EL PASO – For its Mountain West Conference opener against Air Force this Saturday, University of New Mexico could have some of its six players cleared after they were out against UTEP due to a positive COVID-19 result and subsequent contact tracing, UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said.
Wide receivers Mannie Logan-Greene, Keyonta Lanier, Elijah Queen, Andrew Erickson and Zarak Scruggs Jr., as well as tight end Trace Bruckler were all ruled out after a positive COVID-19 case on the team that caused the players to be unavailable due to contact tracing on Saturday when UTEP defeated the Lobos, 20-13, at the Sun Bowl.
UNM coach Danny Gonzales wasn’t sure Saturday night if the six players were going to be out again in the MWC opener. The possibility that some of the six players could be cleared in time for the game against Air Force comes from the fact that UNM used the utmost caution when ruling out players against UTEP. Some of those players out for contact tracing reasons could be cleared with the proper testing and negative results, Nuñez said.
Gonzales said he was made aware on Friday morning of six players being subject to being quarantined. UTEP was made aware of the news on Saturday before the game.
UNM (2-2) led 13-3 at halftime, but was shut out in the second half when the Miners (3-1) scored 17 unanswered points. UTEP held the Lobos to 71 yards of offense in the second half, including just 9 yards in the third quarter when they had zero first downs. UNM had only three first downs in the fourth quarter, two of them during the Lobos’ final drive.
“We were still trying to figure out what was going on,” Gonzales said of Friday. “Before we left town on Friday we knew some guys had been contact traced (subject to being quarantined). We still needed to figure out if they needed to be (quarantined due to contact tracing). They did, so there was no point in saying anything at that point. It wasn’t going to change practice preparation. There’s no advantage.”
This season, non-vaccinated players have been getting tested three times a week for the coronavirus. The UNM players who are not vaccinated were last tested on Thursday. After the positive COVID-19 test result, UNM ruled out five more players due to contact tracing as a matter of precaution.
The six players who were ruled out did not make the trip on Friday to El Paso with the team.
UNM has required all students, faculty and staff accessing UNM facilities to get vaccinated by Thursday. Gonzales would not say if some of the players had been partially vaccinated, citing health and privacy laws. He said about three weeks ago that about 80% of the team had been vaccinated.
Sophomore Jace Taylor and freshmen Luke Wysong and Austin Erickson each made their first start at wide receiver against the Miners. Logan-Greene leads the Lobos in receiving this season and has been UNM’s returner for kickoff and punt returns. Andrew Erickson led the Lobos in receiving last season and was also a starter, along with Lanier. Each of the six players had contributed to the Lobos’ 2-0 start.
“It is what it is,” Gonzales said. “(The six) were not here. We’re dealing with COVID, and so we put the guys we had out there to compete. Still should’ve won the game. Give UTEP credit.”
Gonzales said the Lobos became complacent with their halftime lead. UNM also committed errors in the secondary and there was a lack of aggression, especially in the Lobos’ pass and run blocking, Gonzales said. He said the Lobos had lost the momentum in the community that was built with a 2-0 start and a four-game win streak from winning the final two games last season.
He didn’t care for thinking about what-if scenarios, including if his team would have had those six players available. However, he said the loss of the six players did have an impact on the offense.
“It hurts when you have guys that you practice with all week and they don’t play on Saturday,” Gonzales said. “For sure, it hurts. There’s plenty of guys that stepped up that had opportunities. We didn’t have anybody out on the offensive line. So we should’ve blocked (the Miners) better.”
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The Lobos built a 13-3 halftime lead on the strength of their grittiest drive of the season that proved to be their only touchdown of the game.
UNM quarterback Terry Wilson led the Lobos on an eight-play, 67-yard drive in the first quarter. He connected on key passes to Taylor (17 yards), tight end Kyle Jarvis (18 yards) and Bobby Cole (12 yards). Wilson capped the drive with a spectacular 12-yard run for a TD.
UNM senior kicker Andrew Shelley connected on two field goals, from 43 and 36 yards, the latter as time expired in the first half.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Early in the fourth quarter, with the Lobos trailing 17-13, UNM safety Jerrick Reed dropped an interception, a potential pick-six near midfield. UNM cornerback Donte Martin also dropped a potential interception return for a touchdown early in the first quarter.
Gonzales said that was the difference in the game.
In addition, late in the opening quarter with the Lobos leading 7-0, Gonzales passed up a 31-yard field-goal attempt and went for it on fourth-and-2. Wilson came up short with a 1-yard run, as the Miners stuffed him.
“I probably made a bad choice,” Gonzales said. “I’m not changing. I’m stubborn. I want to be aggressive on fourth down. We might be better off kicking the field goal. But sooner or later, we gotta understand how to make a frickin’ first down on fourth-and-short.”
NOTES: Reed (12 tackles, two pass breakups) and Jarvis (four catches, 59 yards) both spoke to the media after the game. Both said they have been vaccinated. Both also said they believe it’s an individual’s choice to get vaccinated.
“The rules could be different,” Reed said. “But the rules are rules, so you gotta abide by them.”
The Lobos experienced COVID-19 issues last year. They couldn’t play their season opener at Colorado State on Oct. 24 due to the prevalance of the virus in Bernalillo County and in accordance with state guidelines.
Their next game was supposed to be at home in Albuquerque but was relocated to San Jose State due to the public health order. UNM was without at least three projected starters in the secondary due to contract tracing protocols and lost to the Spartans, 38-21.
Due to the public health order, the Lobos spent the rest of their 2-5 season in Las Vegas, Nevada, where they did not have a positive COVID-19 test result.
HE SAID IT: “I look at myself as a big-time playmaker, so plays like that I have to make. That eats at me a lot right now. From the time I dropped that interception till the end of the game, I was thinking if I would have made that play we would’ve won that game. I’m going to go home and reality-check myself. If I’m going to be that big-time player for this defense I gotta make plays like that. I gotta make every play that comes to me. I gotta hold myself to that standard and my team does the same thing. They told me: ‘Hey bro, we need you. You gotta make that play for us.’ I let my team down. I’m going into next week wanting to make it up to them.” – UNM safety Jerrick Reed in response to dropping a would-be pick six early in the fourth quarter.