Winless Vandals, struggling Aggies open Sun Belt play

Updated: October 2, 2003, 3:07 PM ET

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- New Mexico State's quest to end the longest bowl drought among Division I schools starts Saturday.

The Aggies (1-3) take on winless Idaho (0-5) in the first Sun Belt Conference game for both schools.

NMSU has not been to a bowl game since 1960, a dubious distinction the Aggies can get rid of by winning this season's Sun Belt title. They've come close the last two seasons, finishing second behind North Texas last year and third in 2001.

Thus far the Aggies have struggled to put points on the board, the exception being a 48-3 win over Division II member Western New Mexico. In its three losses, New Mexico State has not scored more than 17 points -- that coming in a 24-17 loss to New Mexico last week.

Idaho, however, could be just what the Aggies need.

The Vandals are 3-25 since the start of the 2001 season and 8-31 overall under fourth-year coach Tom Cable. This season's pre-conference schedule hasn't helped, with two of the five losses coming against No. 14 ranked Washington State (25-0) and No. 18 Washington (45-14). The Vandals also lost to defending Western Athletic Conference champion Boise State (24-10)

What's more, New Mexico State is riding a seven-game home winning streak. That's the longest such streak since the Aggies won 14 straight home games from 1964 to early in the 1967 season.

NMSU coach Tony Samuel, however, points out the Aggies have seen this scenario before.

Two years ago the Vandals arrived in Las Cruces with an 0-5 record and it took a last minute touchdown for NMSU to pull out a 46-39 win.

"We've always played each other close," says Samuel, aware that the last three games have been decided by a total of 10 points. Last year NMSU won 35-31 in Moscow and Idaho won 44-41 in double overtime in 2000.

Idaho too has struggled with is offense. The Vandals scored a season-high 28 points last week in a 41-28 loss to Montana. Quarterback Brian Lindgren threw a pair of TD passes and finished with 200 yards passing and for now appears to have reclaimed the starting job from teammate Michael Harrington.

"We haven't been able to get Michael to perform in a game situation like he has in fall camp or during preparation during the week," Cable said.

Both Lindgren and Harrington are likely to play Saturday. The Aggies too will use two quarterbacks with sophomore Paul Dombrowski and junior Buck Pierce.

Dombrowski leads the Aggies in rushing with 189 yards and three touchdowns, while Pierce has completed 22 of 41 passes for 314 yards and three TDs. Neither has won the job outright and both have struggled in trying to get New Mexico State's offense untracked.

"I think they are starting to realize that they are (pressing) a little bit," Samuel said this week. "They just need to let the thing happen."

While Idaho has yet to win a game and the Aggies have yet to beat a Division I opponent, the start of the conference race is cause for renewed optimism.

"This is for all the marbles," says Samuel. "Every game has to be like it's a bowl. You don't have many games (left) to play. Every game is intense. It's all about going to a bowl game at this point."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index