Saturday: New Mexico at UNLV
Time: 2 p.m. Mountain Time
Location: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nev.
TV: AT&T Sports Network
Radio: KKOB FM (94.5), AM (770)
Line: UNLV favored by 8 1/2 (down from opening line of 13)
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
To say that the fifth game of a 12-game season is a critical point in the road for the University of New Mexico football team may seem to be a bit premature.
But it’s not.
The Lobos (2-2) hit the road to start Mountain West play on Saturday when it travels to Las Vegas, Nev., to take on the UNLV Rebels (2-2).
UNM is at a crossroads, having lost 52-43 at home to Liberty last weekend and with upcoming games on the road against the Rebels and Colorado State (1-4) over the next two weeks.
After that, four of the next five Lobo games come against the conference elite — Fresno State, Utah State, San Diego State and Boise State (with Air Force squeezed between SDSU and BSU). The next three games following the two-game road trip feature teams with a combined 9-3 record (Bulldogs, Aggies, Aztecs).
New Mexico faced similar forks in the road in 2016 when it started 2-3 and facing a neutral site game against Air Force and again last season when was 3-2 going on the road to Fresno.
The Lobos beat Air Force 45-40 two years ago, which kickstarted a 7-1 record to finish that season. UNM’s 38-0 loss to the Bulldogs marked the first of seven consecutive losses to cap 2017.
“There are football gods,” coach Bob Davie said. “Our margin of error is so small week to week.
“You’re always one play away from gaining momentum, but you have to (play the right technique) and make a play to do it. So it always comes back to the X’s and O’s and the execution of things.”
The past two seasons have shown how momentum affects that limited margin of error and impacts the team’s ability to execute well enough for 60 minutes to put itself in position to win a game.
The broken clavicle injury to starting quarterback Tevaka Tuioti and the sprained foot injury that still has backup Coltin Gerhart sidelines is forcing UNM to go away from the identity its had during Davie’s tenure.
The Lobos can’t run the triple option because it can’t risk its current starting quarterback, Sheriron Jones, getting hurt.
With Jones as the lone quarterback with experience — UNM true freshman Trae Hall is currently No. 2 and senior quarterback-turned-wide-receiver-turned-back-to-quarterback Patrick Reed is No. 3 on the depth chart — the Lobos have to fast-track the implementation of their passing attack.
And that’s where UNM could be at a disadvantage offensively — having to execute the passing game at a high level for the entire game.
The Rebels’ defense, meanwhile, gives up a respectable 210.5 passing yards per game to rank 52nd nationally. Also, UNLV has 11 sacks on the season, matching its total from the entire 2017 season.
Vegas, however, also enters Saturday’s game at less than full strength. Quarterback Armani Rogers, No. 9 in the nation in rushing with an average of 122 yards per carry, will not play because of a toe injury.
Sophomore Max Gilliam will make his first start in Rogers’ place, and the change could have an impact on UNLV’s third-ranked rushing offense at 336.5 yards per game. The Rebels still are armed with senior running back Lexington Thomas, the No. 14 rusher in the county with an average of 116.3 yards per game.
UNLV averages only 92.2 passing yards per game, which could represent both good and bad news for the Lobos’ struggling defense.
New Mexico is giving up 298.5 passing yards per game, which is 119th among 129 FBS teams (not including Liberty), but it is also tied for fourth nationally with eight interceptions.
But for UNM to choose the correct path at the crossroads, it has to eliminate its own mistakes that have been costly through the first four games.
The Lobos are averaging 7.25 penalties per game, which is a big liability for a team with little margin for error. Two penalties this season have wiped out returns for touchdowns (one kick return and one punt return).
UNM also has committed 11 turnovers in four games, has missed two extra points and had a punt blocked.
One attribute that isn’t an issue so far is the Lobos’ determination. They bounced back from a 14-0 deficit to beat New Mexico State on Sept. 15 and closed a 32-point deficit to 49-43 against Liberty late in the fourth quarter.
“We have issues,” Davie conceded. “But the fact that we do have a group of guys that are resilient enough and tough enough and care enough that we’re able to make that kind of comeback, that gives you hope.”
Davie’s task is to instill that sense of urgency at the opening kickoff, not when the other team has momentum squarely in its corner.
Fix that, and UNM just might be able to come back from condition critical.
Failure to fix could lead to a replay of the way 2017 ended.