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Editorial: 2020 Lobos tackle their opponents and COVID-19 pandemic

Football is about blocking, tackling and getting 11 players to execute their respective assignments as a cohesive unit – all while the opposing team is trying to get in the way or put them on the ground. It’s the definition of a contact sport.

So considering that state public health orders prevented the University of New Mexico football team from working out in groups larger than five – let alone an offense vs. defense full scrimmage – the Lobos turned in an impressive performance last Saturday against the San Jose State Spartans in a game relocated to California because of quarantine and other restrictions in New Mexico.

Yes, the Lobos ended up on the short end of a 38-21 score in the debut of new head coach Danny Gonzales, who brought in former Lobo coach and icon Rocky Long as defensive coordinator. But it was clear from watching this game on television that this is a Lobo team that competes hard, flies to the ball and has some key skill players including quarterback Tevaka Tuioti.

Tuioti, who threw for 294 yards and two touchdowns – one to former Manzano High School star Andrew Erickson – drove the Lobos to a third-quarter touchdown that tied the game at 21. This was not one of those lackluster performances Lobo fans have grown accustomed to in recent years as losses piled up.

“We have a long way to go,” Gonzales said during a virtual postgame press conference. But he added this about his previously untested team: “I appreciate them never giving up. I appreciate their spirit, their fight.”

That much was apparent if you watched.

So now what?

Despite testing the team three times a week with the high-end P.C.R. method, the Lobos still can’t play games here or practice in a meaningful way. So they have gone off to Las Vegas, Nevada, where they can conduct full-speed drills and prepare for today’s game at Hawaii as part of an arrangement with fellow Mountain West Conference member UNLV. Gonzales is quick to credit Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez and UNM President Garnett Stokes for helping make all this possible.

While Gonzales says he’s happy the players who have “worked their tails off” get to compete, there also are some significant dollars at stake for a cash-strapped UNM athletics program. Nuñez estimates a hit of between $4 million and $5 million in revenue distribution that’s contingent on playing MWC games. (The conference is picking up the testing expenses.)

Speaking of testing, after administering thousands of tests in the program, UNM athletics has a positivity rate well below 1%. So far, it would appear players, coaches and staff have been diligent in following safety protocols. The restrictive health orders preventing full practice and games are not based on Lobo football; they are based on the number of cases and positivity rates in Bernalillo County, which have skyrocketed in recent weeks.

Athletics are an important part of university culture and, yes, a big business. As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, major university programs across the country have worked to find a way to play football – and basketball right around the corner faces the same challenges. (Lobo basketball this week moved practices to Moriarty, where there are fewer restrictions because of the lower case and positivity rates.)

While generally successful, across the nation there have been outbreaks, high-profile players sidelined with COVID-19, temporary program shutdowns and postponement or cancellation of some games.

This much is certain. Coming in as a first-year head coach is a daunting challenge. But no first-year coach – or his players – has ever faced the unique challenges posed not just by trying to turn around a program but doing it in the midst of a pandemic and unique state health orders. Gonzales and the Lobos acquitted themselves well in their baptism under fire.

Long-suffering Lobo fans who tuned in last Saturday saw a glimmer of hope and no doubt wish Gonzales and his traveling band of Lobos the best of luck when they take the field against Hawaii’s Rainbow Warriors.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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