By Greg Archuleta
The irony of the University of New Mexico football season continues.
The Lobos have raised more questions in their two victories than they have in their one defeat in 2018. UNM may have been more impressive in its 45-14 loss at then-No. 5 Wisconsin than their 62-30 win over Incarnate Word in the opener and Saturday’s 42-25 victory at in-state rival New Mexico State.
Of course, the Lobos’ showing last week against the Badgers had a damper put on it as Brigham Young went into Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday and pulled off a 24-21 upset.
The opportunistic Lobo defense intercepted Aggie quarterbacks five times on Saturday, which helped New Mexico overcome an early 14-0 hole to go 2-1 on the season. It’s UNM’s first win over an FBS school since a 56-38 win over Air Force on Sept. 30, 2017.
The Lobos (2-1), however, failed to reach 200 rushing yards for the second straight year against NMSU (0-4), which came into the game having scored 30 points total for the season prior to the Rio Grande Rivalry game.
And 15 penalties for 133 yards (which New Mexico committed Saturday night) is enough to give any coach a sleepless night.
Here are five takeaways from the UNM win:
1. There really wasn’t much of a QB battle in fall camp, was there?
Junior quarterback Sheriron Jones threw a pick-six on the first series of the game as the Aggies marched out to leads of 14-0 and 17-7 in the first quarter. He settled down and was effective enough the rest of the way, thanks to some big third-down scrambles to move the chains.
UNM coach Bob Davie was asked earlier in the week whether Jones could create a QB controversy if he played well enough.
Davie doesn’t have to worry.
Jones finished 12 of 19 passing for 127 yards with the interception and had 7 yards on seven carries (due to 25 lost yards on three sacks), but the starting job should be safe for sophomore Tevaka Tuioti when he returns from injury — likely after UNM’s bye week this week.
“We had to grind it out with the running game,” Davie said during his postgame interview on KKOB Radio. “We weren’t going to do a lot of things with the quarterback.”
Davie added that wind was a factor, but Tuioti has been the best UNM QB by far so far in 2018. Jones did miss half of fall camp, which may have added to senior Coltin Gerhart earning the No. 2 spot.
2. As long as the defense forces turnovers, they’ll be fine.
UNM now has picked off seven passes this season, to go along with two fumble recoveries.
The nine total turnovers forced is just four shy of UNM’s season totals of 13 in both 2016 and 2017.
The unit came into the game giving up 567.0 yards per game. Though the Lobos gave up just 368 yards to the Aggies, NMSU came into the game averaging only 228.7 yards per game on offense.
The Lobos also were missing two of their starting linebackers vs. State. Sitivena Tamaivena didn’t make the trip, and the Lobos lost Alex Hart to a knee injury in the first half.
Still, the defense forced the Aggies to use three quarterbacks on Saturday night as none of the NMSU signal-callers could sustain any momentum. Starter Matt Romero and third-stringer Josh Adkins both threw two interceptions and second-stringer Nick Jeanty had one pick.
Game ball to redshirt freshman safety Marcus Hayes for two interceptions, returning the second one for the game-sealing touchdown. His 27-yard punt return in the first quarter set up the Lobos’ first touchdown that stopped the bleeding after the Ags jumped out in front 14-0.
3. Incarnate Word didn’t prepare the Lobos for jack squat.
Tuioti unleashed a passing attack against the lowly Cardinals, the likes of which hadn’t been seen around UNM since the 1990s.
But neither the passing game nor the running attack has progressed since the season opener. Tuioti’s absence has been the primary reason for the regression through the air, but the Lobos still were supposed to be a run-first team.
UNM rushed for 198 yards on 62 carries — an average of 3.2 yards per carry against an NMSU defense that had allowed 5.9 yards per rush coming into the contest.
Neither the offense nor defense has shown any kind of progression over the first three games.
The Lobos would seem to be better served if they opened up against a Texas-El Paso, Texas State, North Texas, UTSA or a similar FBS foe than one of the weaker FCS opponents that serve only to give UNM a 1-0 record to start the season.
4. The running game regression is alarming.
Remember when UNM averaged 350 rushing yards per game? That seems like a million years ago.
The Lobos have placed a greater emphasis on becoming more balanced last year and this year, even backing away from their triple-option attack — that led to the 350-yard average per game in 2016 — in favor of the spread.
But offensive coordinator Calvin Magee’s scheme helped Arizona rank No. 4 in the nation last season.
UNM routinely would rip off 50- or 60-yard runs every game until last season. It has one 60-plus yard run so far this season, a 67-yarder by Zahneer Shuler in the opener that did not go for a touchdown.
The second longest run has been 20 yards.
New Mexico did rush for five touchdowns against the Aggies, but leading rusher Tyrone Owens needed 30 carries to reach 110 yards, and he did have a 20-yard run Saturday. Ahmari Davis added 74 yards and four scores, but he needed 21 carries to do it.
During the bye week, UNM has to figure out how to run the ball better.
5. All that said, a win is a win is a win.
The bottom line, however, is that the Lobos ended a two-game skid against their rival and head into the bye week with a 2-1 record as expected.
They have two weeks to prepare for Liberty and the Mountain West, and the Lobos showed in both 2015 and 2016 that they’re capable of building momentum at any time.
Davie admitted during his news conference this week that the Lobos have some issues. But those issues would be magnified tenfold if they were to return to Albuquerque early Sunday morning coming off a loss.
The team is hopeful of Tuioti’s return from concussion-like symptoms suffered vs. Wisconsin. Hopefully, both Hart and Tamaivena will return.
If UNM can get healthy, hope springs eternal.
“We weathered the storm,” Davie told KKOB, referring to the 14-0 deficit it faced just more than four minutes into the first quarter against the Aggies.
The Lobos have a chance to do the same in their non-conference schedule and get on a roll in October and November.
Now, the hard part begins.
“We’ve got to get better,” Davie said to end the interview.