New Mexico chasing first WAC title in 33 years
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ With every victory in a season that seems destined to be the best in New Mexico’s history, the expectations soar higher and coach Dennis Franchione’s voice of reason grows louder.
New Mexico’s 6-0 start is the best in school history and, with the Lobos on the verge of cracking the Top 25 for only the third time ever, Lobos fans are engulfed in talk of a bowl bid and a Western Athletic Conference title.
Neither has happened in decades.
New Mexico last bowl appearance was in the now extinct Aviation Bowl in 1961 and the Lobos’ last WAC title was in 1964, when they shared it with Arizona and Utah.
This week, New Mexico, 3-0 in the WAC, faces its toughest challenge to date, against a Rice (4-2, 2-1) team that last week used its option offense to beat then -No. 21 Brigham Young 27-14.
It was Rice that a year ago literally ran over New Mexico’s promising season by rushing for 481 yards in a 38-21 victory in Houston.
All the more reason, says Franchione, to temper the mania that is sweeping through Albuquerque and the rest of New Mexico this fall.
``We haven’t played ourselves into anything yet and all this game counts is one,″ Franchione said Tuesday. ``We’re not bowl eligible at this time and we’re only at the top of the conference.″
New Mexico has played itself to the top of the Mountain Division in the 16-team WAC by playing solid defense in a league where offenses dominate and by Franchione’s ability to keep his team from resting on its last victory.
``There have been years around here, where we won a damn football game and we acted like we had changed the state of the union,″ he said. ``I understand why. We didn’t win very many, so when we did, we were happy and they (players) wanted to cling to that feeling. Sometimes, we hung onto the feeling so long, we lost the next game.″
New Mexico was 26-80 in the nine seasons before Franchione took over the program in 1992. In the five-plus seasons since then, New Mexico has won 30 games, including 6-5 seasons in 1993 and 1996. The six wins this year assures the Lobos will have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1971.
The Lobos haven’t won more than six games since they went 10-1 in 1983 under the late coach Joe Morrison. That team was ranked No. 20 for two weeks, but lost the WAC title to BYU and failed to get a bowl bid.
This New Mexico team, says BYU coach LaVell Edwards, deserves a better fate.
``I’ve voted for them (in the USA Today-ESPN poll) the last two or three weeks,″ Edwards said. ``They’ve been so close to a big year the last couple of seasons and you could see the improvement all along.″
``They’re aggressive and fly to the ball on defense. Offensively they run the ball well and just don’t beat themselves,″ said Rice coach Ken Hatfield.
Another factor in the winning streak has been the play of junior quarterback Graham Leigh, who transferred to New Mexico two years ago after Pacific dropped its football program.
Leigh was expected to be mostly a role player in a backfield that was rich in running backs when the season started. But injuries have sliced into that depth and Leigh’s foot speed and accurate arm have carried the Lobos in recent weeks. He leads the team in rushing with 345 yards and last week accounted for all five New Mexico touchdowns _ three passing and two rushing _ in the Lobos’ 36-21 win at San Diego State.
Leigh, like his teammates, is trying to keep these good times in perspective.
``Everybody has it in the back of their mind how good the season could turn out, but our main focus is Rice,″ Leigh said. ``We’re not looking ahead to Utah or BYU or anyone else. We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing and improving every week.″
Saturday’s game against the Owls is sure to be a sellout and school officials are predicting a record crowd in excess of 35,000 to a stadium that seats just over 31,200.
John Reid, the executive director of the Holiday Bowl, will be in the crowd to evaluate both teams.
All of that, says Franchione, is a tribute to what the Lobos have accomplished and what might be.
``I continue to remind them that they’re special, no matter what happens the rest of the season,″ he said. ``And I continue to remind them that they need to believe in themselves and that they will find a way to win. They have for six straight weeks.″