Austin Apodaca, Gabriel Sewell, Jarid Joseph, Elijah Mitchell

New Mexico quarterback Austin Apodaca (10) breaks away from Nevada defensive back Elijah Mitchell (28), linebacker Gabriel Sewell (7) and defensive end Jarid Joseph during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

When Bob Davie took over as New Mexico’s head football coach prior to the 2012 season, he faced a major rebuilding process.

From 2008-11, the Lobos only won eight of 40 games. However, things have gotten much better in Albuquerque over the past two years.

After back-to-back-to-back three-or four-win seasons, New Mexico won seven games a year ago and made its first bowl appearance since 2007. The Lobos have maintained their momentum in 2016 as they are currently 6-3 and tied with Boise State for second place in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West.

“I know it means a lot for me and all the seniors, the guys that have been here through it all,” UNM senior linebacker Dakota Cox told the Albuquerque Journal earlier this week. “We’ve been through the losing seasons. … So we’re just excited to create kind of a culture of winning, just continue to build off that.”

New Mexico will look to extend its winning streak to five when it squares off against Utah State tonight in Logan. The opening kickoff from Maverik Stadium is scheduled for 8:15 p.m.

One of the biggest reasons the Lobos (6-3, 4-1 MW) are on the roll is their vaunted rushing attack. New Mexico ranks first nationally in rushing offense as it is averaging a whopping 358.8 yards per game. The Lobos also hold down the top spot in the Mountain West in scoring offense (38.1 points an outing), with the lion’s share of their success coming on the ground.

New Mexico has never had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season, but that will surely change in ’16. Tyrone Owens ranks fourth in the conference with 890 yards on the ground, while teammate Teriyon Gipson is the league’s sixth-leading rusher with 817.

Additionally, Gipson is averaging an astounding 9.6 yards per carry, which ranks first among all FBS players. Owens is averaging 7.9 yards a pop, which is second in the Mountain West. Both players are small — Gipson is listed at 182 pounds, and Owens at 187 — shifty running backs who are capable of taking it to the house every time they touch the ball.

Gipson has amassed 2,694 rushing yards during his career, which puts him in the No. 8 position in the UNM record books. The senior is also sixth in program history with 27 career rushing TDs.

Two other Lobos, quarterback Lamar Jordan and tailback Richard McQuarley, have added 433 and 401 rushing yards, respectively. McQuarley, a backup, ranks fourth in the MW with 12 rushing touchdowns.

The Lobos are averaging an eye-popping 6.7 yards per carry on the ground, which is nearly three yards more than they opponents. Five of New Mexico’s top six rushers this season are underclassmen, and that’s bad news for future opponents.

“Offensively, they’re going to run the ball in triple- and double-options, and a lot of different variations of it,” USU head coach Matt Wells said during his weekly press conference. “Both quarterbacks are playing well and both of them have played (a lot), whether it’s Lamar Jordan or Austin Apodaca. They have very good running backs who can hit home runs.”

Indeed, Jordan and Apodaca have split UNM’s QB duties this season. Apodaca is the team’s best passer, while Jordan essentially serves as a third running back at times. Both signal callers have thrown for between 400-500 yards this year, but Apodaca has completed 59.7 percent of his passes to Jordan’s 50.9.

Davie told the Albuquerque Journal earlier this week that Jordan would likely start against the Aggies.

“We certainly need both of them,” Davie said. “When we’re at our absolute best is when we can have the full triple (option) thing going early in the game, and that’s why I lean a little bit toward Lamar, because we still are who we are and win the way we win.”

Senior wide receiver Dameon Gamblin leads the Lobs with 16 receptions, but sophomore Patrick Reed has been their big-play target this fall. Reed is averaging 19.0 yards on 10 catches. Junior wideout Emmanuel Harris hauled in a 44-yard scoring strike from Apodaca in last Saturday’s 35-26 home victory over Nevada.

The Lobos only returned a pair of starters on their offensive line, but that unit has shined in ’16. New Mexico welcomed back five offensive starters from last year’s squad.

Conversely, the Lobos have a wealth of experience on the defensive side of things as they brought back 10 of their 11 starters. New Mexico’s solid defense — the Lobos are third in the MW in total defense (372.4 ypg) — is anchored by Cox, who starred at Juan Diego High School.

Only nine players in UNM history have more career tackles than Cox’s 365. The Utah native is once again leading his team in tackles with 52 this season.

The Lobos have one of the top defensive end tandems in the Mountain West in senior Nik D’Avanzo and junior Garrett Hughes. Hughes ranks fourth in the conference with 5.5 sacks, while D’Avanzo has added 4.0 sacks and paces UNM with 6.0 tackles for loss. D’Avanzo is also his team’s second-leading tackler (46), which is almost unheard of for a Division I defensive lineman.

“Defensively, they pressure you a lot and do a nice job of forcing you into stuff, bringing pressure and covering you up out on the perimeter,” Wells said. “They know who they are and they’ve done a nice job.”

The Lobos have only intercepted six passes this season — the same total as USU — but have racked up an impressive 53 tackles for loss and 22 sacks.

“A lot of those TFLs are in the run game,” Wells said. “They’re pressuring your run downs. They’re not just waiting until third-and-7 or third-and-10 to come pressure you. They’re pressuring your run downs, and they’re overloading boxes. It’s probably just as much run-game related as pass protection, or decisions in the passing game for the quarterback.”

Senior cornerback Nias Martin has broken up eight passes this year. Only five MW players have more PBUs. Linebacker Austin Ocasio has picked off a pair of passes, while safety Daniel Henry has forced two fumbles.

New Mexico’s special teams unit is headlined by Jason Sanders, who is one of college football’s premier place-kickers. The junior has made 7 of 8 field attempts, including 3 for 3 from 40 to 49 yards out. Sanders, who hasn’t missed an extra point this season, has been even more impressive kicking the pigskin off as 52 of his 60 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.

Corey Bojorquez has punted at a 41.2 yards-per-attempt clip in ’16, but the junior has averaged 48.9 yards a punt during UNM’s last three contests.

Freshman Elijah Lilly gives the Lobos a dangerous option in the kickoff return game. Lilly took a kickoff 93 yards to the house earlier this season and is averaging 33.1 yards on his 10 returns. Gipson has returned a kick 56 yards, to boot.

Junior Chris Davis, Jr., is averaging 7.3 yards on his 19 punt returns, which is the second-best clip in the MW. The Lobos rank third in the conference in kickoff and punt return average.

​jturner@hjnews.com
Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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