In eighth year, New Mexico Bowl is hitting its stride

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In the days leading up to the 2013 Gildan New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 21, billboards posted around Albuquerque begged a question the locals have been bombarded with for years: will it be red or green?

Johnathan Miller/For El Defensor Chieftain: Rams quarterback Garrett Grayson hands off to Kapri Biggs during the second quarter of the Gildan New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 21. Colorado State won 48-45.

In the days leading up to the 2013 Gildan New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 21, billboards posted around Albuquerque begged a question the locals have been bombarded with for years: will it be red or green?

Of course, New Mexicans know this refers to the color of their preferred chile. But for one afternoon at University Stadium, football fans were asked to decide between the green-sheathed Colorado State Rams and the crimson-clad Washington State Cougars.

Either way, it would be an afternoon the college football realm won’t soon forget.

Under the tutelage of Mike Leach and his Air Raid attack, Washington State has become one of the NCAA’s most efficient passing offenses, averaging close to 370 yards per game. Early on during the contest, it looked as though the Cougars and quarterback Connor Halliday would send the Rams crawling back to Ft. Collins. Halliday threw for five first-half touchdowns, and Washington State took a 35-23 lead into the locker room.

Kapri Bibbs, the NCAA’s fifth-leading rusher, and his 75-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter brought CSU within eight points, but Halliday’s sixth touchdown pass of the afternoon came with 9 minutes and 35 seconds left in the game when he found Isiah Myers for a 22-yard strike in the end zone.

At that point the Cougars pushed their lead back to 15 points and appeared to have the game well in hand. With history as an indicator however, anyone watching the game should have probably known that no lead is safe in the New Mexico Bowl.

The 2012 version of the game featured an historic comeback by the Arizona Wildcats when they erased a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to stun the Nevada Wolf pack, 49-48.

This year’s edition was just as shocking, if not more a bit unlikely. When Garrett Grayson threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Jordon Vaden with just less than three minutes left in the game to help cut the Cougars lead to 45-37, a complete comeback by CSU still seemed unlikely. When Colorado State forced Cougars running back Jeremiah Laufasa to cough the ball up on the ensuing possession, WSU fans were probably starting to feel a little bit nervous. After Bibbs cut the lead to two with a 2-yard touchdown plunge with 33 seconds left, Rams fans were cheering in disbelief, and as soon as Donnell Alexander tied the contest at 45 with a successful two-point conversion, the east stands at University Stadium were alive with raucous, rabid Colorado State fans.

On the west sideline, crickets were chirping.

What happened next is why football fans, players and writers throw around the word “legendary.” For the Rams it was a legendary comeback, while Washington State made itself the victim of a legendary collapse.

The looks on the faces of Cougars players when Teondray Caldwell fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Colorado State’s Jake Schlager recovered were those of disbelief. When Jared Roberts kicked through the winning 41-yard field goal as time expired, those looks had turned surreal, blank, almost distant, but undoubtedly telling.

The Rams had completed the miraculous comeback, beat the pass-happy Cougars 48-45 and notched a quality win for the Mountain West against a team from a big six conference.

Unfortunately, Washington State won’t be able to shake the sting of that loss for at least another nine months, but their loss was definitely the New Mexico Bowl’s gain.

The game has historically been an entertaining one, and as Executive Director Jeff Siembieda and company sell it as the bowl season’s first, close games and epic comebacks would presumably only help boost the likelihood we’ll see it continue its run into its ninth year in 2014.

Yes, things are changing next year. The much maligned Bowl Championship Series is at long last coming to an end, which will change the bowl landscape overall. The PAC-12 has yet to renew its contract as a New Mexico Bowl partner, so it looks like Conference USA will step in to take its place. There is also talk that ESPN, the bowl’s current owner, won’t be on board next season.

However, Siembieda, Chairman Rudy Davalos and the rest of the board have done a stellar job of turning the game into something New Mexico needs: a quality, reliable product.

Except for the aforementioned chile and a poetically unrealistic portrayal of a methamphetamine problem, this state doesn’t really have a brand, at least outside of Lobo basketball.

Attendance was good again this year, topping out at around 28,000, even though Pullman, Wash., is nearly 1,300 miles away, and the Las Vegas Bowl featured two generally more popular teams in USC and Fresno State, and kicked off only 90 minutes after the New Mexico Bowl did.

But sponsorship is plentiful, the game is beginning to feel more and more like one with tradition, the fanfare is there and the team payouts are decent. Gildan has obviously done a good job with marketing, and ESPN or no ESPN, the future of the game does look rather bright.

Again it looks a little ugly on paper, but Washington State’s loss was New Mexico’s gain, and we can only hope as fans that the higher-ups continue to find evenly matched teams willing to come play at altitude and put on a show.