ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On the eve of the eve of the long-awaited game between the University of New Mexico and San Diego State football teams, the Mike Locksley vs. Rocky Long debate should be near its zenith.
It seems an eternity ago that Long resigned after 11 years as UNM coach and Locksley came aboard to usher in a new era of Lobo football.
In hindsight, even Sports Illustrated’s prediction of a 1-11 UNM season in 2009 now seems optimistic for an 0-7 team that clearly has not adapted to Locksley’s coaching style.
While a groundswell of support for Long that never could be detected while he was coach now is spilling over, would UNM fans be happy with the team if Long were still coach?
There’s no way of telling how the Lobos would have fared had Long stayed, but here’s my version of where the team would be heading to San Diego State:
Sept. 5, UNM AT TEXAS A&M: The Lobos struggle offensively in the first half, getting quarterback Donovan Porterie back in the groove after his 11-month absence because of a knee injury. The Aggies find the end zone just before the half to take a 7-3 lead.
A&M extends the lead to 20-6 in the fourth quarter before Porterie shows signs of life and marches the Lobos 68 yards. James Wright’s 2-yard touchdown run pulls UNM within 20-13 early in the fourth quarter. The Lobo defense stiffens but the Aggies put the game away when free safety Jordan Pugh intercepts Porterie. UNM 0-1.
Sept. 12, TULSA AT UNM: Long reminds the Lobos of the 56-14 whipping the Golden Hurricane doled last season. The defense begins the game befuddling Tulsa QB G.J. Kinne, forcing an interception and a fumble to take a 13-10 halftime lead.
Kinne gets on track to give the Hurricane a 24-20 lead in the fourth quarter, but UNM’s defense forces another turnover in Tulsa territory. Wright gets the Lobos near the goal line and Porterie hits tight end Lucas Reed for the game-winning TD and the Lobo defense preserves a 27-24 win. UNM 1-1.
Sept. 19, AIR FORCE AT UNM: The Falcons, who in real life lead the nation in turnover margin at plus-17, force three first-half turnovers and take a 17-6 lead.
Wright and A.J. Butler lead the Lobos down the field for a TD to start the second half, and UNM closes the gap to 17-16. But the Falcons block a punt in the fourth quarter and score three plays later to go on for the 24-16 win. UNM 1-2.
Sept. 26, NEW MEXICO STATE AT UNM: An angry Lobo bunch looks to take its frustration out on the Aggies, and it jumps out to a 14-0 lead. But the offense bogs down and NMSU QB Trevor Walls relieves Jeff Fleming and cuts the lead to 17-13 as Porterie continues to struggle.
But UNM capitalizes on turnovers and Wright to wear down the Aggies for a 34-13 Lobo victory. UNM 2-2.
Oct. 3, UNM AT TEXAS TECH: The Lobos control the first half, but Red Raider backup QB Steven Sheffield throws a 25-yard TD pass to Alex Torres to tie the game at 14 at the half.
Tech extends its lead to 31-21, but then Lobo defensive end Johnathan Rainey intercepts a pass and returns it for a TD and a 31-28 deficit. UNM drives to the Raiders’ 34 with 2 seconds left, but Aho’s 51-yard field goal try is wide right. But the Lobos rediscover QB Brad Gruner as a weapon in their version of the “Wildcat” formation. UNM 2-3.
Oct. 10, UNM AT WYOMING: The Lobos take advantage of the snowy weather, Wright’s big body and Gruner’s new role to pound the ball at the Cowboys. The defense baffles Wyoming true freshman QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, and the Lobos take a 24-3 victory. UNM 3-3.
Oct. 24, UNLV at UNM: The Lobos again dominate the early going, running out to a 21-3 halftime lead at the half. A Porterie interception and a Gruner fumble help the Rebels cut the UNM lead to 24-17.
The Rebels muff a punt, and Gruner’s 4-yard TD run gives the Lobos breathing room as they go on to win 34-17. UNM 4-3.
That brings UNM to the current week with a 4-3 record and 2-1 in the Mountain West Conference. But with games looming against Utah, Brigham Young and TCU, the Lobos face a real possibility of going 6-6 and returning to the New Mexico Bowl for the third time in four years.
Would that sit well with Lobo fans? Judging by the fan reaction toward the 2006 and 2007 teams, probably not.
Locksley’s start has created more of an uphill battle, but he still has the opportunity to prove he can turn the UNM program into something more.