eighth in the country behind the likes of USC (6.77) Oregon (7.44) and leading Utah State (7.63).

The Aggies also run a lot, 5.12 percent more than the FBS expected average through three weeks. They were good at it last year. Whether they're better at it this year remains undetermined but NMSU remains wholly effective, if not devastating, in the run game.

The key names: Ahmonte Watkins is NMSU's leading rusher and most prominent home run threat with 161 yards on 11 carries, with seven of Watkins' touches through three games coming off the left end for an absurd 18 yards per rush. Kill has indicated his usage will only increase when he becomes a better "all-around" back but he remains a load coming around the edge.

Shifting between the tackles, Star Thomas has largely been NMSU's best every-down back, while Jamoni Jones has put together some rock-solid performances. Quarterback Diego Pavia hasn't been a consistently great runner this year but remains a viable threat on the ground, one the Lobos haven't really had to deal with so far.

However they plan for it, don't expect much to change. Before Texas A&M, defensive coordinator Troy Reffett made it clear the defense doesn't change week-to-week, no matter who's on the schedule — and that means ample attention to stopping the run, wherever it comes from.

And after a dominating performance from the defense against Tennessee Tech's run game, linebacker Syaire Riley made it clear, too: UNM thinks they have a shot to stop almost any rushing attack they go up against.

Against NMSU, they'll get another chance to prove it.

Where UNM gets mismatches and how they take advantage

When UNM went east to Texas A&M, they were at a clear talent disadvantage. And while Gonzales said some of the secondary issues that burned them weren't personnel-related, the final score ballooning to 52-10 indicated what the vast majority figured — the Aggies were just more talented. They paid $1.6 million to show as much.

On the flip side, when UNM hosted Tennessee Tech last week, in a 56-10 shellacking, the Lobos were head-and-shoulders more talented than the Golden Eagles. Receivers ran loose more often than not. Offensive lineman got a marked push off the ball. Running back Jacory Croskey-Merritt wore the defense down to the tune of three rushing touchdowns.

NMSU is up next. What's been a theme most seasons will continue this year.

"The team that we're gonna play on Saturday," said Gonzales on Tuesday, "is equally talented,"

It's a big reason why almost every projection is so close. This game opened as a pick 'em before moving to UNM favored by 2 1/2. ESPN's Bill Connelly, in his weekly SP+ predictions, suggests the Lobos win by 3.4 points. College football statistician Parker Fleming projected an Aggies win — by 0.05 points.

In a game where both teams are about as evenly matched as it gets, who presents the opportunity for a true mismatch?

A nomination: D.J. Washington. New Mexico's number one receiving option has the numbers to indicate that status — he's tied for the team lead in receptions (6) and route snaps (32) with the most targets (10) to boot — but hasn't had the breakout performance to be recognized as such.

He'll have that opportunity this week. At 6-foot-5, 219 pounds, Washington represents one of the flat-out biggest receivers NMSU's secondary will have faced to this point. UNM's all-access passing game was on full display last week but if four or five plays determine the outcome of any football game, look for Washington to have his hand in at least one of them come Saturday evening.

Hopkins vs. Pavia

On Tuesday, Gonzales got out in front of it: The kid from Volcano Vista. The one he didn't offer a scholarship. The one he didn't recruit, thinking they were in a different situation with their quarterbacks at the time.

The one, as UNM slumped to a 2-10 finish last season while NMSU surged to a bowl game, he caught a little grief for doing (or not doing) all of the above.

"Did I make a mistake?" Gonzales said. "I tell every single New Mexico kid to prove me wrong. He did. He is a big-time player."

This is, of course, quarterback Diego Pavia. The Albuquerque native returns to his hometown Saturday for his first foray into the Rio Grande Rivalry, with a chip on his shoulder that's only added to the "aura" he's carried since high school and into a college career marked by success at different levels.

All during a relatively imperfect season to this point. Pavia has thrown for six touchdowns and 715 yards — good for ninth in the country — but with a pair of interceptions in each game the Aggies' have played against FBS opponents. If he's played a role in what looks like an improved NMSU offense, he's hamstrung it just as much with contributions to a turnover margin ranked near the bottom of FBS.

Then there's Lobos quarterback Dylan Hopkins. Last Saturday's romp over Tennessee Tech served as a coming-out party for the UAB transfer after he threw for 277 yards, four touchdowns and one interception on 13-for-17 passing en route to Mountain West offensive player of the week honors.

It's a given he won't have it as easy against NMSU. If the Aggies' defense doesn't rack up a ton of sacks, they do generate more than their fair share of quarterback pressures, with defensive ends Gabe Peterson and Nikhil Webb-Walker leading the way.

While UNM's secondary has looked far from a finished product, Pavia will be tasked with correcting a nasty run of turnovers and occasionally shaky play against a group that'd love to manufacture their first interception of the year. How two distinctly different quarterbacks perform head-to-head might not be the determining factor. But it'll be awfully close.