Back in the late 1950s-early ’60s, in the days of Don Perkins and Merlin Olsen and Marv Levy and John Ralston, the New Mexico Lobos and the Utah State Aggies were football bullies of the Rocky Mountain-Southwest.
From 1958 through 1964, the Lobos went 48-23-1. From 1960 through 1965, the Utags (as they commonly were known then) were even better: 47-13-1.
In 1965, however, college football expanded to allow teams to field offensive and defensive platoons. Two-way players like Perkins, an all-time New Mexico great who played running back and defensive back, became rare. The Lobos and the Utags, located in relatively out-of-the-way and sparsely populated areas, struggled to attract enough talent to field strong units on each side of the ball.
Gradually, then dramatically, this took its toll. Since 1980, New Mexico has had nine winning seasons. Utah State has had five.
Tonight at University Stadium, the two teams meet for the 20th time but for the first time since 2003. As of the close of business Friday, 18,300 tickets had been sold.
Rivals in the Skyline Conference from 1951-61, the Lobos and Aggies (not Utags) now are reunited in the Mountain West – UNM a charter member, USU new this season.
And second-year New Mexico coach Bob Davie points to a revitalized Utah State program as an example of what he hopes to build in Albuquerque.
The Aggies are coming off an 11-2 season and a bowl victory in 2012. The Lobos haven’t had a winning season since 2007.
“I think Utah State’s a great example,” Davie said, “of a football program that has been built over time.”
He noted that UNM, as of now, is planning to redshirt 20 players this season after having just four players sit out and gain strength and seasoning last year.
“If we can keep (those players) in this program and develop them,” he said, “four years from now, maybe we have a chance to be Utah State.”
If being Utah State has to wait, how about beating Utah State in the meantime?
The Aggies (3-4 overall, 2-1 in Mountain West play) are 11-point favorites, playing on the road but without their star quarterback. Chuckie Keeton suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago in a loss to Brigham Young.
Darell Garretson, a true freshman, is scheduled to start at quarterback for Utah State tonight.
Whether Cole Gautsche, Clayton Mitchem or David Vega starts at quarterback for UNM – Davie has made no announcement – the Lobos (2-4, 0-2) have little chance to win unless they can run the ball effectively against a Mountain West-leading defense that Davie calls the best New Mexico has faced this season.
The Aggies, like the Lobos, play a base 3-4 defense. They rely on senior nose guard A.J. Pataiali’i (6-foot-3, 307 pounds) to tie up blockers and on their linebackers, led by senior Jake Doughty, to make tackles galore.
The UNM ground attack ranks second in the nation with an average of 349.3 yards per game, but the yards came haltingly at times in losses to UTSA and Pittsburgh – to date, the strongest run defenses the Lobos have faced. Wyoming, as well, held the Lobos almost 100 yards below their average.
Junior offensive guard LaMar Bratton said he believes the Lobos can run the ball on any defense, provided each individual plays within himself.
“They’re definitely great up front,” Bratton said of the Aggies. “… We definitely have to elevate our game.
“We just need to go out there and worry about doing our job and not try to do anything more.”
CHERRY, SILVER & PINK: Fans are encouraged to wear pink tonight in support of breast cancer research and awareness. Breast cancer patients and survivors will be recognized as part of a “Lobos Love Pink” initiative of the UNM Cancer Center.