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During his two-year stopover at Utah en route to fame, fortune, controversy and national titles at Florida and Ohio State, Urban Meyer lost one (1) Mountain West Conference football game.
New Mexico Lobos of 2003, take a bow.
Coach Rocky Long’s Lobos, in fact, didn’t merely beat Utah that late October afternoon in Salt Lake City. They shocked and embarrassed Meyer’s Utes in front of the home folks at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
They made a shambles of a Utah defense that had given up just 29 points in its three previous games. They held a prolific Utah offense, led by sophomore quarterback Alex Smith, to 20 points through the first three quarters.
Final score: New Mexico 47, 24th-ranked Utah 35. And it wasn’t that close.
It was UNM’s first road victory over a nationally ranked team since 1975 – thus checking in at No. 6 on our list of most memorable Lobo victories.
Meyer has some UNM connections, though no one knew that in 2003. A former Notre Dame assistant under Lou Holtz and a later Lobo head coach, Bob Davie, Meyer had been hired for his first head coaching job at Bowling Green by a future UNM athletic director, Paul Krebs.
Meyer came to Utah in 2003, taking over a program that had gone 5-6 under longtime coach Ron McBride the previous year.
Meyer was an immediate success in Salt Lake City, installing the spread-option offense that proved so successful at his future coaching destinations. He wisely retained Kyle Whittingham from McBride’s staff as his defensive coordinator.
When incumbent starting quarterback Brett Elliott broke his wrist during the second game of the season, a 28-26 loss at Texas A&M, Smith stepped in and quickly made the spread option his own.
New Mexico, meanwhile, had gotten off to a typically slow start under Long. After a 72-8 crushing of Texas State, a game that featured two history-making PATs by female kicker Katie Hnida, the Lobos lost to Texas Tech, BYU and Washington State.
They’d rebounded, though, with victories over New Mexico State, Utah State and San Diego State and traveled to Salt Lake City with a 4-3 record. Still, chances of an upset against Utah, 6-1 and just having broken into the national rankings, appeared slim.
Not, though, to the Lobos themselves.
“This is where we turn the corner,” senior wide receiver Rashaun Sanders told the Journal’s Greg Archuleta. “In the past, we’ve had good teams that haven’t been able to win the big game. But I think this is where we set ourselves apart and show we can win this game to move on to bigger and better things.”
Things didn’t get bigger and better immediately, once the game started. Neither team scored in the first quarter. Utah then broke on top with a 2-yard touchdown run by Mike Liti.
The Lobos gained a slim lead at halftime via a 3-yard DonTrell Moore TD run, a 3-yard Billy Strother return of a blocked punt and a Wes Zunker field goal, answered by a 21-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Steve Savoy.
The third quarter belonged to New Mexico.
Quarterback Casey Kelly hit wide receiver Adrian Boyd with a 57-yard TD pass; backup running back D.D. Cox scored from 20 yards out; Zunker connected on field goals of 23 and 36 yards.
After Smith hit Savoy for an 11-yard touchdown, Moore scored from 35 yards out.
The Lobos led 44-20 entering the fourth quarter, and there was no coming back for the Utes.
The final statistics were mind-boggling.
New Mexico finished with 633 yards total offense, its most in a single game since 1989 – also against Utah, the difference being that UNM lost that one, 41-39. The Lobos rushed for 407 yards against a Utah defense that had allowed an average of 105 yards on the ground.
“I think we proved today we’re more physical,” said senior offensive tackle Jason Lenzmeier. “To run the ball for 400 yards like we did, it’s unbelievable.”
Meyer could scarcely believe it himself.
“That was not Utah football you saw out there,” he said afterward. “We were poor in all three phases of the game.”
But Meyer would not lose another game as the coach at Utah, winning the remaining four in 2003 and going 12-0 in 2004 before moving on to Florida. He’d win two national titles there and another at Ohio State before retiring due to health concerns, but also under a cloud. It was alleged he was aware of domestic violence allegations against a Buckeyes assistant coach but had done nothing in response.
Whittingham, who had applied for the Utah job in 2003 but lost out to Meyer, got the job when he left and now is in his 16th year.
Now, about turning that corner … the 2003 Lobos lost their next game, 37-35 to UNLV in Albuquerque. They then reeled off three straight wins to finish the regular season at 8-4 – before being dismantled 55-14 by Oregon State and future Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson in the Las Vegas Bowl.
As Long repeatedly reminded the media during his 11 years as UNM head coach, there’s always another corner.
Nonetheless, for one afternoon in Salt Lake City, Long and the Lobos turned Meyer and the Utes everywhere but loose.
This continues a series of the 12 greatest (or most significant) games in UNM football history. It began with the intent of running one installment during each corresponding week of the 2020 Lobos’ original schedule, which was canceled. The Mountain West Conference reconsidered and, virus and public health orders permitting, UNM will play football after all, beginning Oct. 24 at Colorado State. Meanwhile, the series will continue. The installments so far:
12: 1945 Sun Bowl win over Denver
11: 1962 comeback win over Utah State
10: 1959 loss to New Mexico State
9: 1982 Lobos and the “Justice Bowl” vs. Tulsa
8: 2002 victory over UNLV
7: 1997 victory over BYU
6: 2003 win over No. 24, Urban Meyer-coached Utah