Saturday: Liberty at New Mexico
Time: 4 p.m.
Location: Dreamstyle Stadium
Radio: KKOB 94.5 FM, 770 AM
Line: UNM favored by 7
By Greg Archuleta
The University of New Mexico football team has an opportunity on Saturday to do something positive for the first time in 11 years.
But in the eyes of the average Lobo fan, the message may be — to borrow a line from the classic Green Day song:
“Wake me up, when September ends.”
UNM (2-1) will try to start the season with a 3-1 record for the first time since 2007 when it faces the Liberty Flames (1-2) on Saturday at Dreamstyle Stadium. There might not be quite as much excitement over the prospects of this year’s team moving to 3-1.
Among the non-conference conquests the ’07 Lobo team had was the Arizona Wildcats, whom UNM beat on the road. That team also beat New Mexico State and Sacramento State, and lost to UTEP to open the season.
The 2018 edition has wins over Incarnate Word and New Mexico State, and it’s most impressive game could be its 45-14 loss at then-No. 5 Wisconsin.
The way the non-conference schedule laid out, a 3-1 start was and is expected.
Still, a 3-1 start could be a significant confidence booster for the program, which used a 6-0 start in 1997 during then-coach Dennis Franchione’s final campaign to qualify for its first bowl game in 36 years.
UNM coach Bob Davie has had more recent history on his mind in getting his team ready to play the Flames.
Last season, the Lobos were 3-2 when they went on their bye week, having 14 days to prepare for a road game at Fresno State.
The Bulldogs wiped out UNM 38-0, and the Lobos never recovered. They lost their last seven games of 2017 to finish 3-9.
“Fresno ended up being a heck of a team, but we didn’t play very good,” Davie said. “What that said, we’ve altered a little bit of how we’ve done things (during the bye week) — probably practicing a little heavier, a little harder. … Hopefully, we’ve put the open date to good use.”
Davie said early in the week that he didn’t know which quarterback UNM would start on Saturday — sophomore Tevaka Tuioti is back after suffering a concussion in the Week 2 loss to Wisconsin and missing the Sept. 15 rivalry game at New Mexico State.
Junior Sheriron Jones guided the Lobos to the 42-25 win over the Aggies and had a productive bye week of practice, Davie said.
However, Tuioti so far has looked stronger this season in the running the offense, especially in the passing attack, than Jones.
The bigger concern for the Lobos likely would be trying to fill the shoes of injured senior middle linebacker Alex Hart, who tore an ACL landing awkwardly after a missed sack attempt at NMSU.
Hart was the player in charge of lining up the defense correctly based on the offensive formation.
UNM also has lost junior defense end Trent Sellers. Its secondary has picked up its game in the loss of the Lobo duo.
The seven interceptions the defense has recorded in 2018 already is one more than the unit recorded in all of 2017.
“Defensively, we’ve helped ourselves in the secondary a little bit,” Davie said. “One of our potential strengths is putting guys out there with ball skills. We’ve got some DBs with some ball skills.
“We haven’t played as aggressive or as sudden as I would’ve liked on defense.”
That bodes well going against a Liberty offense that is averaging 294.0 yards per game through the air behind junior quarterback Stephen Calvert. He has seven touchdown passes and two interceptions for a team that beat West Virginia conqueror Old Dominion 52-10 in the season opener.
If the Lobos want to get Tuioti, assuming he’s the starter, back into a rhythm in UNM’s passing attack, the Flames might provide a stiff test.
They have allowed just 139.3 passing yards per game, which would rank tied for fourth in the nation with Michigan and Southern Miss if Liberty were not a provisional FBS member in 2018 (this is the Flames first year in the FBS).
“On offense, our liability is we’re not as experienced as a Liberty would be in the passing game in the suddenness of reads, playing as fast as we’re capable,” Davie said.
Much of that is due to the injury to Tuioti and the inexperience of Jones.
Liberty’s Achilles’ Heel is its run defense, which gives up an average of 308 yards per game, which would put the unit 128th among 130 FBS schools (including the Flames).
While a win would put New Mexico at 3-1 when September ends, the game also figures to be an important gauge of what it needs to work on when it travels to UNLV on Oct. 6 to kick off Mountain West play.
A 4-1 start would be the school’s first since that magical 1997 run under Franchione. For that to happen, the Lobos need to take care of business on Saturday, no matter how pretty or ugly.
Or to sum up in Green Day terms, a win over the Flames would feel like a “Holiday.” A loss would be akin to a “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”