ALBUQUERQUE — If one tried to imagine the worst-case scenario for the Lobo football team before Saturday’s homecoming game at Dreamstyle Stadium, it would have taken a dose of performance enhancers dumped into a cauldron of rocket fuel to only begin to understand the combustible nature of what actually exists.
Before an anemic crowd of 18,804, the University of New Mexico was sent packing by Liberty in the final tune-up for the Mountain West opener next week at UNLV.
The Flames rolled up 568 yards off offense against UNM’s Swiss cheese defense and got monster games out of quarterback Stephen Calvert (417 yards passing) and receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden (11 catches, 245 yards) in a 52-43 victory.
The loss drops the Lobos to 2-2, severely damaging any hope of garnering six wins to earn bowl eligibility. What’s more, it did even more damage to a fan base that is clearly losing interest in the football program. Saturday marked the fifth straight game with fewer than 20,000 fans.
“The reality is, man, we haven’t been able to consistently stop anybody other than at times what we did down in Las Cruces,” said New Mexico head coach Bob Davie. “We didn’t stop Incarnate Word. We didn’t stop Wisconsin and we didn’t stop Liberty. So it starts with me. There’s no — it starts with me.”
Playing their first season as an FBS independent, Liberty (2-2) scored half a dozen touchdowns in a wildly lopsided first half, then held on for dear life as UNM trimmed a five-touchdown deficit to six points in the waning moments.
To make matters worse, the Lobos lost starting quarterback Tevaka Tuioti for the season with a broken collarbone in his left (non-throwing) shoulder. He will have surgery on Monday, leaving the team with just one healthy quarterback — junior Sheriron Jones.
Jones spelled Tuioti two weeks ago in a come from behind win at New Mexico State, but he ran a horrifically bland offense to do it. The Lobos scrapped their triple option ground game and went straight vanilla to get that win.
Down 42-10 at halftime and Tuioti writhing on the sidelines, Davie had no choice but to throw Jones into the fire and have him run a pass-happy offense that flies in the face of the run-first mentality Davie’s program has been built upon.
It almost worked. Improbably, Jones engineered three straight scoring drives to get the Lobos within 42-29 early in the fourth quarter, then led two more trips to the end zone to make it 49-43 with six minutes remaining.
“For us to rely on the passing game as exclusively as we had to rely on the passing game — we’re just not geared to do that yet,” Davie said.
Jones passed for 312 years and four touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions. Davie was left no choice but to rip out a few pages of the Lobos’ playbook in the second half.
“We’re not going to run triple [option] because we’re down to one quarterback, unless we go with the freshman [Trae Hall],” Davie said.
Jones said the thought of getting injured never crosses his mind when he’s on the field, this despite the fact that Tuioti has suffered a concussion and now a broken collarbone, and backup Coltin Gerhart has an injured foot that has kept him out since the season opener.
“If it do, that’s in my — it’s way back here,” Jones said, touching the back of his head. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to go hurt them before they hurt me.”
Davie said the Lobos never deserved to win the game. What’s more, he said he didn’t see Liberty’s offensive explosion coming. The Flames had scored just 21 points in the first half through their first three games yet scored six times on nine possessions in the first two quarters.
“I really do think we were one stop away at the end,” Davie said. “But getting that one stop wasn’t going to happen tonight. At some point we’re going to have to stop somebody.”
The Lobos had a decent balance on offense, rushing for 211 yards and two touchdowns. Tyrone Owens had 93 yards on 15 carries and both TDs while Tuioti and Jones combined for 86 yards.
With essentially zero depth at quarterback, Davie said he has no choice but to temporarily abandon the triple option and go with more of a pro-style approach that calls for straight handoffs and deep drops by Jones. It’s well outside the team’s comfort zone, but the stark reality is that there is no other way.
“This is what it’s going to be,” David said. “Til’ Gerhart gets back — he’s still a ways out — we have to go run an offense. We can’t — you see what we are right now on defense — we’re not going to sit there and be conservative and beat any team left on our schedule. We had to go what we did and we paid the price with the interceptions.”
The Lobos had a chance to get the ball back late in the fourth quarter when they had Liberty facing a third-and-4 from its own 38. The back-breaker came in the form of a 50-yard pass from Calvert to Gandy-Golden that pushed the ball all the way down to the UNM 10.
The Flames kicked the clinching field goal with a minute remaining.
“Defensively it’s a concern,” Davie said. “A major concern.”
Delane Hart-Johnson was UNM’s top receiver with 83 yards on five catches and one touchdown. … Mistakes were a killer. The Lobos had what looked like a long punt return inside the Liberty 5-yard-line negated when Thomas Viera was flagged for running into the Flames punter. UNM was penalized in the third quarter when Patrick Reed caught a 79-yard touchdown pass from Jones but was assessed a personal foul when he high-fived a group of fans sitting just outside the south end zone. Davie called the infraction, “a little ticky tack.” … St. Michael’s graduate Xavier Vigil, a redshirt freshman linebacker, did not make an appearance. He has yet to get into any of UNM’s first four games. … The Lobos play their next two games on the road beginning with next week’s game at UNLV. After that it’s a trip to Colorado State before returning home Oct. 20 against Fresno State.
Saturday: New Mexico (2-2) at UNLV (2-2), 2 p.m. in Las Vegas, Nev.
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: KKOB-AM 770 and KVSF-AM 1400
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