Welcome to 2017’s first team who really and truly can hang their hats on “nobody believed in us, but we believed in ourselves.”
Las Cruces held plenty of believers, but I know I was on a short list of folks outside of LC that was willing and able to explain how this Aggies team was going to do something improbable.
And yes, while many programs see 6-6 as a failure, a program that has won more than three games once in the past nine years files that achievement under improbable.
They did it by the most cliche path process; trusting the process, no matter what. Many teams will tell you that’s not the easiest thing to do, but when you pull it off you can look back and understand.
It’s really hard to trust the process.
On a day-to-day basis, it’s far easier to get frustrated at the fact that the process hasn’t produced the results that you want at that meoment than it is to continue having faith that the process will eventually get you where you want to go.
You’ve got to have something to hang your hat on, something that proves that the process is working. Little victories help, like having closer losses or better attendance, anything that shows the parts of a plan coming together.
The 2016 New Mexico State Aggies only won three games, and couldn’t even manage to reach 50,000 in attendance for their five home games on the season. I was at their season finale on the road against South Alabama, a narrow loss that dropped the Aggies to 2-2 in one-possession games and came on the heels of their last two home games, which drew a total of 11, 646 fans.
How in the hell was this process supposed to go, again? They weren’t unusually unlucky, they just weren’t very good on the whole.
But that Aggie team had a good offense that would return most of its best talent, so optimism had a place going into 2017.
They came into the season with an offense loaded with seniors and a defense led by several more, knowing that they were a million small improvements from doing something meaningful.
It can be hard to trust the process *even when it’s working*
Just because the process pans out and bears fruit doesn’t mean that things will suddenly get easy.
Year 0: This is always an ugly year, just throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. In Doug Martin’s first year in Las Cruces, the Aggies were 2-0 in one-possession games, but they also had seven losses by 28+ points on their way to a 2-10 record.
Year 1: In his second year, the country saw a team that didn’t improve in the win column, and didn’t win at all after Labor Day weekend. But in the weeds, if you looked closely, was a team that went 1-2 in one-score games and only lost three times by 28+ points.
Year 2: Martin’s third year of the rebuild? Another 3-9 record, but a 2-4 record in one-possession games and again only three of those bad losses.
The perseverance started to show in the form of a come-from-behind overtime victory against Idaho sealed by Terrill Hanks’ “footerception” that ended what was the nation’s longest losing streak (17) at the time.
This game was a glimpse of what this team could do, what they could withstand. The Aggies trailed 30-7 one play into the second half, and 40-21 less than a minute into the fourth quarter, but found a way to battle back, force overtime, and then seal a much-needed victory.
Larry Rose III rushed for 1,657 yards and 14 touchdowns that year, but the Aggies played three different quarterbacks due to injuries, and it was hard to be consistent.
NMSU kept turning the corner, they just underestimated how many corners stood between them and their goals.
The process is hard to trust because progress is never linear
It is often said that things get their most dark right before they’re about to get bright.
Year 3: The fourth year for Martin saw a bit of a plateau, as they finally normalized to 2-2 in one-possession games, but had three big losses and managed only another three wins. A promising season that opened with a furious comeback win over rival New Mexico and three-fourths of a good game against Kentucky quickly unraveled.
Rogers returned to health, but now Rose played most of the season with a sports hernia, and it showed in his game. Without a reliable fill-in running back the offense suffered and became one-dimensional.
Another comeback win against ULL was sandwiched by blowouts against Troy and Idaho, and before you could blink it was November and a 2-7 team had lost five of their last six by an average score of 44-16. If you took away points scored in the final two minutes, the Aggies only had one loss by less than two touchdowns.
They had their first big win, though; a forty-point win over Texas State was meaningful when the Aggies’ previous nine wins under Martin were by a total of 61 points.
But “Trusting the Process” is a cliche for a reason
That reason is that truly sustainable success, or true fixing of a bad situation, takes a level of patience that can only occur when you have a fully formed process in place and you stick with it.
One of the main reasons that your progress within that process is not linear is that not all parts are created equal. The New Mexico State Aggies always had more struggles on defense than on offense, so they needed more time to come together. In this case, it took one of Doug Martin’s old friends, Frank Spaziani, to finish the job,
Spaziani had a history as an excellent defensive coordinator and overwhelmed head coach in his time at Boston College, so it made sense for Martin – who coached under Spaz previously – to turn somewhere familiar for the help the defense needed.
It may have been a while for Spaz as a coach (four years), but the Aggies didn’t need him to be a head coach. They didn’t need him to be an elite defensive coordinator. They just needed him to do a good enough job with the defense that the team could win those close calls that they weren’t before, and maybe that would be enough to make positive things happen in Las Cruces.
Year 4: Frank’s unit had its moments, but it’s not like they tripped and stumbled into being one of only six defenses to record 40+ sacks during the regular season. The system paid off, and the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.
It still wasn’t easy, but NMSU did a better job of handling that adversity, going 4-2 in one-possession games on their way to achieving bowl eligibility with a 6-6 record.
Tyler Rogers got hurt, again. The referees were a steady challenge with odd calls at every turn. Larry Rose stayed healthy but struggled to get going all season long, occasionally ceding the field to Jason Huntley.
And yet, here we are. Rogers missed a game and still threw 3,825 yards and 26 touchdowns. Rose worked his way to 1,280 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns, while Huntley tossed in another 750 and three of his own. Jaleel Scott became NMSU’s first 1,000-yard receiver in five years.
The Aggies needed an onside kick recovery to seal the win against New Mexico, and they nailed it.
They needed an offensive drive to put the nail in the coffin against Georgia Southern, and they drove 80 yards in 14 plays to eat nearly six minutes of clock.
They needed stops to hold on against Idaho, and they got two sacks and an interception in Idaho’s last six plays
They needed a game-winning drive against South Alabama, and they went 83 yards in 15 plays in order to make this happen:
— NM State Football (@NMStateFootball) December 3, 2017
Saying the process will pay off is all talk – until it does
But it doesn’t get there without all the talk.
Doug Martin took over a program that was handcuffed by multiple previous coaches who tried to juco-recruit their way to success, academic progress be damned.
Martin repeatedly talked about seeing something special in this team this season, and it turns out he was right. He finally came out the other side this season and will have a bowl game to show for it, along with a $20,000 bonus for that bowl game and a new five-year contract extension.
The situation doesn’t get any easier now that the Aggies will leave the Sun Belt for football independence next July 1st, but the Aggies have now shown that adversity is something they can deal with. They’ll lose some talent in the offseason, but they’ve now got plenty of talent to take it’s place.
It’s been a very long road to get to a bowl game for the Aggies, but they stuck it out and showed that they have what it takes in order to succeed as long as they trust the process.
Now let’s go process us a bowl win.