As No. 9 on our list of most memorable University of New Mexico football games, in lieu of games lost or postponed this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the selection is (drum roll, please) …
The 1982 Justice Bowl.
Um, excuse you? Was there really such a thing?
Well, no, there wasn’t, at least not on an actual football field.
If we were compiling a list of most memorable UNM football seasons, not games, 1982 would rank right at the top. Those Lobos went 10-1, compiling the most wins and fashioning the second-best record in school history (coach Roy Johnson’s 1927 team went 8-0-1). They were smart, tough, resilient, fun to watch.
They were a perfect storm.
Yet, when bowl invitations were passed out, it was an ill wind – college football economics, coupled with UNM football’s near-constant companion, public apathy – that blew no good.
A computerized bowl game, monikered the Justice Bowl, was all the Lobos and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, another 10-1 team with nowhere to go, could get.
And the winner was … that comes later.
In 1980, Joe Morrison, a former New York Giants running back, was hired as head coach at UNM out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he’d gone 25-6-2 in his final three seasons.
Joe Mo’s first two seasons at New Mexico were less than mediocre. The thrill provided by a victory over BYU in his debut game, UNM’s first win over the Cougars in nine years, was largely forgotten by the time the Lobos lost 72-7 to UNLV just two months later.
Morrison, 8-14-1 in ’80-81, desperately needed help. He got it from offensive coordinator Frank Sadler, whom he hired in February 1982.
Sadler, a master of the veer offense, had worked for Morrison at Tennessee-Chattanooga, as had defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn.
The same coaching tandem that had worked in Chattanooga worked wonders in Albuquerque.
Upon arrival, Sadler found the ideal quarterback for his offense was already in the program. David Osborn had shared time at QB with Robin Gabriel in 1981, in a more pass-oriented offense, with limited success.
In August, Osborn, a senior from Hurst, Texas, was named the starter.
“This is the best offense for me to be quarterbacking,” he said.
Yes, it was.
Sadler also found the speedy running backs and quick, though not necessarily big, offensive linemen the veer required.
Sandia grad Mike Carter, named by Parade Magazine the top high school running back in America in 1977, had passed on scholarship offers from Oklahoma, Michigan, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Arizona State to sign with his hometown team. He led the 1982 Lobos in rushing as a senior with 722 yards and a 6.7-yard average per carry.
Osborn, a better runner than a passer, nonetheless threw for 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was blessed with two excellent wide receivers in Keith MaGee and Derwin Williams, who went on to play three seasons with the New England Patriots.
The Lobos averaged 31 points a game, ranking third in the nation. They exceeded 40 points five times and routed the New Mexico State Aggies, 66-21.
On defense, outside pass rusher Jimmie Carter, safety Ray Hornfeck and linebacker Johnny Jackson keyed Dunn’s ever-aggressive scheme. Jackson made 127 tackles, had 15 sacks and was named the Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Yet, for all the 1982 Lobos’ success, it’s difficult to pick out a single game as most memorable.
Their closest games, against San Diego State (22-17), North Texas State (20-17, defeat avoided when Osborn hit Williams with a 47-yard touchdown pass with 28 seconds left) and Colorado State (29-24) were actually sub-par performances against teams with losing records.
The Lobos’ showdown with BYU and quarterback Steve Young, in a game that ultimately determined the WAC champion, was an anticlimactic 40-12 loss.
Perhaps, then, the ’82 team’s signature game was the 41-17 season-ending rout of a pretty good Hawaii team and should have sealed a bowl bid. The Lobos, playing in front of a national TV (TBS) audience, scored four fourth-quarter touchdowns to break open a close game.
Pretty impressive – yet, not impressive enough to get the Lobos to the postseason.
College football was, of course, a different world back then. In 1982-83, only 16 bowl games existed – a far cry from the 44 that were scheduled for 2020-21 before the pandemic complicated matters.
Even so, the Lobos left the field after the Hawaii game believing they had done enough to earn a spot in the Dec. 31 Hall of Fame Classic in Birmingham, Alabama.
Instead, the Hall of Fame game board selected Air Force, a seven-win team the Lobos had beaten 49-37 at the Academy on Oct. 2. Why? The Falcons had a national fan base and would put fannies in the seats, that’s why.
(To be fair, Air Force had made a huge splash by upsetting Notre Dame, 30-17, the same day the Lobos beat Hawaii. They would go on to beat Vanderbilt in the Hall of Fame Classic, 36-28, in front of a crowd of some 75,000.)
This was a defeat, not just for a richly deserving Lobo team, but for an entire program – largely inflicted by fan indifference. With bowl scouts watching the stands as much as the field, a crowd announced at 23,028 – just 75 percent of capacity – showed up for the Hawaii game on a breezy but relatively warm November evening.
“Never,” wrote Journal sports editor Dennis Latta, “have so many done so little for a team that deserved so much.”
Some things, it seems, never change.
Oh, and as for that computerized bowl game:
The Lobos won, 30-27, in the version presented in Albuquerque. They lost, 27-24, in the version available in Tulsa.
You win some, you lose some.