(Feature photo courtesy UNM athletic communications)
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
The beleaguered University of New Mexico football team couldn’t finish Saturday night. Now, its hopes for bowl-eligibility are all but finished for a second consecutive season.
The Lobos blew a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter against San Diego State at Dreamstyle Stadium and ended up losing for the fourth straight game, 31-23.
UNM (3-6, 1-4 Mountain West) rode an inspired, shorthanded defense to a 23-14 advantage with 10:14 left in the game, only to fall apart as a struggling team does.
After the game, coach Bob Davie was asked whether all the distractions during the week had any effect on the game.
“Absolutely not, other than Evah Tohi didn’t play in the game,” Davie said, referring to the senior linebacker’s suspension following an altercation a week ago Saturday that left teammate David Brown hospitalized. “We suspended one player this week; that’s what happened.”
Davie is right. UNM had an upset in its sights. But it made just enough mistakes at the end of the game to allow the Aztecs (7-2, 4-1) to escape with a lethargic effort.
Here are five takeaways from New Mexico’s disappointing loss:
1. About that loser mentality.
Earlier this week, Davie said his program didn’t have a loser mentality. That may be true, but for the last two seasons, the program seems to have developed a losing mentality.
The Lobos were in control of the game with a 23-14 lead midway after a spectacular, one-handed Delane-Hart Johnson catch on a 4-yard reception with 10:07 left in the fourth quarter.
The defense had been doing enough to keep the Aztecs in check all game, forcing three turnovers that resulted in 16 points, and the offense had played error-free ball.
The team as a whole had not committed a penalty all game. And it all fell apart in those final 10 minutes.
The Aztecs marched 75 yards on five plays in 2:38 to pull within 23-21. One of those five plays was a sack, and SDSU faced a second-and-20 and third-and-7 and still got back in the game quickly as quarterback Christian Chapman had completions of 29, 13, 24 and 19 yards.
The UNM offense went three-and-out on its next series as officials overturned a Hart-Johnson catch for a first down, saying the ball hit the ground as Hart-Johnson put his hands on it.
SDSU’s Garrett Binkley then returned Tyson Dyer’s 49-yard punt 34 yards to the Lobos 41 with 5:32 left. On first-and-15, the Lobos committed their first penalty of the game, a roughing the passer call on Rhashaun Epting that helped get SDSU in field goal range for the go-ahead score.
With the Lobos now trailing 24-23, quarterback Coltin Gerhart had a miscommunication on a deep ball with Anselem Umeh on first down, and Luq Barcoo intercepted to give SDSU the ball back at its own 47.
The Aztecs clinched it with a 50-yard Juwan Washington touchdown run for a 31-23 edge with 1:52 left in the game.
It was SDSU’s longest play from scrimmage.
2. Showing grit, the Lobo D acquits. …
UNM entered the game shorthanded, thanks to Tohi’s suspension and Marcus Hayes’ concussion symptoms. Yet, the defense kept the Lobos in the game.
The Aztecs had 365 fewer yards in the first half than USU did last week, and New Mexico led 10-7 at intermission, thanks to a defensive touchdown and a field goal after another SDSU fumble.
The Aztecs, even with quarterback Christian Chapman returning, still lack the dynamic passing attack that other teams have used to gouge the UNM D. But give the Lobos credit for rebounding after last week’s porous performance.
The defense forced three fumbles, which resulted in 16 UNM points. It held the Aztecs to 14 points for the first 55 minutes of the game.
3. But the Lobo offense is in disarray.
Quarterback Coltin Gerhart made his first start of the season, and the offense didn’t make any crippling mistakes.
But it didn’t make any plays longer than 12 yards during the entire game. The Lobos did not embark on any drives longer than 17 yards until the fourth quarter.
Gerhart had minus-8 yards passing in the first half as both his completion went for negative yardage. He finished 9 of 20 for 41 yards, although he did have two TD passes.
He did direct a 57-yard drive, culminating in the 4-yard touchdown pass to Hart-Johnson in the fourth quarter. But without a heroic defensive effort, the offense didn’t do nearly enough to win the game.
UNM finished with 142 yards of total offense, and Tyson Dyer was forced to punt eight times.
Special teams abnormality.
Lobo kicker Andrew Shelley has converted all five of his field goal attempts but missed his fifth extra point (it was blocked) of the year in the third quarter.
That turned out to be a huge miss because that’s what allowed the Aztecs to take the lead on John Baron’s 32-yard field goal with 2:56 left in the game.
So when the Lobo offense came back out onto the field, Gerhart would not have had to try the deep ball that got picked off. UNM could’ve tried to use the close and methodically drive down the field for the winning score.
Dyer also had a decent average on his attempts with a 43.5-yard average, but he had a couple of other chances to pin San Diego State deep was unable.
On his last attempt in the fourth, Dyer outkicked his coverage. His 49-yard boot produced Binkley’s 34-yard return that set up the Aztecs’ go-ahead field goal with 3:00 left in the game.
Hart-Johnson’s lack usage is head-scratching.
The senior finished with five or six targets but just two receptions for 10 yards with a touchdown.
But he has shown that he has the best hands on the team. And while he leads the team with 26 receptions, Hart-Johnson — for whatever reason — does not get the lion’s share of offerings from Lobo QBs.
UNM’s rotation of Tevaka Tuioti, Sheriron Jones and now Gerhart likely has not helped Hart-Johnson in terms of getting on the same page with one QB.
But the offense should be looking how to feature him more often because of his ability to take jump balls away from defenders. He should command 10 targets a game.
Hart-Johnson should be a bigger part of the passing attack, no matter the signal-caller.