ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Colorado State is bowl-bound for the third year in a row.
Needing to win at least one of their final two games, the Rams did what Mountain West rivals Boise State and Utah State weren’t able to do, beating New Mexico 28-21 Saturday at University Stadium in Albuquerque.
The Lobos, coming off consecutive wins over the Aggies and Broncos, were eliminated from the Mountain West championship race after needing to beat both CSU and Air Force in the final two weeks to overtake the Falcons (8-3, 6-1 Mountain West).
Instead, CSU punched its ticket to the postseason behind a balanced performance from its offense. Quarterback Nick Stevens completed 16 of 23 passes for 264 yards and one touchdown, while star receiver Rashard Higgins hauled in eight catches for 140 yards. With a 13-yard catch in the second quarter, Higgins passed former CSU standout David Anderson for first on the CSU all-time receptions list, which Higgins now sits atop with 229 career catches.
“I knew going into this game that I needed a couple more catches,” Higgins said. “I just told myself, man, before the year is out, that was goal I wanted to accomplish. I’m glad it happened at New Mexico.”
The Rams couldn’t stop New Mexico’s potent rushing attack for most of the day, but were able to put up just enough points to move above .500 for the first time since their 65-13 win over Savannah State in Week 1.
Running back Dalyn Dawkins, making his fourth start in as many weeks, added 94 yards on 22 carries, while bruising back Izzy Matthews pitched in 89 yards and a touchdown, with most of those coming in the fourth quarter. Jasen Oden Jr., CSU’s leading rusher, left the game in the first quarter with an injury, and did not return.
After the game, CSU head coach Mike Bobo said that he likes to save Matthews for the fourth quarter as the team’s “closer,” when he can use his physical style to wear down defenses. The true freshman is simply happy to be getting carries.
“I’ll take any kind of role Coach (Bobo) is willing to give me,” Matthews said with a grin. “As a true freshman, you can’t ask for playing time, you can’t expect playing time, when they call your number you just have to go out and be ready to play.”
CSU started off as well it could have hoped, intercepting UNM quarterback Lamar Jordan on the second play from the scrimmage. On the very next play, speedy slot receiver Deionte Gaines took a toss sweep 30 yards for a touchdown to give CSU a 7-0 lead just 54 seconds into the game.
The Lobos followed that up with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that was capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Jhurell Pressley to tie the game 7-7.
Each team responded with a touchdown drive, with both totaling 5:25 in length. Kivon Cartwright capped off the Rams’ drive with an 8-yard catch from Stevens, giving the sophomore signal-caller 20 touchdowns for the season.
Tied at 14 with 4:04 to go in the half, Stevens and Co. drove 90 yards for a field goal after starting the drive from their own 3-yard line. After having a field goal blocked earlier in the quarter, freshman Wyatt Bryan drilled a 24-yarder to put CSU up 17-14 as time expired in the half.
Despite a 57-yard catch and run from Jordon Vaden on the opening drive of the second half, CSU was only able to get a field goal, stretching their lead to 20-14. The Lobos responded with a drive of their own, capped by a 36-yard touchdown from Pressley to retake the lead 21-20 with 8:54 to play in the third quarter.
With a chance to retake the lead, CSU drove into New Mexico territory, but Stevens was stopped short on fourth-and-1 at the UNM 27.
The Lobos responded with a 9-play, 67-yard drive, but DeAndre Elliott blocked Zack Rogers’ 23-yard field goal attempt to keep the Rams within one, 21-20.
CSU wasted no time, bullying its way down the field on a 12-play, 92-yard drive that was capped off by a 1-yard touchdown from Matthews. On the drive, Matthews and Dawkins combined for 63 yards, with 54 of those coming from the freshman.
On the first play of New Mexico’s drive, Kevin Davis, who turned 22 on Saturday, intercepted Jordan’s pass and set CSU up at the UNM 26. The Rams couldn’t capitalize though, as Stevens fumbled on third down, and freshman Braxton Davis missed a 52-yard field goal – the first of his career – about five yards short.
CSU was nearly able to end it on a fourth-and-5 at midfield, but Jordan escaped for a first down. On the next play, he was sacked for a 15-yard loss by CSU senior defensive end Joe Kawulok. Another senior, this time safety Kevin Pierre-Louis, came up with a big play when he intercepted Jordan with 1:11 left to play and sealed the Rams’ win making them bowl eligible.
“We talked about it on Monday, we have to finish,” Bobo said. “We have to finish what we started. We talked about starting strong, staying strong throughout the whole game and finishing strong. I thought we started strong with the interception, I thought we stayed strong through some of the adversity defensively. … But I thought in the second half we came out and finished strong.”
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.