It would have been such a Lobo way to lose.
There, sprinting down the east sideline at Albertsons Stadium, went Boise State wide receiver Austin Cottrell — close to finishing a desperation, lateral-upon-lateral play that began with just one second on the clock and the Broncos trailing New Mexico 31-24.
This is New Mexico, remember — a team that in recent years has been a lot better at coming close than actually winning.
So Cottrell scores, right? The Broncos kick the extra point and win in overtime, or maybe they go for two and win without OT.
The thought, Lobos coach Bob Davie said after the game in Boise, Idaho, late Saturday night — or, actually early Sunday morning — more than crossed his mind.
“That was unbelievable,” Davie said. “A nightmare unfolding in front of you.”
But, no, the nightmare was Boise State’s. Lobos safety Markel Byrd came across the field and cut down Cottrell at the UNM 4-yard line, preserving a precarious, yet richly deserved New Mexico victory.
“I just had an opportunity to make a tackle for us,” Byrd said, “and I just did my best.”
Byrd’s best, and the Lobos’, proved to be good enough.
At 6-4 overall, 4-2 in Mountain West Conference play, UNM is eligible to play in a bowl for the first time since 2007. Given that there are 41 bowl games this year and 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, there is virtually no chance that the Lobos won’t get a bowl bid — even if they lose their two remaining games.
Losing those games — Colorado State on Saturday and Air Force on Nov 28, both in Albuquerque — is not what the Lobos have in mind. Two more victories would put UNM in the Mountain West title game Dec. 5.
“We can’t get satisfied,” said junior quarterback Austin Apodaca. “We obviously have six wins now, and at the same time we control our own destiny for the Mountain West at this point. So we’ve got to keep going every day and work hard, and I think good things can happen.”
Apodaca made good things happen in Boise, rallying from a couple of mistakes.
On a third-and-12 from the Boise State 14-yard line, as the Lobos sought to add to a 14-3 second-quarter lead, Apodaca tried to force a pass in between defenders. The Broncos’ Ben Weaver intercepted.
In the third quarter, with New Mexico up 17-10, Apodaca — having hit running back Teriyon Gipson for a gain of 46 yards — fumbled on an option keeper. Boise State recovered at the Broncos 24 and proceeded to drive for a game-tying touchdown.
“It was tough,” Apodaca said, “because I felt we had a lot of momentum that we lost and I felt like a lot of that was on me.”
The Lobos, and Apodaca, grabbed the momentum back.
Early in the fourth quarter, Apodaca found wide receiver Delane Hart-Johnson for an 81-yard gain to the Boise State 1-yard line. Running back Richard McQuarley scored on the next play.
“It was kind of an option play action,” Apodaca said. “The safeties were low. I saw Delane kind of running free right in the middle of the field … he was behind everyone. So I just lofted up to him, and he made a great catch.”
On Boise State’s next series, Lobos cornerback Cranston Jones intercepted a Brett Rypien pass. Two plays later, Apodaca found Daryl Chestnut for 30 yards to the Broncos 5-yard line on a wheel route out of the backfield. Running back Teriyon Gipson then scored on an option pitch from the 4. The Lobos led 31-17.
“We’ve been working on that play all week, kind of a little spinoff of a play we had earlier last week (in a 14-13 victory over Utah State),” Apodaca said. “Daryl made a great play on the route, he burned the (defender).
“All I had to do was just put it up to him. He made a great catch and came down with it.”
The UNM offense struggled thereafter, and the defense gave up one more touchdown.
But not two.
“Lights out, the defense was lights out,” Apodaca said. “… A big credit to the defense, because they definitely kept us in the game and allowed us to kind of keep our heads up and keep going.”
There could be no better way to have gotten that all-important sixth win, Byrd said, than to beat mighty Boise State (7-3, 4-2) on its home turf. It was UNM’s first win over the Broncos in seven tries.
“It’s a wonderful feeling right now,” Byrd said. “I can’t really put it into words.
“Since I came here, that’s all they’ve been talking about is we need to get to a bowl game, get over the hump. We’re finally able to get there.”
Flashback: In a historic breakthrough for the University of New Mexico football program, the Lobos defeat regional powerhouse Boise State, 31-24, on the Broncos’ hallowed home turf.
What went right: Big plays on both sides of the ball fueled UNM’s upset of the Broncos (7-3 overall, 4-2 in Mountain West Conference play). Three interceptions (Ryan Langford, Markel Byrd, Cranston Jones) and a fumble recovery (Langford) either led to New Mexico touchdowns or thwarted Boise State drives. On offense, five runs or passes of 30 yards or more helped UNM build an early lead, lose it, then get it back. Above all, the Lobos never wilted against a quality opponent and in a hostile environment.
What went wrong: An interception, a lost fumble and the failure to convert a single third down (in 10 tries) put the landmark victory at risk throughout. As good as UNM’s defense was when it needed to be, the Lobos gave up 638 yards, an astonishing 40 first downs and allowed the Broncos to run 114 offensive plays. Somehow, some way, UNM won this game despite having 16 penalties stepped off for 135 yards.
Injury report: Quarterback Lamar Jordan left the game in the second quarter after hitting his head on the turf. He was kept out primarily as a precaution, coach Bob Davie said, but will be evaluated further.
Quoting Davie: “It was just a gutsy, gutsy, gutsy effort. We can clean up whatever mistakes we have because of the kind of heart and because of the kind of fight we have.”
Next up: The Lobos (6-4, 4-2), having secured the six victories necessary for bowl eligibility, now can set their sights on the once-illusory but now quite real goal of a MWC Mountain Division title. If UNM can win home games against Colorado State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.) and Air Force (Nov. 28, time TBA), they would represent the division in the conference title game Dec. 5. Wow, right?