ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Only a cold-hearted cynic would label tonight’s New Mexico-UTEP football game the Wet Kleenex Bowl, or the Soft Oatmeal Classic.
But, likely, there are plenty of cold-hearted cynics out there, in Albuquerque and El Paso, waiting to see if their respective teams can actually play some defense.
And, not coincidentally, win more games.
The Lobos and the Miners meet at University Stadium in a contest that pits the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision’s No. 115 (UTEP, 39.3) and No. 118 (UNM, 42.8) teams in points allowed per game last season. Not coincidentally, the Lobos went 3-9 on the season, the Miners 2-10.
When the two teams met early last September, their defensive flaws at least made for an exciting contest. The Lobos won, 42-35 in overtime at the Sun Bowl. The Lobos and Miners combined for 48 first downs and 885 yards of total offense.
For New Mexico coach Bob Davie, who spent 17 years as an assistant coach on the defensive side of the ball, those numbers are anathema – so much so that he said early this week he hoped both his and UTEP’s defenses have improved.
“It’s two defensive staffs that I think have a lot of expertise, have a lot of experience, two defensive staffs that have a lot of pride,” Davie said. “It’s been players that have been beaten up in both programs, reading those statistics from last year.
“… I hope both defenses respond and play, to be honest.”
Of course, Davie is far more interested in the response of his own defense. Toward that end, in December he fired defensive coordinator Jeff Mills. In January, he promoted inside linebackers coach Kevin Cosgrove to that position.
“I can’t wait to see (Cosgrove’s) personality reflected in our defense,” Davie said at the time.
Cosgrove has also made some schematic changes, intended to promote aggressiveness in the defensive front and all-out pursuit to the ball. In February, UNM signed some bigger defensive linemen and some rangier linebackers and defensive backs.
So, mission accomplished? It’s far too soon to say that. But, said senior safety David Guthrie, he and his defensive teammates are definitely on a mission.
“I’m real confident, honestly,” Guthrie said. “We have a different mentality on defense. I think we’re a lot more physical, bigger, faster, stronger all around
With our schemes and stuff, we’re on a mission to go 1-0 this week.”
Right back atcha, the Miners say.
“It’s a really different comfort level,” UTEP safety Wes Miller told the El Paso Times. “It’s not as much focusing on learning plays as it is about refining technique. We’re playing faster because of the confidence.”
On both sides of the ball, under second-year coach Sean Kugler, the Miners essentially are fastball pitchers.
Here it is, hit it.
The offense that ran up and down the field on the Lobos last year has improved, Davie said, by virtue of another year of experience and of some big, talented interior linemen who redshirted last season.
In the passing game, senior quarterback Jameill Showers has a couple of huge targets in 6-foot-5 wide receiver Ian Hamilton and 6-7 tight end Eric Tomlinson, whose mountain-man beard is almost as long as some of the Lobos’ defensive backs.
Miners running back Aaron Jones made a smashing debut against the Lobos last year as a freshman, rushing for 127 yards – only to be spectacularly outdone by UNM’s Kasey Carrier (41 carries, 291 yards).
Carrier is gone, but the Lobos carry on in their pistol formation, triple option-based scheme with a fleet of fleet running backs, a hard-running QB in Cole Gautsche and what they believe is a vastly improved passing attack.
The Miners play mostly man-to-man coverage in the secondary, and Lobos senior wide receiver Jeric Magnant looks forward to the challenge.
“I love facing man coverage, just because when it’s man coverage that’s what you grew up doing in football, who can beat who,” Magnant said. “… When they allow you to do that in a game, it really does feel like football out there, like when you were a kid. It’s fun, it’s a game, and that’s what we like to do.”
Some 21,200 tickets for tonight’s game had been sold as of the close of business Friday. Among the attendees will be several members of the 1964 UNM team – the last Lobos to have won a conference title – gathered for a 50th reunion.
The ‘ 64 Lobos allowed an average of 9.9 points per game. They went 9-2 on the season. They beat UTEP (then Texas Western) 20-12.