The 2019 college football season has been a very challenging one for New Mexico, which has not only dealt with a myriad of injuries but tragedy.
Earlier this month, Lobo defensive lineman Nahje Flowers — a player who had been with the program since 2016 — passed away. As a result, UNM’s home game against Air Force was moved from Nov. 9 to Nov. 23. Additionally, the Lobos have had at least three different players start at nine different positions throughout the course of the season.
“I think it is significant to note that I’ve never in all of my years of coaching seen as many injuries (as this season),” said UNM head coach Bob Davie, who will coach his final game with the Lobos on Saturday afternoon at home against Utah State. “We’re going into this game with our five top running backs out.”
Indeed, the injuries kept piling up for the Lobos, who are currently mired in an eight-game losing streak after starting the season 2-1. The Lobos were hoping for a bounce-back season after going 3-9 in 2017 and 2018, but they have struggled to score in ’19 and rank last nationally in pass defense.
Earlier this week, it was announced New Mexico and Davie had “mutually” agreed to part ways following Saturday’s season finale against USU. Davie has gone 35-63 during his nearly eight-year tenure in Albuquerque. The former Notre Dame head coach inherited a program that went a combined 3-33 during the three seasons before he was hired. Davie helped led the Lobos to back-to-back bowl appearances in 2015 and 2016, but they haven’t more than three game in a season since then.
“It has been an unbelievably unique journey and I was very proud of what we’ve done, and I’m not going to apologize to anyone for what we have done here,” Davie said during a pretty poignant Tuesday press conference.”
Davie was a college football color commentator for ESPN from 2002-11 before electing to coach again, this time at UNM.
“To get the opportunity to be a head football coach again at a Mountain West Conference level, I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Davie said at his weekly press conference. “I will always be appreciative of Paul Krebs, Bob Frank, Dr. (David) Schmidly. To give me that opportunity and to give me the support to be able to get (this program) to nine wins (in ’16), I will always be appreciative of that.”
Davie’s squad is coming off a relatively encouraging performance against a very good Air Force team last weekend. The Lobos lost 44-22, but only trailed 17-16 late in the third quarter. UNM had a chance to pull even with an extra point, but it was blocked and returned for two points by the Falcons, who then proceeded to pull away.
New Mexico quarterback Tevaka Tuioti suffered a hamstring injury in that game and was replaced by redshirt freshman Trae Hall. Hall will likely get the starting nod against the Aggies, meaning the Lobos will join Arkansas as the only two FBS programs to have four different signal callers start a game this season.
In his first action of the season, Hall completed 5 of 7 passes for 55 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and rushed for 33 yards on four attempts against the Falcons.
“He’s definitely a dual-threat quarterback,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said of Hall. “He came in with a lot of poise, confidence and belief. If you watch the film — I watched the whole TV copy and the game copy — he walked in there and the stage wasn’t too big for him at all. He walked in there and had a lot of confidence and did some good things with his team.”
The Lobos racked up 358 yards of total offense against the Falcons, with 268 of them being accumulated on 43 rushing attempts (6.2 yards per carry). That was a noteworthy accomplishment for a team without several of its top running backs.
New Mexico finished its game against Air Force without its top four rushers this season. That group was headlined by tailback Ahmari Davis, who scored seven TDs and averaged 92.4 yards per game and 5.9 yards per carry before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Boise State on Nov. 16.
UNM’s second-leading rusher against AFA was Bobby Cole, who was recently awarded a scholarship, as was fellow tailback Micah Gray, who has also taken on a much bigger role as of late. Cole gained 58 yards and scored once on 11 carries against the Falcons.
When Tuioti and Brandt Hughes (torn labrum) were the starting QBs, the Lobos threw the ball a lot more. UNM has thrown for 2,233 yards this year, which is the program’s most passing yards since 2009. With the exception of Hall, who has a limited sample size, no Lobo quarterback has completed more than 52 percent of his passes this season. New Mexico’s signal callers have has also tossed 13 interceptions in ’19, although 11 of them took place in the first six games.
Davie and the Lobos switched to a spread offense in 2018 after running the triple option for several seasons. Davie was asked at his press conference if he has ever second-guessed that decision.
“I’ve thought a lot about that,” he said. “It’s so hard at a non-military school to run that true triple option, it just is for a lot of reasons I won’t go into now. Obviously, the success we had here was really based ... on that (triple option) offense. I’m the first to recognize that, and I appreciate Bob DeBesse for that and our offense coaches. And we also had some very explosive running backs. We ran the course of it schematically being different and we ran the course of it with some of those really explosive backs. ... I don’t second-guess myself for that because I think it was the right decision, and I continue to think it was the right decision.”
Davie went on to say injuries at the quarterback position the past two seasons have really hampered the Lobos in their switch to a spread offense.
“We’ve never really had a chance to really see what it looked like,” he said.
The injury bug has also bit the Lobos at the wide receiver position this year, but Hall still has some bona fide playmakers at his disposal. For starters, junior wideout Jordan Kress has scored five TDs and has averaged 20.6 yards on his 25 receptions in ’19. Additionally, UNM junior tight end Marcus Williams — who like USU standout Caleb Repp is essentially a hybrid TE/WR — ranks second in the Mountain West with 408 receiving yards.
New Mexico’s offensive line is pretty experienced as the Lobos welcomed back three starters in left guard Chris Estrella, right tackle Teton Saltes and center Kyle Stapley, who is from Morgan and is a Snow College transfer. The Lobos are tied for 23rd nationally for fewest sacks allowed with 15.
UNM’s defense is anchored by a pair of talented middle linebackers in Alex Hart and Alexander Vainkolo, who rank first and second on the team with 75 and 65 tackles, respectively. Vainkolo is first on his squad and sixth in the Mountain West with 10.5 tackles for loss, while Hart ranks second on his team in sacks (4.0) and third in TFLs (9.0).
“I like both of those inside guys, with their motors and how hard they play, the aggressive style that they play with,” Andersen said. “It reminds me of Jake Doughty when Jake was here (at USU) — a tough guy who loves to play football and is physical. Both of those guys are cut right out of that same scenario that you look at with Jake. They’re good leaders, they’re aggressive and they play hard every single snap.”
Junior linebacker Jacobi Hearn is also having a big season for the Lobos as he paces them in sacks with 6.0, which is the third most in the MW. Hearn has also chipped in with 10.0 TFL and has forced a pair of fumbles. UNM senior defensive end Erin Austin is currently in a three-way tie for the top spot in the conference in forced fumbles with three.
Unfortunately for the Lobos, opposing teams have absolutely lit up their secondary this season. Opponents are averaging a whopping 335.0 yards an outing through the air against UNM, which has allowed 31 TD passes and has only picked off three. Only one FBS team has given up more TD passes than the Lobos.
The Lobos lost two of their best defensive players within the first two games to season-ending injuries in senior nose guard Aaron Blackwell and sophomore linebacker Dylan Horton. Blackwell was a honorable mention all-MW selection a year ago.
New Mexico has been rock solid on special teams this year. For starters, Tyson Dyer has averaged an impressive 46.1 yards on his 53 punts, and he has dropped 33 of them inside the oppositions’ 20-yard line. The junior is one of 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award.
Sophomore kicker Andrew Shelley has been successful on 12 of 16 field goal attempts this season, including 8 of 11 from 40-plus yards out. Shelley has split the uprights on a 52-yarder.
The Lobos have a good kickoff returner in Bryson Carroll, who has averaged 30.6 on his eight returns and has a long of 58 yards.