A once promising college football season has taken a turn for the worse for an injury-prone New Mexico squad.
The Lobos made some significant strides during the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, and they capped it off with back-to-back victories over Wyoming and Fresno State. New Mexico then proceeded to win its first two games in 2021 although, it all fairness, those were home contests against Houston Baptist and New Mexico State.
Unfortunately for the Lobos, things quickly went downhill and injuries have had a lot to do with that, although showdowns against the likes of Texas A&M, San Diego State, Air Force, Fresno State and Boise State certainly didn't help. There's a good chance New Mexico will use its fourth different starting quarterback this fall when it welcomes Utah State to University Stadium on Friday morning for its home and season finale.
Indeed, it's been a rough past couple of months for the Lobos, who haven't scored more than 17 points in any of their last nine games. The lone victory during that stretch was a 14-3 triumph over Wyoming in Laramie back on Oct. 23.
Nevertheless, the Lobos seemingly always have a fighting chance of pulling off an upset thanks to their havoc-wreaking defense. New Mexico's defensive coordinator is Rocky Long, who is the former head coach at his current school (1999-08) and San Diego State (2011-19), and is the all-time winningest football coach in Mountain West history. This is Long's second season back in Albuquerque.
USU head coach Blake Anderson referred to Long as "the best defensive mind in football" during his weekly press conference. Anderson was an assistant under Long at New Mexico from 1999-2001.
New Mexico ranked 125th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense (485.9 yards per game) in 2019, the season before Long returned to his alma mater. Fast forward to '21 and the Lobos rank 47th nationally in total defense (356.1 ypg) in Long's renowned 3-3-5 scheme, plus they have given up a respectable 27.8 points an outing. Even in their last game, a 37-0 road loss at Boise State, the Lobos only gave up two defensive touchdowns. The Broncos scored their other two TDs on blocked punts.
“Everyone thinks that New Mexico is a place that you go in and walk all over them,” senior safety Jerrick Reed II said in a recent interview with the Albuquerque Journal. “But I think (head) coach G (Danny Gonzales) and coach Long have said it all the time, ‘You just have to wake up and stop taking the BS from other teams.’ I feel like we did.'"
Reed is one of UNM's standouts on defense and he is coming off a junior season in which is garnered first-team all-conference honors after leading the Mountain West with four interceptions in just seven games. The three-year starter is the team leader in tackles (82) and passes broken up (seven) this season, and he has also picked off a pass.
The Lobos have intercepted nine passes this fall, including two apiece from cornerback Ronald Wilson and safety Tavian Combs. Combs is also New Mexico's second-leading tackler with 76. Ironically enough, he finished second on the squad in tackles a year ago.
New Mexico's breakout star on defense in '21 is defensive end Joey Noble, a super senior who currently ranks second in the conference in tackles for loss (15.5). The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder also paces the Lobos in sacks (4.5), plus is third in tackles (68). Noble was a honorable mention all-MW honoree last year.
"His skillset obviously fits what they do," Anderson said of Noble. "They create a lot of movement, they're all about trying to get one-on-ones and letting those guys really run freely, and he's super quick. ... We're going to have to do a really good job of IDing it, getting guys covered up and buying time. You're not going to keep the quarterback from getting hit. The question is can you get the ball out effectively and reduce the hits and stay away from the big negative play. You watch (them) and they do a great job of keeping people off schedule, and it's very important that we have productive plays, stay away from the off-scheduled down and hopefully survive the hits that we do take on the quarterback, try to minimize those the best we can."
Defensive end Justin Harris, a 6-6 senior, and linebacker Ray Leutele are just behind Noble in sacks with 4.0 apiece this season. Ten different Lobos have accounted for 22 sacks in '21 as Long is well known for bringing pressure from all over the field.
"(Long's) whole philosophy --- and he's done a phenomenal job, maybe better than anybody in this business --- (is) just kind of taking a bunch of bodies, nameless, faceless bodies (and fitting them into his scheme)," Anderson said. "Yeah, obviously we all knew who (former UNM and NFL star linebacker Brian) Urlacher was, but he hasn't had Urlacher in a long, long time. But he's just putting them in a position, teaching them really, really well on how to take advantage of the scheme and be prepared to make plays. And so I think they spread it around and a lot of guys get involved, and the stats show that."
The Lobos got off to a pretty good start this season with Kentucky graduate transfer Terry Wilson Jr. orchestrating their pro-style offensive attack. Wilson Jr. went 18-7 as Kentucky’s starting quarterback and was the starter for the first six games this season before going down with a dislocated elbow. Wilson Jr. threw for 381 yards against NMSU.
New Mexico has used two different starting signal callers since then --- C.J. Montes and Isaiah Chavez --- but both of those athletes have been injured. As a result, the Lobos will likely turn to either walk-on Connor Genal or former student manager Bryson Carroll to direct the offense against USU. Both quarterbacks played against the Broncos.
Carroll, who last played in 2019, was coaxed out of retirement prior to UNM’s game against Boise State. Carroll was originally recruited by the Lobos as an option QB, but ended up being a big contributor as a running back in ’19. Carroll rushed for 28 yards on 10 attempts against the Broncos and didn't attempt a pass, although he was sacked twice. Genal completed 1 of 5 passes and was picked off once in that game.
Once Wilson Jr. went down, the Lobos completely changed their base offense to what Anderson called "straight triple option, with kind of a pistol eye formation." New Mexico ran the ball pretty well in back-to-back-to-back games against Wyoming, UNLV and FSU, but struggled against BSU. Without Wilson Jr. in the lineup, though, the Lobos have thrown for a measly 36 (UNLV), 34 (FSU) and 18 (BSU) yards in their last three games.
New Mexico ranks dead at the FBS level in total offense (238.0 ypg) and it has failed to score any offensive points in four games --- against Texas A&M (34-0), Colorado State (36-7), San Diego State (31-7) and BSU (37-0). The Lobos scored on defense against the Aztecs and on a jaw-dropping 63-yard punt return by Luke Wysong against the Rams.
"Now sustaining (drives) it has been a problem for them, but that's come down to defensive fronts creating pressure and getting back in the backfield and making things difficult," Anderson said. "And it will be our job and our responsibility to get back there and make it tough for them to create rhythm and get to all of their different options out of the triple (option). But I expect to see a heavy dose of dive, quarterback pitch and play action off of it, and all of the bells and whistles that come with it."
New Mexico's banged up offensive line has given up 34 sacks this season. Only three of the Lobos' O-linemen have started all 11 games, and two of them have started for at least three seasons in right guard Kyle Stapley and left tackle Cade Briggs. Stapley, a super senior from Morgan, has been in the starting lineup a team-leading 42 times and is coming off a honorable mention all-MW season.
The Lobos have two proven commodities at running back, although one of them, Bobby Cole, is currently sidelined with an injury. The senior led the team in rushing a year ago (548 yards in seven games) and has contributed with 379 yards on 88 carries this fall. Cole earned a spot on the honorable mention all-league team last year.
Freshman Aaron Dumas has emerged as UNM's featured back this season. The 5-11, 190-pounder racked up a career-high 143 yards on the ground against Fresno State and has 658 on the season.
"He's quick, (has a) low center of gravity, (is) powerful," Anderson said of Dumas. "Man, if you look at the runs that he hit (in past games), he stepped through tackles on most of them. And because they've got your eyes in other places, it's no different than playing Air Force, where you're chasing quarterback and pitch, and the dive, the trap play goes with (Brad) Roberts down the middle. (New Mexico's) doing the same thing. They're doing it a little differently, it's blocked a little differently, but it's the same issue (to defend, which is) eyes chasing quarterback, eyes chasing pitch, the motion back or the speed sweep back and, all of a sudden, the tailback ... I guess more of the fullback in this particular system, is right out of the gate, out of the A gap and there's nobody left to get him on the ground. ... Boise had to chase him down from behind, Fresno had to chase him down from behind, UNLV had to chase him down from behind. I mean, it's been a weekly occurrence and it's keeping them right in the mix, so you've got to have great eye discipline, and everybody's got to do exactly what's asked of them or somebody ... (is going) to get out of the gate on you. That's the difficulty (of defending) triple option football."
Wysong and Mannie Logan-Greene have been UNM's go-to targets in the pass game, although Logan-Greene has missed the last five-plus games with an injury. Logan-Greene caught seven passes for 106 yards against NMSU. Wysong has hauled in 24 receptions for 224 yards this season, in addition to his aforementioned punt return to the house.
Former quarterback Trae Hall was emerging as a weapon at wide receiver fore sustaining a season-ending ankle injury. Hall made three starts at signal caller a year ago, including against USU. He blew out his knee in that game.
New Mexico's kicker is Andrew Shelley, who has been successful on 8 of 12 field goal attempts this fall. Aaron Rodriguez has averaged 42.9 yards on 74 punts.
The Lobos have allowed an average of 9.7 yards on 23 punt returns and an average of 21.0 yards on 12 kickoff returns. On the flip side, UNM has averaged 14.7 yards on 13 punt returns and 23.9 yards on 39 kickoff returns.