MADISON, Wis. — Most people call New Mexico’s big linebacker with the long, wild hair “Evah,” short for Evahelotu, last name: Tohi.
Early in the third quarter, the 6-foot-2, 227-pound senior made a huge interception and a return of 29 yards.
After the Lobos had played an exceptional first half and trailed by only three points to the fifth-ranked team in the nation, Tohi’s interception had all the makings of the key play to a big-time upset of heavily favored Wisconsin.
But, though it delivered flashes of brilliance, UNM showed it is not ready to be an elite Group of 5 program, much less a trendy media darling.
Instead, Wisconsin woke up in the second half as the Lobos could not get their offense going without starting quarterback Tevaka Tuioti (head injury). The Badgers rolled, 45-14, outscoring UNM 35-7 in the second half at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.
“I really felt offensively we had a great rhythm early in the game,” said UNM coach Bob Davie, whose program receives $1.2 million for the contest. “When our quarterback went out, we didn’t get much done after that.”
The Lobos (1-1) had the crowd of 77,003 mostly silent, and stunned, through the first half, as UNM scored on its first drive and shockingly trailed the Badgers just 10-7 at the break.
But Wisconsin reversed the momentum after Tohi’s big play and restored order.
On third-and-8 at the Badgers’ 26-yard line, UNM backup quarterback Sheriron Jones threw to the end zone for wide receiver Elijah Lilly, but Wisconsin safety Scott Nelson picked it off.
From there, the Badgers (2-0) overpowered the Lobos with their huge offensive line and Heisman hopeful running back Jonathan Taylor, who led Wisconsin’s scoring blitz. New Mexico had few answers.
“We couldn’t stop them running the football,” Davie said. “We knew that was going to be an issue, as I think most teams will have a hard time stopping them running the football.
“Bottom line, it was 10-7 in the third quarter. We create the turnover and we have a chance. Then we turn the ball over three times in the second half. Defense got worn down. They continued to pound us.”
Taylor finished with a career-high 253 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries.
Yet he fumbled in the second quarter with first-and-goal at the Lobos 4. New Mexico safety Marcus Hayes crushed Taylor, jarring the ball loose, and Hayes recovered the ball as well.
The Lobos, however, couldn’t capitalize with Tuioti out of the game. Davie said the redshirt sophomore’s head hit the turf on an option pitch late in the first quarter, but the UNM coach wasn’t sure if there was a concussion diagnosis.
The Lobos will prepare as if they’ll be without Tuioti for their rivalry game next Saturday at New Mexico State, and Jones will get more reps this week.
“I just saw the hole open up and I just did what I had to do for my teammates,” Hayes said of his big defensive play. “I didn’t think too much. I just kind of reacted. …
“It was good going against Wisconsin. It was a great experience for me and all my teammates, just to see where we are at. We shocked a lot of people coming out. It was a real close game at halftime.”
Tuioti directed a 17-play, 87-yard drive, eating up half of the first quarter, and capped it with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Delane Hart-Johnson after the Badgers won the coin toss and deferred to receive the second-half kickoff.
Tuioti threw for 55 yards and the one touchdown, completing five of his eight passes before exiting with the head injury.
“We came out like (Wisconsin) was another team,” Hart-Johnson said. “It’s no reason to be scared of someone who puts on the same pants as we do. They put on pants and we put on pants. They’re men and we’re men.
“There was no surprise on what we seen. We watched film all week and we knew what to expect from it. We knew what we had to do and play University of New Mexico football.”
The Lobos were playing a special brand of football early, but they could not sustain it.