Feature photo credit UNM Athletic Communications: Lobo WR Aaron Molina hauls in a 21-yard touchdown reception vs. Wyoming on Saturday.
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
It would be only natural for fans of the University of New Mexico football program to feel somewhat encouraged, despite its 23-10 loss at Wyoming in Laramie on Saturday.
The Lobos, 19 1/2-point underdogs, outgained the Cowboys in total yardage and had several opportunities on the Wyoming side of the field. Their defense held the Cowboys offense in check, and quarterback Tevaka Tuioti had a promising return after refusing to enter the game last week against Colorado State.
And far be it for this website to dictate how anyone should feel; however, if you’re one of those feeling encouraged, you’re wrong.
Despite hanging around against a Wyoming team that defeated Missouri in its season opener, there was never a sense that the Lobos could actually pull off the upset.
As a result, UNM (2-5, 0-3) are in increasing danger of accomplishing a dubious feat that never took place under the Mike Locksley era: going winless in Mountain West play.
Here are three takeaways from UNM’s loss to the Cowboys (5-2, 2-1).
1. Saturday’s game represented a Lobo program permeated by a losing culture.
The Lobos amazingly moved the ball to the 50 or in Wyoming territory on their last eight drives (out of 10 total in the game) and somehow managed only two scoring drives.
That is difficult to do.
Time and time again, UNM failed to make a play that resulted in any points or put any pressure on the home team.
And of course, one of the two drives that UNM failed to get the ball out of its side of the field was the result of a Bryson Carroll fumble — the game’s lone turnover — that resulted in a Wyoming first-quarter touchdowns for the only points in the first half.
The fumble by the sophomore was especially frustrating because UNM escaped misfortune on its previous drive when an apparent fumble by quarterback Sheriron Jones was reversed because his knee hit the ground before the ball popped loose.
But the ball-security lesson went unlearned.
Wyoming’s score was also set up by a series of events that only seem to befall losing programs.
The Lobo defense forced the Cowboys to punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 20. The punt snap was high, and Wyoming’s Ryan Galovich was fortunate to snag the ball out of the air with his right hand.
He had to scramble to his right with UNM’s Thomas Viera barrelling down on him. Galovich somehow got the punt off through Viera’s outstretched hands. The hard-luck Viera whiffed on the ball but knocked Galovich down to draw a roughing the kicker penalty.
New Mexico’s defense recovered and stalled the Wyoming drive at the UNM 49. But the Lobos got the ball back deep in its own territory, rather than in good field position, so Carroll’s fumble gave Wyoming a shorter field to drive (36 yards).
2. The defense’s best isn’t good enough.
The Lobos entered Saturday’s game with the worst passing defense in the nation. But the passing game is not the Wyoming offense’s forte with quarterback Sean Chambers. He finished 9 of 15 passing for 86 yards and a touchdown.
And his longest pass of the day — 25 yards to Xavian Valladay — came on the first play after Carroll’s fumble that gave the Cowboys a first down at the UNM 11.
Still, the Cowboys managed 259 rushing yards — the most UNM has allowed this season. Two rushers — Valladay and Chambers — eclipsed the 100-yard mark.
And when the Lobo offense finally managed to score points in the fourth quarter, its defense could not prevent Wyoming from answering each time.
After Andrew Shelley’s 25-yard field goal drew UNM within 13-3 on the first play of the fourth, the Cowboys put together a nine-play, 70-yard touchdown drive with Chambers finding Josh Harshman on a 15-yard pass to push Wyoming’s lead to 20-3.
During the drive, UNM’s Johnny Hernandez intercepted a Chambers pass, but the Lobos were flagged for being offsides (the Cowboys also drew a flag for an ineligible player downfield) to nullify the play.
And when UNM finally got into the end zone on Tuioti’s 21-yard pass to Aaron Molina with 6:31 left to cut the deficit to 20-10, the defense allowed Wyoming to chew up 5:33 of the clock on its ensuing drive to kick a 36-yard field goal and salt the game away.
The big blow of that drive came on third-and-10 at the Wyoming 25, when Chambers scrambled away from UNM pressure and gained 40 yards.
The Lobos should’ve forced the accuracy-challenged Chambers to get the first down through the air but failed to contain him behind the line of scrimmage.
Each time the defense needed to make a stop to create momentum, it failed — not to mention the fact that it failed to create any turnovers.
3. UNM should not have benched Tuioti vs. San Jose State
For the Lobos’ offense to work, it has to be a threat through the air — which it is not with Jones at quarterback. Case in point was Saturday, in which UNM repeatedly drive into Wyoming territory without scoring.
For better or worse, Davie has committed to the spread-option, and Tuioti is clearly the Lobos’ best passing QB.
Tuioti’s performances against Liberty and SJSU were subpar, which led the Lobo coaching staff to insert Jones against the Spartans to provide a spark.
He did, but it wasn’t enough to give UNM a win.
Coach Bob Davie was quoted weeks ago as saying. “We know what Sheriron is” as a quarterback, meaning the staff knows his limitations as a passer.
But Jones’ effort was enough to earn him the start last week vs. Colorado State, and Tuioti exacerbated the QB woes when he declined to start warming up to spell Jones as the Lobos fell behind.
But the coaching staff’s resolve apparently crumbled within a week as it called upon Tuioti on Saturday to try to salvage the game. Was it really worth it to pull him out against the Spartans, instead of riding him out and trying to get him back on track?
The staff knows Jones isn’t the answer at quarterback, despite the effort with which he plays, and it’s evident they don’t have enough trust in redshirt freshman Trae Hall to give him a shot.
Unless offensive coordinator Joe Dailey can figure out some situations to utilize Carroll’s skills as a former quarterback, Tuioti under center gives UNM its best chance to get a win in its final five games.
Otherwise, the Lobos will continue to hope to catch lightning in a bottle with Jones.