FEATURE PHOTO COURTESY OF UNM ATHLETICS: Lobo senior quarterback Sheriron Jones (4) runs for positive yardage against the Sam Houston State defense on Saturday night, giving the offense an added dimension that helped them hold off the Bearkats
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
The University of New Mexico football team showed a lot of room for improvement following its 39-31 victory over Sam Houston State in its 2019 season opener, a game that lost a lot of significance following the news of Lobo coach Bob Davie leaving the game in an ambulance.
The Lobos looked dominant at times — primarily in the opening 15 minutes, 3 seconds as they took a 16-0 lead. They struggled at other times as the visiting Bearkats took a 23-22 lead with 12:40 left in the third quarter.
Behind Sheriron Jones, who is used to coming in to replace an injured starting quarterback, UNM controlled the next 20 minutes of the game to take a seemingly commanding 39-23 advantage with 7:40 left in the game.
But SHSU scored with 3:01 left, converted the two-point attempt and recovered the ensuing onsides kick. The Bearkats moved the ball to the Lobo 22 before the UNM defense pushed SHSU back to the 35 and turned the ball over on downs.
New Mexico now has two weeks to prepare for its trip to South Bend, Ind., to face No. 9 Notre Dame. Obviously, everything takes a back seat to Davie’s health moving forward.
That said, here are three takeaways from the season opener that UNM must address on the field before the Sept. 14 visit to the Fighting Irish.
1. The Lobos won’t be marrying the spread-option with the triple-option because the triple-option is dead.
Junior college transfer Brandt Hughes started the game for the Lobos and did an adequate job for a player making his first start in an FBS game.
He completed 12 of 29 passes for 218 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions while playing the first half. He suffered a shoulder injury and did not return in the second half.
Mystifyingly, Hughes did not carry the football once in the first half. Not only did the Lobos not do any triple-option sets, but it could be argued that they weren’t in a spread-option attack without the QB running with the ball.
Sam Houston State may have been preparing for more of UNM’s QB running the football. Hughes got some good chunks of yards through the air and running back Ahmari Davis broke free for a 43-yard touchdown that helped the Lobos put up 22-first-half points.
It was Jones, not Tevaka Tuioti, who replaced Hughes in the second half. After some initial hesitation, Jones did keep the ball on some dive options, and that seemed to help UNM’s offense.
Jones rushed for 35 yards on six carries and scored both Lobo second-half TDs on runs of 11 yards and 7 yards late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.
That helped Jones’ passing. He was a bit more accurate than Hughes, completing 6 of 11 for 122 yards.
2. We’re still waiting for the “attack” in UNM’s attacking defense
To be fair, the “new-look” Lobo defense did collect three sacks and had six quarterback hurries to with a forced fumble.
That’s … the good news?
In other news, Sam Houston State finished with 558 total yards and 443 passing yards. Again, those stats come with caveats. It took the Bearkats 95 plays to total the 558 yards and 60 passes to get to 443 yards in the air.
But several Bearkats wide receivers were open and either dropped passes or has passes overthrown on several occasions.
Such could be a preview for the season ahead for the Lobo defense as the result of UNM’s offense no longer cares about ball or clock control.
The Lobos played most of the game without nose tackle Aaron Blackwell, who appeared to hurt his right leg while trying to chase down SHSU quarterback Ty Brock in the first quarter.
That may have hurt UNM’s ability to provide pressure. But defensive end Trent Sellers’ long-awaited debut produced one tackle and one QBH. He did hustle to recover a fumble on a screen pass when Lobo DB De’John Rogers hit on Bearkats WR Coree Compton popped the ball in the air.
But the defense better get a lot more disruptive to give the team a better chance against better competition ahead on the schedule.
3. Tevaka Tuioti remains UNM’s best hope to get the program back on track in 2019.
Hughes would improve with more playing time; Jones played about as well as he did during his better games in 2018.
But the Lobos converted 1 of 15 third-down attempts and still punted nine times. Tuioti is more accurate than Jones and Hughes — at least for Hughes’ first game.
The coaching staff must have thought that the traveling and emotional energy Tuioti spent while tending to his sick grandfather who ultimately passed away, combined with his lack of preparation made it necessary to keep him on the bench for the first game.
With two weeks to prepare for Notre Dame, Tuioti should assume his rightful spot atop the depth chart at quarterback. He is a run-pass threat UNM needs for multiple reasons.
Tuioti should be able to help the Lobos sustain more drives with his accuracy and running ability.
UNM, however, may be hesitant to use rely on Tuioti’s legs for more than a couple of plays a game, given Tuioti’s own injury history.
Saturday’s game showed how important the quarterback’s rushing ability is to move the football.
It also exposed a wide receiver corps that did not consistently create separation against an FCS defense. That makes Tuioti’s accuracy an even greater trait in UNM’s hopes of erasing their matching 3-9 records in 2017 and 2018.