(Photo credit: Lobophotostore.com)
By Greg Archuleta
It’s a question that should’ve been asked before Saturday night’s game at Dreamstyle Stadium.
It’s a question that is screaming for an answer following the University of New Mexico’s 52-43 loss to FBS newcomer Liberty.
The question: Why did UNM even schedule Liberty in the first place (Stay tuned for Takeaway No. 5)?
The Flames torched the Lobos for 417 passing yards and shocked the 18,804 in attendance (or announced in attendance) by outscoring the home team 42-10 at halftime. And that included UNM going through the Liberty defense on its opening possession for a 7-0 lead just 81 seconds into the game.
UNM likely lost quarterback Tevaka Tuioti for the season after he broke his clavicle on his non-throwing shoulder in the second quarter.
The shellshocked Lobo defense insisted on playing single coverage all night against Flames wide receivers Antonio Gandy-Golden and B.J. Farrow and continued to get burned all night, negating a fantastic second effort in which the Lobos closed within six points at 49-43 with five minutes left in the game.
Instead of finishing its non-conference portion with a 3-1 record, the Lobos now travel to UNLV next week to start Mountain West play with serious questions in all three phases.
Here are five takeaways from the loss to the Flames (2-2), who earned their first-ever road win over an FBS school.
1. The triple-option is dead …
With Tuioti out for the season and Coltin Gerhart still a couple of weeks away from returning from a sprained foot he suffered in the season opener, the Lobos are down to one viable quarterback in Sheriron Jones, whose two second-half interceptions derailed what would have been a comeback for the ages on his part.
Coach Bob Davie said UNM cannot afford to put Jones, who finished with career highs in passing yards (312) and touchdown passes (four), in harm’s way in the triple option.
The silver lining from Saturday night’s loss is that senior wide receiver Delane Hart-Johnson finally stepped back into the limelight a bit, leading the team with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
He has tantalized with his talent ever since his 92-yard touchdown reception against Arizona in the 2015 New Mexico Bowl. If he can start making plays with consistency, UNM should still produce offensively.
Just don’t expect those 60-yard options or 70-yard runs up the middle for touchdowns that running back Tyrone Owens was a part of in the triple-option of yesteryear.
2. … But the Lobos still must run the football effectively to win conference games
Offensive coordinator Calvin Magee’s Arizona offense led the Pac-12 and ranked fourth nationally in rushing offense in 2017. UNM cannot dismiss its offensive identity since Davie arrived at UNM in 2012 and expect to compete in the Mountain West.
The Lobos are averaging 4.1 yards per rush so far in 2018 — a full yard below its lowest average yards per rush in a season during Davie’s tenure of 5.1 in 2015 (the next lowest was 5.8 yards per carry in 2012).
Jones will improve at quarterback as he accumulates more starts, but he has thrown six interceptions so far this season. UNM cannot hope to compete if he continues at his present rate of one interception for every 11 passes.
Ironically, when the Lobos rushed the ball more effectively in the second half — they had 16 carries for 128 yards compared to 21 carries for 83 yards in the first half (granted, they were down 32 to start the second half) — they were able to score 33 second-half points and got close to pulling off the miracle upset.
Both Tuioti and Jones had nice runs vs. Liberty, but Owens and fellow RB Ahmari Davis have to be able to move the chains because …
3. The defense has to create turnovers to have a chance to stop opposing offenses
The unit is allowing 517.5 yards per game, and three of the four UNM foes aren’t exactly considered the cream of the crop.
Gandy-Golden finished with 11 receptions for a Liberty school-record 245 yards and a touchdown. Farrow “only” had seven catches for 122 yards and a score.
Part of the defense’s issues is the offense’s inability to run the football effectively, keep possession of the football and run clock.
In years past, the Lobo defense benefited from the opposing offense’s inability to get in a rhythm because UNM’s offense was on the field so much.
Without the offense’s help, the defense has struggled, and that was before it lost middle linebacker Alex Hart and defensive end Trent Sellers for the season. Davie admitted during Saturday night’s postgame news conference that neither Hart nor Sellers would’ve made a difference against Liberty.
The defense has not been able to create consistent pressure on the quarterback — outside linebacker Rashad Epting has 4.5 of the team’s eight sacks, and the unit so far has only produced 22 tackles for loss.
UNM did get a first-half interception against Liberty QB Stephen Calvert that resulted in three points, but that was the lone turnover the defense generated. It has to get three or four a game for the Lobos to have a chance in any game the rest of the way.
Because it doesn’t look like the unit will be stopping any offenses with any consistency this season.
4. Special teams need to do a 180 turnaround, and do it fast!
Part of the ascension the Lobos were able to make under Davie from 2012-2016 was their stellar special teams play.
Special teams may have been a bigger culprit than either the offense or defense in the stunning loss to the Flames.
A running-into-the-kicker penalty nullified a 60-yard Marcus Hayes punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter that would’ve given UNM a 14-7 lead.
In the second quarter, Liberty’s Corbin Jackson blocked Tyson Dyer’s punt for UNM and took over at the Lobos 1. The Flames scored on the next play to take a 35-10 lead.
Then in the second half, kicker Andrew Shelly missed an extra point on New Mexico’s first touchdown, making the score 42-16.
UNM later went for a two-point conversion to try to recover the missed extra point and failed, making the score 42-29 Liberty just a minute into the fourth.
Had Shelly made his PAT, the Lobos wouldn’t have had to try a 2-point conversion later. What turned out to be Liberty’s game-clinching 22-yard field goal with 1:02 left in the game would still have been a one-possession game and a 52-45 score.
5. The Lobos were in a no-win situation even scheduling Liberty
In a year in which UNM already was scheduled to play Incarnate Word, UNM was foolish to schedule Liberty (or if the Liberty game was scheduled first, Incarnate Word never should’be been on the same schedule).
The program has struggled to fill seats during the Davie era — even when the team won seven and nine games in 2015-16, respectively. The Flames drew a Lobo crowd of less than 19,000 for a program that was trying for its first 3-1 start in 11 years.
Scheduling Liberty made absolutely no sense for UNM. The school has no name recognition, other than it returned former Lobo men’s basketball coach Ritchie McKay to a head coaching position there.
Fans weren’t going to flock to Dreamstyle Stadium to see Liberty. And had the Lobos beaten Liberty like they beat Incarnate Word, that would not have impressed the fickle Albuquerque fan base. No one outside the UNM South Campus would’ve cared about a win over Liberty.
A win might’ve given the Lobos some confidence in going 3-1 in their non-conference portion of the schedule, but padding their record seemed like a high-risk, low-reward proposition going into the game.
And now that the Lobos have lost, the effect could be devastating.
UNM plays its next two games on the road — at UNLV and at Colorado State. If the team doesn’t give its fans a reason for hope, the next home game on Oct. 20 against Fresno State — which crushed the Lobos 38-0 last season in Fresno, Calif., — could be a ghost town.
And instead of gaining confidence, the Lobos have serious questions in all three phases going into conference play.
Given them Liberty? Right now, it feels like death.