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Big plays missing from UNM football this season

For the New Mexico Lobos, it seems, to the house is no longer a home.

Yes, the Lobos (3-6 overall, 1-5 in Mountain West Conference play) fumbled away a chance for a crucial victory Saturday night against Utah State by fumbling five times and losing four.

But when a team runs the ball 57 times in a football game, because the big plays aren’t there, fumbles are likely to happen. Well, OK, maybe not five.

The big play, such a vital part of UNM’s success on offense that past two seasons, largely has been missing in 2017.

Last season, the Lobos found the end zone on plays from their side of the 50-yard line 13 times. So far this year, that number is five.

The fewer plays a scoring drive encompasses, the less chance there is for a fumble — or an interception, five of which the Lobos threw the previous week in a 42-3 loss at Wyoming.

During the past four games, all losses, the Lobos’ longest play from scrimmage was a 54-yard Tyrone Owens run against Colorado State that didn’t reach the goal line and ultimately produced nothing. The drive stalled, and Jason Sanders missed a 40-yard field goal.

New Mexico’s longest scoring play during those four games — to be fair, there’ve been only four touchdowns — was quarterback Tevaka Tuioti’s 34-yard scramble in the fourth quarter against Utah State. The Aggies led by 21 points at the time and were happy to settle for a 24-10 victory.

After the Utah State game, Lobos coach Bob Davie pointed out that UNM dominated the game statistically. The Lobos outgained USU, 340 yards to 243, and ran 79 plays to the Aggies’ 48. Only turnovers and crucial penalties, he felt, cost the Lobos a victory.

New Mexico, however, averaged just 4.3 yards per play Saturday — exactly the same as it  averaged during the previous three games. Tuioti’s touchdown scramble was UNM’s only gain of more than 20 yards. 

What’s happened to the big play? Certainly, injuries and departed players in the offensive line are a factor. And, though UNM’s running backs are talented, there’s no one player with the explosiveness of former Lobos Jhurell Pressley and Teriyon Gipson.

No doubt, there’s an X-and-O factor here as well. When all three phases of the triple option are working — the dive, the keep and the pitch — they feed off each other. Big plays are created.

For most of this season, opponents have found ways to frustrate one, two or all three.

THE FUMBLES: After the game,  Davie said he didn’t know why his team fumbled five times on Saturday — or why the Lobos have lost 15 fumbles this season. Only San Jose State (19) has lost more.

In contrast, Iowa State has not lost a fumble in nine games this season.

“Nobody wants to fumble the ball,” Davie said. “We’ve got some good kids who are good players putting the ball on the ground.”

The Lobos actually have fumbled 23 times in nine games, recovering eight. They fumbled 17 times in 13 games last year but lost only eight.

It’s not as if UNM doesn’t do ball-security drills in practice. Senior running back Richard McQuarley, who had lost three fumbles in UNM’s first four games, described those after a 179-yard, zero-fumbles rushing performance in a 56-38 victory over Air Force.

“Working with coach B (running backs coach Scott Baumgartner),” he said, “we do a drill that we run and the running backs line up beside us, and we just run through the running backs and they try to get the ball out.”

McQuarley hadn’t fumbled since the Tulsa game (Sept. 23) until Saturday in the second quarter, when he had the ball jarred loose by Utah State’s Justus Te’i at the Aggies 10-yard line.

ZONED OUT: Has the red zone been unkind to the Lobos, or have they been unkind to it?

After going 0-for-4 in the red zone against Utah State, UNM now ranks 124th of 129 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams nationally in red-zone offensive efficiency.

In 27 trips inside the opponent’s 25-yard line, the Lobos have 13 touchdowns, six field goals and have come up empty eight times.

The flip side of that coin is no less disturbing. New Mexico ranks 122nd in red zone defense, with opponents scoring 21 touchdowns, kicking five field goals and failing to score only twice in 27 penetrations.

Saturday

New Mexico at Texas A&M

5 p.m. ESPNU, 770-AM/94.5-FM

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