FEATURE PHOTO COURTESY UNM ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
The good news is that the University of New Mexico’s reported missing defense turned up in Lynchburg, Va.
The bad news is that the Lobo offense didn’t join the search party to the East Coast.
UNM limited Liberty’s high-powered offense to 17 points, but that still wasn’t enough to help the visitors get to 3-1 for the first time since 2007 as the Flames topped the Lobos 17-10 on Saturday.
Unlike last year’s 52-43 Liberty win in Dreamstyle Stadium — and New Mexico’s 55-52 victory over New Mexico State in the same venue last week — the defenses kept coming up with the big play, and the offenses kept blowing scoring chances.
In the process, New Mexico also blew a golden opportunity to enter Mountain West play with some momentum.
Here are three takeaways from the Lobos’ loss to the Flames
1. Bob Davie’s return failed to inspire all the troops
Lobo head coach Bob Davie made his way back to the game day sidelines for the first time since his “serious medical condition” occurred immediately after the season opener against Sam Houston State.
It could be argued that Davie, whose reputation is that of a defensive coach, inspired UNM’s D, which entered Saturday’s game allowing 49.7 yards per game and 404 passing yards per game.
The Lobos held Liberty quarterback Steven Calvert to 306 passing yards — 98 below that season average and 111 yards fewer than his output vs. UNM in 2018.
Similarly, while wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden finished with six receptions for 144 yards and a touchdown, it was also a more muted performance than his 11 catches, 245 yards and a TD last year.
The Lobos held Liberty to 4 of 12 on third-down conversions and 0 of 1 on fourth-down chances. The Flames also fumbled inside the UNM 5 on one possession and missed a 32-yard field goal on another.
The offense, however, was a shell of the potency it showed against New Mexico State. QB Tevaka Tuioti was 12 of 26 for 139 yards with one TD and two costly interceptions.
The Lobos ran the ball well enough, to the tune of 223 yards on 43 carries. But it went 1 of 3 in the red zone and couldn’t get the ball past the goal line until 40 seconds left in the game.
UNM trailed by double digits most of the second half, despite the final score, and never could threaten to wrest control of the game away from the Flames.
The Lobos seemingly had a lot to play for on but still came away empty-handed. That’s troubling.
2. Maybe we crowned Tevaka the offensive savior too soon.
Despite throwing for a career-high 355 yards last week against New Mexico State, Tuioti showed some rust from lack of serious playing time since last year’s game vs. Liberty, in which Tuioti suffered a broken clavicle.
Saturday’s game was his first road start since he suffered a concussion last year in a 45-14 loss at nationally-ranked Wisconsin.
It’s another reason why the coaching staff should’ve made every attempt to get him more playing time the first two games of the season.
Tuioti and his receivers both appeared out of sync for much of the game. Liberty’s defense certainly deserves a lot of the credit, and MW foes now have some video on things to do in the passing game to slow down the Lobo signal-caller.
Certainly, one game is no cause for panic, but Saturday’s game also showed that one game (last week) isn’t cause to anoint Tuioti as a Heisman Trophy candidate, either.
Chances are that the MW defenses the Lobos are scheduled to face aren’t as forgiving as that of New Mexico State, which fell to 0-5 after a 30-17 loss at home to Fresno State.
But Tuioti showed that he can’t afford to have a bad game and hope that the rest of the team picks him up.
3. The loss to Liberty shows why UNM has to be a run-first offense.
UNM’s longest pass on Saturday was 22 yards. Running back Ahmari Davis had a 35-yard run, and Tuioti had a 33-yard run. Back when the Lobos were a triple-option offense, they had one of the most explosive schemes in the country — thanks to the run.
UNM also was 9 of 17 on third down because of its 5.2 yards per rush against the Flames.
The backfield has a three-headed monster in the running game in Davis, who finished with 99 yards, Tuioti, who had 61 and Bryson Carroll, who had 57 yards.
The Lobos did have 43 carries to only 26 pass attempts on Saturday, but that disparity probably should have been greater.
WR Jordan Kress, who had a breakout game vs. NMSU with three catches for 122 yards and two scores, went without a reception vs. Liberty. New Mexico just doesn’t have that dominant pass-catcher that is good for five receptions per game.
Davis is proving each week he can get the tough yards, but the Lobos have to figure out how to get Carroll more touches because of his quick feet and breakaway speed. Surely, offensive coordinator Joe Dailey has something in his bag of tricks as conference play approaches to use Carroll’s quarterback skills to create big plays.
Running the ball shortens the game and has more potential to keep the game close — as it did on Saturday. Liberty ran just 67 plays, compared to Sam Houston State’s 95 and New Mexico State’s 81 (including 51 in the first half).
The Lobos can win shootouts against the likes of Sam Houston State and New Mexico State. They stand a much better chance in MW play if they can dominate time of possession.