When the University of New Mexico football team leaves Albuquerque for College Station, Texas, on Thursday afternoon it will be the first time the Lobos will be away from home as a team since they spent the 2020 season in Las Vegas, Nevada.
That 2020 season – 43 days – spent in a hotel in Henderson proved to be unprecedented. It was the first time in college football history that a team played its entire schedule out of its home state. The Lobos left Albuquerque due to the public health order in response to the coronavirus pandemic that restricted them from practicing. They didn’t have their first full-team practice until three days after its season-opening loss to San Jose State.
The UNM football team goes on the road this time much more prepared. It will need to be – against Texas A&M (2-0), which is ranked No. 5 in the coaches’ poll, No. 7 in the Associated Press poll and is a 30-point favorite.
“When you go through a struggle, when you go through a hardship and you go through something tough with somebody, it grows your experiences and relationship with them,” senior running back Bobby Cole said. “Even if we didn’t connect, all of us. It’s hard to connect with everyone, but that’s something we share. … I didn’t know at the moment, but I look back on that and think, man, that was a crazy time in my life.”
That time for the Lobos could be deemed a success even though they started 0-5. They won their final two games, and more importantly no one tested positive for the COVID-19 during the season. In addition, UNM coach Danny Gonzales believed the athletic department and university made the right call in sending the Lobos to play the season. They spent roughly $750,000 for their Las Vegas stay, but they gained a little more than $3.5 million in revenue from Mountain West Conference television contract distribution money and the NCAA College Football Playoff payout.
Cole, senior center Kyle Stapley and others say their long trip away from home helped unite the team quickly under a first-year coach and a new staff. The Lobos came back a different team. They had a “normal” offseason, a full spring and a full preseason camp. They are 2-0 as they head to Kyle Field (capacity 102,733).
This week, Gonzales has done his best to prepare the Lobos, having them compete during practice periods in the bubble, the indoor facility, with speakers blaring the Texas A&M fight song and stadium crowd sound effects.
Some of the UNM players have had the experience of playing against a big-time Power Five program. But the last time the Lobos played a Power Five team? They lost at then-No. 7-ranked Notre Dame, 66-14, in front of a sellout crowd of 77,622 at Notre Dame Stadium in 2019.
Cole remembers that as the site where he scored his first career touchdown on his first carry in a Division I football game.
“You can’t ask for a better stage than that,” said Cole, who ran for 107 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in UNM’s 34-25 win over rival New Mexico State on Saturday.
Cole added that he had “no fear” when he received his first opportunity at a carry. He says the Lobos need to have no fear when they face Texas A&M.
Stapley, who also played for the Lobos when they lost at then-No. 5-ranked Wisconsin 45-14 in 2018, welcomes the challenge. He’s well aware of the Aggies’ highly publicized defensive line that includes Demarvin Leal, McKinnley Jackson and Jayden Peevy, who were each named to numerous preseason watch lists.
Jackson missed the first two games of the season because he was suspended after an offseason arrest, but he’ll be back against the Lobos. Even without Jackson, the defensive line helped Texas A&M hold Colorado to just 54 yards in the second half of the Aggies’ 10-7 win on Saturday.
Peevy was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Lineman of the Week after that game.
“They are great, they are big, they are athletic, they’re strong,” Stapley said of the Aggies’ defensive line. “They got guys selected to be preseason draft or whatever their pre-picks are, and that’s awesome. We’ve seen it before. We’ve played some against some good defensive lines. It’s a great challenge and that’s why I look forward to it. I like to see how we stack up. I believe we can compete with anybody in the nation, and this is our chance to go out and show it.”