Saturday: New Mexico at New Mexico State
Time: 6 p.m., Aggie Memorial Stadium, Las Cruces
Radio: KKOB 94.5 FM, 770 AM
By Greg Archuleta
Assistant Sports Editor
Bragging rights … or breathing rights?
The University of New Mexico football team, 1-1 on the season after a hard-fought, 45-14 loss at then-No. 5 Wisconsin, travels to Las Cruces to take on winless New Mexico State, the only school in the country currently with three losses.
Pressure is on both teams entering Saturday’s game, but different types of pressure are on each school.
The Lobos need to keep their fan base connected. A 2-1 UNM team heading into a home game against Liberty could attract a pretty good crowd and reverse some of the attendance woes the program has suffered the last two seasons.
UNM always has been considered the bigger school, the school with a bigger budget, a more prestigious conference — heck at least the Lobos have a conference — and always is considered the favorite, no matter the circumstances.
Finally, a bit of pressure lays at the feet of coach Bob Davie, who was asked earlier this week whether the outcome of this year’s rivalry game would have any effect on his future employment.
When Davie arrived at UNM, he made the rivalry a huge deal of the rivalry. Before he became coach, the Aggies had seized a three-game winning streak against UNM. Davie’s first year in 2012, he reeled off the date often — 9/22/12 — before and after the Lobos’ 27-14 victory.
In 2013, New Mexico seemingly regained outright control of the series with a 66-17 win at then-University Stadium.
After that, Davie talked less of the rivalry and when he did talk about it, with less reverence.
The Aggies played the Lobos tough in 2014 and 2015, losing 38-35 and 38-29, respectively. Then before the 2016 matchup, Davie made a point of saying he wasn’t going to make a big deal of the rivalry anymore.
Ironically, NMSU has won the last two games since then.
During his news conference this week, Davie waited for a reporter’s question before he talked about the rivalry.
“It’s what rivalries are,” UNM’s seventh-year coach said. “There’s people in these office buildings that there’s a New Mexico State Aggie sitting at one desk and a Lobo sitting at another desk. There’s kids graduating from high school where x number are going to Las Cruces and x number of kids going to Albuquerque. That thread ties through all of this.
“There’s a lot of familiarity with people, so that’s important. I’ve had several people tell me over the summer, ‘Beat the Aggies.’ Whatever that thread of familiarity is, that makes it special.”
The Lobos’ hopes of ending their skid against their in-state rivals rest in the hands of junior transfer quarterback Sheriron Jones, who had to take over in the second quarter last week for starter Tevaka Tuioti.
Tuioti suffered concussion-like symptoms on a hit he received on an option pitch in the second quarter. UNM’s offense was, in Davie’s words, “wobbly” with Jones at the helm against Wisconsin.
“Now, we’ve had a week to prepare; he’s had a week to prepare,” Davie said of the transfer from Tennessee. “I’m anxious to see him this week. He’s going to be anxious. We’ll see what happens.”
The Aggies enter the game also a bit anxious. NMSU coach Doug Martin said his team is feeling the after-effects of a 2017 season that brought rare success to the program.
State played in and won its first bowl game since 1960, a 26-20 overtime thriller over Utah State, and finished with a 7-6 record.
The 2018 team is struggling mightily to start the season. Opponents have outscored the Aggies 137-30, including Utah State’s 60-13 rout last week in Logan, Utah.
While Davie has harped on his team getting better individually week to week, Martin has lamented that issue with his squad.
“We’re not getting better game to game,” he said. “That’s what made us good last year. I’m not seeing that right now. We’ve got a team that’s underachieving and that’s the frustrating thing right now.”
Davie said he expects the Aggies defense, by far the strength of the team, to attack, whereas Wisconsin’s defense was more read and react. That strategy will be a first used against UNM this season.
The Aggies, however, have to figure out how to run the ball as well as stop the run. They’re averaging 46 yards per game on offense while giving up 293.7. Opponents have possessed the football for an average of 11 minutes more than NMSU.
NMSU is conference-less, have been snubbed by the Sun Belt after last season. How long the Aggies can compete as an FBS Independent remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say that they can’t fall too far for too long.
They’re already No. 6 on ESPN’s Bottom 10 college football teams.
The rivalry game, therefore, offers hope for a momentum-changing game.
“Obviously for our fans, this is the biggest game of the year,” Martin. “You always want to win this game. We’ve won the last two years and are very proud of that. It’s a huge game; it’s one of the most fun things about college football. You have these rivalries — no matter what state it is — these are always the funnest games to play in. You get bragging rights for a year, that’s what it’s all about.
“This is an opportunity for us to try to get things started for this year, so we’re excited about that.”
But in 2018, to the victor seemingly go more spoils, as in a chance to breathe going into the rest of the season.