By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
The football gods shined on the University of New Mexico football team on Saturday afternoon.
Inept UNLV (2-3) provided perfect fodder for the Lobos (3-2) to turn their season back around in a 50-14 rout of the Rebels in the Mountain West opener in Las Vegas, Nev.
Lobo coach Bob Davie talked earlier in the week about getting his team to focus on technique and assignment, regardless of what happened the previous week.
He also said UNM had to find a way to get momentum, those “football gods” on its side.
“Get better” was Davie’s mantra, and his team listened. The Lobos got better in plenty of areas.
Now, New Mexico has momentum as it continues on the road next week against struggling Colorado State.
Here are five takeaways from UNM’s dominance over UNLV:
1. Momentum is an unpredictable beast
UNM entered the MW opener having played one of the worst first halves in Davie’s tenure in falling behind 42-10 last week to Liberty at halftime.
The Lobos followed that with one of the best first halves — particularly second quarters — in that same Davie span. The defense took advantage of inexperienced UNLV quarterback Max Gilliam’s first start, preventing the Vegas offense from getting a first down until late in the second quarter.
New Mexico also started slowly, but the goal on Saturday was to avoid an early hole, and the team accomplished that.
Once the Lobos realized that the Rebels also were going to have trouble moving the ball, the defense seized momentum late in the first quarter when Evahelotu Tohi intercepted a Gilliam pass and returned it 35 yards to the UNLV 14.
The Lobos scored on a 1-yard Zahneer Shuler run on the first play of the second quarter, and momentum parked on the visitors’ sidelines for the balance of the game.
The Rebels had one chance early in the second half to coax momentum over to its side when Salanoa-Alo Wily forced UNM wide receiver Jay Griffin to fumble at the UNLV 40. UNLV defensive back Demitrious Gibbs recovered and returned it for an apparent touchdown.
Officials, however, inadvertently blew the whistle, making the play dead after Gibbs’ recovery.
The Lobo defense withstood a successful fake punt and forced UNLV to punt the ball on its ensuing possession.
Last week, a running into the kicker penalty nullified a Marcus Hayes 60-yard punt return for a UNM touchdown that would’ve given the Lobos a 14-7 lead.
Flames quarterback Stephen Calvert then found Antonio Gandy-Golden for a 39-yard pass later in the first quarter to the New Mexico 1. Liberty scored to get up 14-7; UNM QB Tevaka Tuioti threw an interception on the next series, and the Flames had all the momentum until UNM’s failed fourth-quarter rally.
2. Maligned UNM defense announces its presence with authority
Credit Lobo defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove for keeping his unit together after a porous outing against Liberty last week.
The defense focused on UNLV’s potent rushing attack early, crowding the line of scrimmage and forcing Rebels backup quarterback Max Gilliam to make plays in the passing game to beat it.
Gilliam, who replaced Vegas starter Armani Rogers, was ill-prepared for his first start.
UNLV, which came into Saturday’s game as the No. 4 rushing offense in the country at 336.5 yards per game, finished with 43 yards rushing against the revitalized UNM D.
Gilliam finished 15-of-35 passing for 123 yards with two meaningless second-half touchdowns and one interception. UNM collected five sacks and paved the way for the Lobo offense.
New Mexico had given up 517.5 yards per game through the first four contests; it gave up 166 on Saturday, recording two turnovers and the five sacks.
3. This is what Bob Davie envisioned for the offense
Offensive coordinator Calvin McGee deserves a lot of credit for his game plan on Saturday. He started off with a rushing attack that was bolstered by a few wrinkles with the fly sweep to Jay Griffin and the use of Patrick Reed to give the Rebels defense something to think about.
The running game was effective enough to force the Rebels to think run first. That allowed quarterback Sheriron Jones to get into the flow of the game and get some big strikes over the top in the second quarter.
UNM’s confidence continued to grow throughout the rest of the half, and Jones looked Tevaka Tuioti-esque in moving the offense up and down the field.
And in another presentation of how strange momentum can be, Reed had two first-half fumbles that didn’t hurt the Lobos at all. One ball bounced harmlessly out of bounds, and the Rebels tried to pick up the other and overran it, allowing Reed to recover the ball when the Lobos were in the UNLV red zone.
New Mexico scored a touchdown three plays later to take a 12-0 lead, and from there, the visitors were in total control.
UNM had 252 rushing yards and 250 passing yards for the game. Now, that’s balance.
4. UNM QB position looks to be in good hands
The game finally appeared to slow down for the transfer Jones.
He arrived on the UNM campus in the summer and then missed a couple of weeks during fall camp with a hamstring injury.
Jones has been pushed into significant playing time because of injuries to Tuioti (first concussion, then broken clavicle) and Coltin Gerhart (sprained toe). Jones has looked largely and justifiably uncomfortable through the first four games.
He started off slowly against UNLV as well. But he avoided a momentum-changing mistake. The Lobos moved the ball some with the running game, and Jones settled into the game in the second quarter, leading the unit to 29 points and a 29-0 lead at the half.
The junior transfer, whose UNM journey started at Tennessee before a pit stop at Mount San Jacinto College, completed 13 of 20 passes for 250 yards and threw four touchdowns for the second consecutive week.
With the Lobos ahead 15-0 in the second quarter, Jones hit wide receiver Elijah Lilly on a perfect strike that went 74 yards for a touchdown, and the floodgates opened.
He connected Anseleem Umeh on a 26-yard TD pass just before halftime and put the game away with a 33-yard strike to Emmanuel Harris to make it 36-0 with 2:25 left in the third quarter.
5. Special teams struggles continue
Resorting to nitpicking in a 50-14 blowout here, but the Lobos special teams always have been stellar during Davie’s seven years.
Kicker Andrew Shelley missed an extra point and had one blocked that could’ve let UNM’s early momentum get away after a 12-0 lead. He did redeem himself with a career-long 44-yard field goal on the Lobos’ next possession for a 15-0 advantage.
Punter Tyson Dyer also had a 14-yard punt in the first quarter, which could’ve affected momentum — but didn’t. He was kicking into the wind but should’ve tried to keep it lower.
And finally, the Rebels successfully converted a fake punt in the third quarter after it forced a UNM fumble.
Those issues must be corrected in upcoming games, in which momentum doesn’t come so easily to the Lobos.