PITTSBURGH — With abject disaster averted, a humiliating first half cushioned by an encouraging second half, the New Mexico Lobos headed home Saturday with their bodies bruised but their pride intact.
The Lobos (1-2), flattened like so many pancakes by the Pittsburgh Panthers in the first half of Saturday’s game at Heinz Field, outscored Pitt by a touchdown the rest of the way.
Far too little, far too late? Oh, yes. Pittsburgh (1-1) was never threatened en route to a 49-27 victory.
Still, UNM coach Bob Davie — a native of the Pittsburgh area — said the Lobos’ experience in the Steel City, if not exactly a positive, provided some steel girders to build on.
“I felt like we’d play better in the first half,” Davie said. “We didn’t, but at least we came back in the second half and leave here better than we were at halftime. It’s small victories right now.”
After the Lobos fell behind 28-6 midway through the second quarter, Davie said, the rest of the game was about the rest of the season.
Seemingly unfortunate coaching decisions, he said — going for it and failing on fourth-and-18, a failed fake punt — were made with that in mind.
“It had nothing to do with the score,” he said. “There are some things we wanted to see.”
Davie nonetheless was disappointed to see the Lobos, outmanned as they were, play so poorly out of the gate.
“We were tentative early, a little wobbly early,” Davie said of the first half, which the Panthers dominated almost completely in taking a 35-6 halftime lead. “That’s just what I told our team (in the locker room).”
Pitt finished the first half with 388 yards total offense with near-perfect balance — 188 yards on the ground, 200 in the air.
“We really couldn’t stop them … could not stop them,” Davie said. “Just big backs, big wide receivers, big quarterback, big offensive line.”
The Lobos, meanwhile, hurt their own cause by failing to fully cash in on three first-half turnovers and a 74-yard Carlos Wiggins kickoff return.
“I think we came out a little timid, to be quite honest,” said senior safety Dante Caro, who intercepted a Tom Savage pass on the game’s first play from scrimmage and later recovered a muffed Pittsburgh punt. “They came out and made plays, and we really weren’t ready. They caught us off guard a little bit.”
But the Lobos — no strangers to being down 29 points at halftime — regrouped.
This time, there would be no breathtaking comeback that would bring them within one play of a victory, as UNM did last year in losing 32-29 to Boise State after trailing 29-0 at the break.
Yet, the recipe was the same: the triple option, run by sophomore Cole Gautsche.
Gautsche, the Lobos’ starting quarterback entering the season, sat out UNM’s 42-35 overtime victory at UTEP on Sept. 7 with concussion symptoms. Junior Clayton Mitchem, who’d played the entire game in El Paso, played almost all the first half Saturday but for the most part was ineffective.
In the third quarter, with the Lobos behind 42-6, Gautsche directed a nine-play, 81-yard scoring drive. The big play was a 42-yard run up the middle by junior Crusoe Gongbay, but Gautsche got the touchdown on a keeper from a yard out.
Two plays after the ensuing kickoff, Lobos freshman safety Ryan Santos pried the ball loose from Pitt running back James Conner. Freshman cornerback Isaiah Brown recovered at the Panthers’ 29-yard line. Four plays later, Gautsche walked in from 12 yards out on an option keeper.
Gautsche later would leave the game with back spasms, but he finished with 50 yards rushing on 10 carries and two touchdowns.
“It felt good to get the triple option going and kind of start moving the ball, getting first downs,” Gautsche said.
Gautsche, Davie said, has a feel for the option that Mitchem — acknowledged to be the better passer of the two — lacks at this point.
“(Gautsche) is so good on the mesh, so good on the option,” Davie said. “The subtle things that you don’t see.”
The Lobos finished the game with an 80-yard scoring drive, finished by Gongbay’s 20-yard touchdown run. Gongbay finished with 95 yards rushing on 10 carries.
Lobos senior Kasey Carrier, the nation’s leading rusher entering the game, was held to 22 yards on seven carries.
PITTSBURGH 49, NEW MEXICO 27
New Mexico 3 3 14 7—27
Pittsburgh 21 14 7 7—49
First Quarter Pitt—Orndoff 4 pass from Savage (Blewitt kick), 10:00. NM—FG Adams 28, 7:38. Pitt—Boyd 33 run (Blewitt kick), 5:00. Pitt—Conner 1 run (Blewitt kick), 1:24. Second Quarter NM—FG Adams 22, 10:05. Pitt—Conner 38 run (Blewitt kick), 8:11. Pitt—Boyd 34 pass from Savage (Blewitt kick), :00. Third Quarter Pitt—Bennett 8 run (Blewitt kick), 9:47. NM—Gautsche 1 run (Adams kick), 4:20. NM—Gautsche 12 run (Adams kick), 1:42. Fourth Quarter Pitt—Bennett 13 run (Blewitt kick), 11:35. NM—Gongbay 20 run (Adams kick), :52. A—40,249.
First downs 16 23
Rushes-yards 52-213 34-283
Passing 57 244
Comp-Att-Int 9-17-0 14-18-2
Return Yards 13 2
Punts-Avg. 4-41.3 2-43.0
Fumbles-Lost 4-1 2-2
Penalties-Yards 4-40 7-50
Time of Possession 36:42 23:18
RUSHING—New Mexico, Gongbay 10-95, Gautsche 10-50, Magnant 1-28, Carrier 7-22, Gipson 2-12, Wiggins 1-11, D.Rogers 4-9, Pressley 5-7, R.Jones 1-0, Anaya 1-(minus 2), Mitchem 9-(minus 9), Team 1-(minus 10). Pittsburgh, Conner 12-119, Bennett 14-101, Boyd 2-39, Ibrahim 4-20, Savage 2-4.
PASSING—New Mexico, Mitchem 8-15-0-64, Gongbay 1-1-0-(minus 7), Gautsche 0-1-0-0. Pittsburgh, Savage 13-17-2-236, Voytik 1-1-0-8.
RECEIVING—New Mexico, Magnant 4-19, A.Aho 1-29, Bundy 1-15, Wiggins 1-4, Gamblin 1-(minus 3), Pressley 1-(minus 7). Pittsburgh, Boyd 6-134, Street 5-80, Garner 2-26, Orndoff 1-4.