(PHOTO COURTESY UNM ATHLETICS)
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
If you like offense, the University of New Mexico South Campus was the place to be on Saturday afternoon.
If you like defense … boy are you in the wrong state.
Quarterback Tevaka Tuioti made his first start in nearly a year and threw for a career-high 355 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Lobos to a 55-52 scorefest victory over in-state rival New Mexico State in Dreamstyle Stadium.
The Lobos and Aggies combined for 1,087 yards and 12 offensive touchdowns. It may be unfair to completely disparage the UNM defense as safety Jerrick Reed II opened the scoring with a 43-yard interception return for a touchdown 39 seconds into the game.
That and Devin Sanders’ block of a 44-yard field-goal attempt by the Aggies’ Dylan Brown late in the third quarter proved to be enough to keep the team down south at bay.
NMSU dominated the first quarter but led only 17-14 because of the pick-six and then later rallied from a 55-38 fourth-quarter deficit. But its defense could not get the ball back for its offense at the end of the game, resulting in the Aggies 0-4 start to 2019.
As for UNM, to borrow a phrase from Bob Uecker in the movie, “Major League:” In case you haven’t noticed — and judging by the attendance, you haven’t — the Lobos are 2-1 heading to Virginia next week for a date with Liberty University.
New Mexico certainly has shown tremendous room for improvement in both its wins. and the script has hardly gone to plan — except for the bottom line: two wins in three games.
1. The Lobos have to keep Tuioti healthy for any shot at the postseason.
Tuioti still showed some rust, especially early as he twice overthrew a wide-open Elijah Lilly — on the first chance, no Aggie was within 10 yards of Lilly at the goal line.
But Tuioti settled in and completed 16 of 28 passes and had four plays of more than 40 yards that showed UNM’s spread-option at its most potent since head coach Bob Davie decided to transition away from the triple-option last year.
Along the way, Tuioti discovered some new weapons that the Lobos can use as it gets closer to Mountain West play.
Junior college transfer Jordan Kress had three catches for 122 yards with two touchdowns. He scored on receptions of 55 and 20 yards and had another 47-yard catch. Cedric Paterson III had a 62-yard TD reception.
UNM’s newfound big-play capacity should serve it well against conference foes. And it opened up the run game for Tuioti, who had seven carries for 59 yards.
Tuioti’s first carry provided a scare for UNM fans as he was hit hard trying — and failing — to get a first down.
After that, Tuioti, who suffered a concussion that forced him to miss one game and then broke his clavicle that forced out of the final eight games of 2018, also showed a much better ability to employ a slide before the defense could get to him.
With Tuioti posing a run/pass threat, running back Ahmari Davis rumbled for 133 yards and two TDs on 28 carries.
2. A different story on defense. …
The good news is that the UNM seems to improve when momentum is on its side. Last week against Notre Dame, the defense, led by linebacker Alex Hart, was flying around in the first quarter and making life difficult for the Irish.
Likewise, as the Lobo offense heated up late in the third quarter and early in the fourth for three touchdowns, the defense was at its best.
After Tuioti drove UNM 75 yards on 12 plays for a go-ahead score and a 41-38 lead with 3:45 left in the third, NMSU’s Jason Huntley returned the ensuing kickoff 71 yards to the Lobo 27.
The Lobos then increased the lead to 48-38 after Tuioti’s hook-up with Patterson III. The defense responded with one of its two sacks in the game and forced another three-and-out.
The bad news is that the defense also almost as quickly allowed NMSU back in the game after taking a 55-38 lead. The Aggies marched 75 yards on 10 plays in only two minutes, 49 seconds to cut the lead to 55-45.
The visitors got the ball back on Tuioti’s only interception of the game on a questionable deep-pass call. With the momentum gone, UNM’s defense allowed NMSU to march 51 yards in five plays to cut the Lobo advantage to 55-52 with 5:22 left.
NMSU was averaging 9.0 points per game before arriving at Dreamstyle Stadium and put up 52 points on the leaky Lobo defense.
UNM was supposed to be a pressured-based defense this season, and losing nose tackle Aaron Blackwell for the season in the opener against Sam Houston State hasn’t helped, but the unit has just six sacks and is giving up a robust 546 yards per game, 404 passing yards per game and 49.7 points per game.
Most problematic is that it’s hard to see what adjustments UNM can make to improve. The Lobos may have to survive shootouts the rest of the season.
3. Is it too late to go back to the triple-option?
At the outset, the point is probably moot because UNM is not going to put Tuioti at any more risk than absolutely necessary, and in the triple option, he has to be more of a ball-carrier.
That said, the triple-option would cure a lot of ills.
First, UNM seems to have the right personnel to run the triple-option. Former quarterback Bryson Carroll’s emergence at running back provides the speed the Lobos have lacked since Teriyon Gipson last played for UNM in 2016.
Carroll has extremely quick feet and has shown a great burst and ability to cut. He is a threat to turn a run into a 70-yard gain. He would be the burst complement to the physical Davis.
Throw in Tuioti’s passing ability, and UNM could be unstoppable on offense.
And perhaps the biggest benefit of the triple-option is that it would keep UNM’s offense on the field and keep UNM’s defense off the field. That would help the front seven’s attempts to apply pressure because it would have to play fewer plays on defense and be able to go harder after the QB.
During the first half Saturday, the Aggies ran 51 plays and gained 306 yards as the team went into their locker rooms tied at 31 at intermission. NMSU ran only 30 plays in the second half, which helped UNM gain the advantage.
Sam Houston State ran 95 plays against the Lobos as well.
And of course, the more the number of shootouts UNM have to play, the more vulnerable that makes Tuioti as he has to keep dropping back to pass amid opponents pressure.
UNM has to find some way to control more of the clock. It has a nearly three-minute advantage in time of possession now but really needs to keep the football about 35 minutes a game to protect the defense.
That’s what the triple-option does. The spread-option is predicated on running a lot of plays on offense. It worked Saturday night.
It’s a big gamble for the Lobos to try to make it work for the entire season.
Greg Archuleta is the assistant editor at Enchantment Sports. He was the New Mexico Lobo football beat writer for the Albuquerque Journal for 12 years and worked as a professional journalist for more than two decades. Look for Greg’s “Koz and Effect” columns throughout the football season. Koz? You can as him why, or reach him with any other tidbits, tips or inquiries at enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.