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Rick Wright: We’re not at Liberty to tell the future

New Mexico running back Ahmari Davis leaps over the line of scrimmage for one of his two two touchdowns in the Lobos’ 55-52 win over New Mexico State. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Was this the Patrick Henry Bowl?

The New Mexico Lobos beat the New Mexico State Aggies Saturday, 55-52, in a college football game that surpassed offensive expectations and lived down to defensive ones.

An announced crowd of 27,269 attended, almost twice as large as UNM drew for its home opener against Sam Houston State and nearly three times as great as attendance for NMSU’s home opener against San Diego State – yet, a mediocre turnout considering the game matched the state’s only two NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the state’s largest city on a temperate late September afternoon.What any of this means for the future of either team, both on the field and at the turnstiles, might well depend on how they fare against Liberty University.

The Lobos (2-1) travel to Lynchburg, Virginia, this week to play the Flames (2-2 after a 62-27 victory over Football Championship Subdivision opponent Hampton on Saturday). One could say the Lobos are at Liberty to find out what the rest of their season might look like.

The Aggies (0-4) are home this week against Fresno State (1-2), a team – despite the Bulldogs’ less-than impressive 34-20 victory over FCS foe Sacramento State on Saturday – NMSU is not likely to beat.

The following Saturday, Liberty comes to Las Cruces. The two FBS independents meet again in Lynchburg on Nov. 30.

So, then: for both the Lobos and the Aggies, give them a victory over Liberty – or give them death at the gate and put them on life support between the lines.

In the short term, both UNM and NMSU left Dreamstyle Stadium on Saturday with reasons to be encouraged.

As for the Lobos, hey – they won. Quarterback Tevaka Tuioti had a huge game, passing for 355 yards and three touchdowns, rushing for 59 yards on seven carries – including two crucial first downs on UNM’s final, clock-killing drive. Senior running back Ahmari Davis rushed for 123 yards, including a game-clinching 17-yarder on that final drive, and two TDs.

As for the Aggies, it was no secret that sophomore quarterback Josh Adkins could complete passes and put up points if his offensive linemen could keep him upright.

They did and he did. Adkins passed for 335 yards and three touchdowns. Aggies tailback Jason Huntley rushed for 114 yards and a TD.

It all added up to 107 points and 1,088 yards from scrimmage. Put an asterisk on it all, because …

Defense? What did you expect from teams that ranked 128th (NMSU) and 130th (UNM) in total defense entering the game?

The sad thing, for supporters of either team, is that there is no real solution on defense. The players they have are the players they have. There is no defensive strategy or alignment that can compensate.

The real question, then, is whether either team can be nearly as good on offense against someone else’s defense as they were against each other’s.

For the Lobos, those hopes begin with Tuioti. His talent was never in doubt; the questions have been his health and his inexperience.

Certainly, he grew as Saturday’s game unfolded.

As noted in this space before, UNM’s coaching staff has managed to recruit a remarkable group of wide receivers considering this was a triple-option team until last season. They came through repeatedly for Tuioti.

Liberty, meanwhile, is no Alabama and no Notre Dame on defense. Entering Saturday’s game against Hampton, the Flames ranked 108th nationally in total defense with an average yield of 444.7 yards. They gave up 405 yards against Hampton on Saturday.

For both UNM and NMSU, then, the Liberty exam awaits.

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