PREVIEW: Q&A on NMSU with KTSM Sports Director Colin Deaver

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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — One does not need to search long and wide for an admirer of New Mexico State Head Football Coach Jerry Kill. And one does not need to research deeply to see why.
 
In Year 2 at the helm of the Aggies, there’s an argument to be made that the former Minnesota head coach is already the most successful NMSU leader on the gridiron since the 1960s. At 6-3, NMSU is only one win away (thanks to a 13-game schedule) from assuring the program will make a second straight bowl game for the first time since 1960.
 
Off the field? Well, Kill has long been one of the most admired coaches among his peers in the profession, for reasons Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill made plain in this week’s press conference.
 
“When you do it the right way, to me that means more than anything,” Stockstill said. “That’s why I respect Jerry so much, he’s always done it the right way. He’s always put his players first in everything that he does.”
 
Sitting at 2-6, every game left in 2023 is a must-win for the Blue Raiders to even salvage a bowl trip out of the first year in the new look Conference USA. The Aggies, however, have the inside track to the CUSA title game if they win out the rest of the way. And the talent Kill has gotten on the field in Las Cruces provides plenty of unique challenges.
 
It all starts with quarterback Diego Pavia, who on paper looks to be an efficient, dual-threat quarterback, ranking fourth in the CUSA in total offense and third in total TDs. But while his passing and running ability both flash on tape, the Blue Raiders all say that Pavia’s impact goes far beyond just his output on the field.
 
“This team, on both sides of the ball, is centered around their quarterback,” Stockstill said. “He doesn’t wow you with a lot of statistical stuff that’s off the charts. But he’s a super competitive guy, plays extremely hard and you can tell that he’s the heartbeat of their team.” 
 
Keeping Pavia in the pocket, while also making sure the rest of the running game doesn’t chew the clock for the Aggies at home, will be keys for the Blue Raider defense.
 
“He keeps everybody together,” safety Tra Fluellen said of Pavia. “With all do respect, that man’s done a great job. We’ve just got to do us and 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 around to the football,” quarterback Nicholas Vattiato said. “It starts with the D-Line. The ball is snapped and they’re flying off the football.”
 
And while the Aggies have the worst rated pass defense in CUSA on average yards gained per attempt, their third rated scoring defense suggests that getting points will be a little more complicated than making sure Vattiato has time to make his reads. The redshirt sophomore signal caller explained why.
 
“Sometimes you’ll play a defense where you watch it and it looks like there is a lot of space,” Vattiato said. “New Mexico State does a really good job of covering grass and covering space, rallying to the football and making good tackles. They’re not as good as they are for no reason. They work hard and it shows up on tape.”
 
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 Kill’s strong start to his tenure in Las Cruces, Diego Pavia’s Johnny Manziel comparisons, the names to know on defense and much more!
 

 
1. Combing through tweets from Las Cruces and around the country during #WeekdayCUSA games this year, I’m not sure I’ve seen one negative word about Jerry Kill and the job he’s done 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 has led to Kill’s early success in Las Cruces?

The job that Jerry Kill has done in his first two seasons at New Mexico State is nothing short of spectacular. You can make an argument that NMSU is the worst FBS football program in the history of college football; they went to just one bowl game between 1960 and 2022 and had just five winning seasons since 1970, before Kill arrived after the 2021 season. Kill is a high-major coach who had to leave Minnesota in 2015 due to health 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 gladly hire him and deal with what may come. Thus far, the returns have been almost all positive for the Aggies, with a bowl victory last season and the chance for a Conference USA title this year. He recruits well, he hired a good coaching staff and his players respect him and play hard for him.
 
2. Diego Pavia, in my opinion, was the most fun player to watch in Conference USA during October this year. Rick Stockstill said that while Pavia’s stats don’t pop off on paper, his tape shows his competitiveness. What does he do well when he’s most effective on the field and how has the offense thrived with him under center?
 
I’ve called Diego Pavia a Poor Man’s Johnny Manziel since late last season, because of how he plays. He’s small (they list him at 6’0 but I don’t believe that for a second), but he’s got a ton of heart and his dual-threat abilities make him hard to gameplan for. Not only does he lead NMSU’s passing attack, he’s also the Aggies’ leading rusher at the quarterback position. He’s got a gunslinger’s mentality that NMSU is willing to live with because he possesses big-play capabilities. The Aggies are 5-1 in their last six games and the biggest reason has been Pavia. He’s accounted for 1,700 total yards through the air and on the ground, to go along with 16 total touchdowns. Additionally, he’s taken care of the football; Pavia has just one interception in the last six games and the Aggies overall have only two turnovers in that stretch. Kill loves to see that even more than the big plays that Pavia makes for the Aggies.

3. A big part of NMSU’s success rushing the football has come from Pavia, but the tandem of Monte Watkins and Star Thomas have both been productive out of the backfield. Is there a style contrast between the two running backs? What do each excel at when they’re on their game?
 
Star Thomas and Monte Watkins are a true “Smash and Dash” backfield. Thomas is 6’0, 225 and a between the tackles-type running back that NMSU will lean on in short yardage situations, but he does have big play ability, too. Watkins, meanwhile, is the speedster at 5’11, 195 pounds. Simply put, I don’t think there’s a single player in Conference USA like him. He ran the 100-meter dash in high school in 10.4 seconds. He’s electric in the open field, which shows in his yards per carry this season (11.2 yards/carry), and the fact that he’s got 459 rushing yards on just 41 carries. Contrast that with the fact that Thomas has 409 yards on 77 carries, and you see just how dynamic Watkins can be and how those two play off each other. Kill has been open about the fact that they haven’t gotten Watkins enough touches this year, but it’s started to pick up in the last few weeks, so that may be something to look out for on Saturday.

4. While the Aggies give up a lot of yards in the air, their sacks and tackles for loss are clearly helping keep teams off the scoreboard. Who are some of the folks in the front seven that Blue Raider fans should know that are creating havoc in the backfield?
 
NMSU’s defense has really picked up since a win over New Mexico on September 16. They’ve allowed 17 or more points just twice during a stretch of five wins in six games and they’ve managed to get timely stops and turnovers when they’ve needed to. That front seven has been a big part of it, led by Arizona transfer defensive lineman, Dion Wilson, linebacker Buddha Peleti (leads the team with 4.5 sacks) and leading tackler, linebacker Keyshaun Elliott. In the secondary, cousins Myles Rowser (50 tackles, one forced fumbled) 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.

5. Most folks are expecting a tight matchup in both programs’ first weekend game in over a month. What do you think will be the key matchups NMSU will have to win to become officially bowl eligible for the second year in a row?

It’s cliche to say, but Diego Pavia is the biggest key to every game NMSU plays, for both the Aggies and their opponents. Teams that have consistently slowed him down or caused him to turn the ball over (UMass and Liberty) have beaten the Aggies pretty handily, but in the last six games, absolutely no one has been able to stop the Aggies attack, because Pavia has been the perfect maestro. If Middle Tennessee allows him to settle in, it could be a long night for the Blue Raiders. NMSU’s rushing attack as a whole would also concern me if I were an MTSU fan, because that’s an area the Blue Raiders have struggled to defend.

Conversely, for NMSU, Kill mentioned multiple times in his press conference that Nicholas Vattiato 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 with and beat NMSU.

That said, I think the Aggies will recognize the importance of the moment on Saturday, with the chance to secure a second straight bowl bid for the first time since 1959-60. If they win out, they’ll also play for a CUSA title. Kill has laid all of that out for his team, now it’s up to them to make it happen. Give me NMSU to win on Saturday, 28-24.
 

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