Whether the effort paid off, they’ll start finding out this afternoon.
The Lobos (4-6 overall, 1-4 in Mountain West Conference play) face the Wyoming Cowboys (2-7, 1-4) at University Stadium at 1:30 p.m. in a game UNM must win to have any chance for a bowl bid at season’s end.
Wyoming at New Mexico, 1:30 p.m., Comcast (Ch. 77, in Abq, 21 in Santa Fe), 770 AM
As of Friday afternoon, some 16,700 tickets had been sold. The Lobos are two-point underdogs.
Three weeks ago, New Mexico was 4-3 and needed just three victories in its final six games – .500 ball – for bowl eligibility.
Now, after losses to Air Force, Fresno State and UNLV, the Lobos must bat 1.000.
“I want to go to a bowl game so bad,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Joe Stoner. “I haven’t been to one since I’ve been here. The urgency has picked up. The importance of these last three games has definitely picked up.”
Accordingly, coach Bob Davie intensified practices this week. After weeks of limited contact during the week because of injury and depth issues, the Lobos put on pads and went good-on-good – No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense – instead of merely working against the scout team.
Davie said he wanted to eradicate any lingering effects of last Saturday’s sobering 35-7 loss to UNLV.
“You can’t ever feel sorry for anybody,” he said. “… You go the opposite way. You make it harder than it’s ever been, more attention to detail.”
Davie took this August-in-November approach one step further by having his players elect team captains for the final three games. Through the first 10 contests, captains were named week to week.
There were no nominations, Stoner said. Each player simply voted for the teammate he most thought of as a leader.
The three players selected were senior defensive lineman Ugo Uzodinma, junior running back Kasey Carrier and Stoner.
“It feels great,” Stoner said. “It’s an honor. It means I have the respect of my teammates. … I try to do the right thing every day on and off the field, and try to set an example for the younger guys.”
The first piece of advice Stoner’s young teammates might need – those on defense, anyway – is any clue on how to stop Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith.
Last November in Laramie, Wyo., Smith, then a true freshman, had a career day at the Lobos’ expense: 212 yards passing and 147 yards rushing, including a 69-yard touchdown run. The Cowboys won, 31-10.
New Mexico has faced some fine quarterbacks this year – Texas’ David Ash, Texas Tech’s Seth Doege, Fresno State’s Derek Carr – but they haven’t seen a run-pass quarterback like Smith.
“He’s like another running back on the field, except he can throw the ball,” Stoner said. “He’s a dual threat, and you have to keep contain on him and make sure he doesn’t break out.
“He’s very athletic, and he’s dangerous when he gets in the open field.”
Smith is a big-play quarterback, and Davie has talked repeatedly this week about the Lobos’ tendency to give up big plays.
As defined by Davie, a big play is any run of 15 yards or more, any pass of 20 or more. The Lobos have given up 57 such plays, totaling almost 1,700 yards, in 10 games.
“It’s painful,” Davie said. “The chunks (of yardage) have been unbelievable.”
As defined by Davie, the UNM offense actually isn’t far behind in terms of generating so-called big plays: unofficially, 51. But the Lobos’ big plays have generated only 1,450 yards.
And, to no one’s surprise, the ground-oriented Lobos have completed just six passes of more than 20 yards.
One wouldn’t expect that last figure to increase by a lot this afternoon. Senior quarterback B.R. Holbrook, the Lobos’ only proven passer, is out with a separated shoulder.
Davie feels true freshman quarterback Cole Gautsche is improving as a passer, but it almost certainly is the Lobos’ fifth-ranked ground game – particularly Carrier’s effectiveness between the tackles – that must work if they’re to win today.
“We’re going to demand nothing but excellence,” Davie said. “Nothing but the best.”