(Feature photo courtesy UNM Athletic Communications)
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
Bob Davie has said it so often: His University of New Mexico football team has such a small margin for error.
On Saturday, the Lobos made just enough of them — errors — to let Colorado State eek out a 20-18 victory in Fort Collins, Colo.
The Rams’ winning streak over UNM, seemingly destined for most of the second half to come to an end, now stands at nine games. The Lobos’ last victory came in 2009 in a 29-27 victory at then-University Stadium.
UNM (3-3, 1-1 Mountain West) once again showed tremendous resiliency in rallying from a 14-0 deficit to seize a fourth-quarter lead that lasted until the final play of the game — a 26-yard Bryan Wyatt field goal won it for the Rams (3-4, 2-1) as time expired.
New Mexico is too far along in the season — and in Davie’s tenure — to revel in moral victories. Despite an impressive comeback, this one hurt.
Here are five takeaways from the Lobo loss at Canvas Stadium.
1. Margin of error less than two.
In a game featuring 138 plays, it’s hard to single out any one play that doomed the Lobos. But how about two?
Play No. 1 was senior running back Tyrone Owens’ fumble on the second play from scrimmage. As he was corralled for a 7-yard loss on an outside run, he inexplicably lost control of the football.
Rams defensive lineman Caleb Smith got credit for a forced fumble, but Owens’ lack of ball security allowed the ball to spurt loose, allowing CSU’s Tre Thomas to recover at the UNM 12.
CSU scored two plays later on a 7-yard K.J. Carta-Samuels pass to Preston Williams to give the home team a 7-0 lead and put New Mexico behind the eight-ball for most of the game.
Play No. 2 was UNM’s second-to-last offensive play of the game (if you consider the Lobos’ punt on fourth down to be the last offensive play). With the Lobos clinging to an 18-17 lead, quarterback Sheriron Jones fired a pass to third-string tight end Jeffrey Jones that bounced off the receiver’s hands with 2:09 left in the game
Had Jones caught the ball, UNM would’ve gotten the first down and likely would’ve been able to kill much of the clock and prevent a CSU comeback.
Instead, the incomplete pass stopped the clock, allowing the Rams to conserve their final timeout that they used with three seconds left to send the field goal unit out to win the game.
2. That gutsy third-down pass call that fell incomplete was absolutely the right call.
UNM’s defense had just made a heroic goal-line stand, and Wyatt missed an 18-yard field goal that preserved the visitors’ 18-17 advantage with 2:29 left in the contest.
CSU had all three of its timeouts and used its first two after two Lobo runs pushed the ball to the UNM 25 and a third-and-5.
The Lobos could’ve run the ball again, forcing CSU to call its third timeout and get the ball back with about two minutes left.
Offensive coordinator Calvin Magee wanted a first down. Jones’ pass hit Jeffrey Jones in the hands at the 32. If Jones makes the catch, the Rams can only stop the clock once, and the Lobos can run off at least 90 more seconds off the clock.
It’s not a stretch to think UNM could’ve run out the clock against a demoralized CSU defense after the Rams missed a chip-shot field goal.
AT&T Sports Network analyst Sed Bonner said the play should’ve been designed for Delane Hart-Johnson or Elijah Lilly. But Jones was open enough and had the ball hit his hands. He just didn’t execute the catch.
You can’t fault Magee for going for the win at that moment.
The Lobos also showed guts when they kicked the extra point midway through the third quarter to cut CSU’s lead to 14-10. The Rams were offsides on the play, and UNM then opted to go for the 2-point conversion.
Sheriron Jones plunged into the end zone to make the score 14-11.
3. UNM’s pass defense remains an Achilles’ heel.
The Rams’ bread and butter in their first eight wins of the streak vs. the Lobos was their running attack. However, they averaged only 113.7 yards rushing per game this season.
But Carta-Samuels still made big plays against UNM’s struggling pass defense. He completed 24 of 42 passes for 311 yards and a touchdown.
The Rams senior completed two huge passes on their last drive that put them in field goal range. He started the series with a 16-yard pass to Warren Jackson, and his 18-yard pass to tight end Cameron Butler moved the ball to the UNM 9.
He had other throws that hurt the Lobo secondary.
Carta-Samuels completed a 23-yard pass on a third-and-6 that kept CSU’s second-quarter drive alive that resulted in a touchdown.
Carta-Samuels’ 45-yard pass to Olabisi Johnson in the third quarter set up the Rams with a first down in the UNM red zone. The Lobos stiffened as the Rams tried to run the ball into the end zone, and the home team had to settle for a field goal and a 17-11 lead.
And the CSU QB threw a perfect strike to a streaking Williams, who had beaten his man, in the first quarter for a sure touchdown. Williams dropped the ball.
It happens (see No. 2).
4. The Lobos need their triple-option back.
The Rams, up 7-0, seized momentum in the game when they had their own defensive stance in the second quarter by stopping UNM’s Zahneer Shuler for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the CSU 4.
The Rams then marched 96 yards, extending the drive on their own fourth-and-1 at then UNM 3 with Izzy Matthews’ 2-yard run that led to Carta-Samuels’ 1-yard TD boot run on the next play.
In years past, a fourth-and-1 for UNM was not a stressful situation because the triple-option was so potent that it seemed almost automatic.
But without an experienced backup, the Lobos can’t afford to put Jones in the triple-option. They badly need Coltin Gerhart to return from his foot injury, or they need to teach Patrick Reed some triple-option plays for third- and fourth-and-short situations.
Without that in their arsenal, UNM is going to struggle against the teams left on their schedule, meaning. …
5. UNM will be hard-pressed to become bowl-eligible after the loss.
The Lobos’ reward for their “moral victory” on Saturday is a home date next week with MW Pacific Division stalwart Fresno State.
After that, it’s a road game at MW Mountain Division stalwart Utah State. Then it’s back home against fellow MW Pacific Division stalwart San Diego State.
And Boise State is still on the schedule in Game No. 11 at Dreamstyle Stadium on a Friday night.
UNM certainly is capable of stealing a victory against one of those teams and keeping its bowl hopes alive. Expecting a 2-2 mark in those four games might be harder to complete.
Because, as previously stated, the Lobos’ margin of error in each game, is almost nothing. They’d have to play one or two almost-perfect games to get those wins.
And even then, that leaves UNM saddled with Wyoming and Air Force as the other games in its schedule.
It’s definitely an uphill battle.