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Aggies, Lobos Look For Turning Point

By Rick Wright
Of the Journal
    The Nixon-Kennedy debates. Elvis' TV special in 1968. Houston's "locomotion" delay offense in the 1983 NCAA men's basketball championship game at the Pit.
    The San Antonio Spurs getting the first pick in the 1997 NBA Draft— and not taking Keith Van Horn.
    Such turning points, in reality, can be identified only after the fact.
    I've learned that the hard way over the years, declaring UNM's football program as having turned this corner or that with this win or the other— only to watch the Lobos crash like Nixon's approval rating the following week.
    That goes for New Mexico State football, too, only more so. The Aggies over the years have shown occasional signs of life, only to lapse back into their coma.
    Remember that historic victory over Arizona State in 1999? Now, it's just history.
    Still, these are intriguing times along the I-25 corridor. A turning point (or two) waiting to happen?
    Both programs entered the 2007 season with more than token optimism.
    For UNM, that optimism was— I mean, is— based on experience. After an unexpected downturn in 2005 and treading water in '06, the 2007 Lobos have proven, solid players at most positions. That hasn't changed, despite the obvious concerns raised last Saturday by a 10-6 defeat at UTEP.
    For anyone of the Lobo persuasion who's panicking, rest assured coach Rocky Long isn't. He's seen too many potential turning points, positive and negative, come and go.
    For the Aggies, this is year three of the Air Raid Era. NMSU coach Hal Mumme is alleged to have told Long in 2005 that he'd start kicking Lobo butt with his signature spread offense once he had his own recruits on the field.
    Now, the vast majority of players on NMSU's two-deep roster are Mumme recruits.
    "I thought they were really good on offense last year," Long said, "and they're a little better than that (this year).
    "I think they're bigger, stronger and faster on defense, and that makes them that much better a football team."
    Could Mumme's first victory over New Mexico— it would be NMSU's first since 2002— be considered a turning point?
    Again, such things must be left to the future. That 2002 win over UNM looked like one at the time, spurring NMSU to a winning season.
    They haven't had a winning season since.
    Trends, not turning points, have been the story of UNM and NMSU football. Mostly, those arrows have pointed down, down and down.
    Only five times in the past 50 years— and not once since 1978— have both schools had winning seasons the same year.
    Incredible? Maybe, when looking from the outside in. From the inside looking out, you get used to it.
    And therein lies the problem: reversing that inertia.
    Long did a remarkable job in taking the Lobos from a 3-9 record in 1998, his first year, to 8-4 (before the annual bowl defeat) in 2003. No turning point, just a slow, steady upward trend.
    Now, some are calling for Long's head.
    The turning point? Maybe it was that Colorado State game on Oct. 29, 2005. Leading 25-12 at halftime and with a 6-3 record in their grasp, the Lobos lost 35-25 and suddenly were 5-4. Since that night, their record is 7-9.
    Or maybe not, since UNM followed that CSU game with a dramatic, come-from-behind, 31-27 win at Utah. Even in hindsight, turning points are hard to find.
    Sometime in the future, will the winner of Saturday's game point to Sept. 8, 2007, as a turning point? Or will the loser? Unknown.
    What's known is this: Here are two programs that could really use one.
    Catch Rick Wright's column at www.abqjournal.com. E-mail him at rwright@abqjournal.com


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