(Feature photo courtesy UNM Athletic Communications)
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
The theme of Saturday night’s game at Dreamstyle Stadium was frustration for the home team.
Another pounding at the hands of the Fresno State Bulldogs has left the University of New Mexico’s 2018 football season teetering on the brink of another crash-and-burn finish, a la 2017.
The 38-7 loss in front of an announced 16,708 fans put the Lobos under the .500 mark for the first time this season at 3-4, 1-2 in the Mountain West, and in danger of missing bowl eligibility for a second straight season.
UNM’s next two foes could be just as formidable as Fresno State, and season-ending injuries to starting quarterback Tevaka Tuioti and starting middle linebacker Alex Hart loom larger week by week.
The Bulldogs had the superior talent on Saturday night, but the Lobos did have their chances early. After eight touchdown passes against Liberty and UNLV, quarterback Sheriron Jones has come back down to earth the last two weeks.
After a couple of early breaks went against New Mexico, the team let frustration show in the form of a series of 15-yard penalties that unnecessarily gave the visitors a bigger advantage.
“Those frustrations, you can’t let those get to you,” Lobo coach Bob Davie said after the game, “and we let frustrations get to us. It made us look like an undisciplined team, and it’s unfortunate. I don’t feel like we took a step forward tonight.”
At this point, UNM needs to start getting creative if it wants to salvage 2018. Otherwise, another seven-game losing streak to close a season, which took place last year, is a possibility.
Here are five takeaways from the Lobos’ loss to Fresno State.
1. Forget about injury; let Jones run the ball.
The junior quarterback showed a series of good moves during a couple of first-half runs after plays broke down.
In fact, Jones led the Lobos in rushing in the first half with 31 yards and finished with 42 for the game.
Davie has said repeatedly that UNM cannot utilize the triple-option with Jones as the only healthy quarterback with experience. The offense doesn’t want to rely on Jones running for fear of getting him hurt as well.
But with the Lobos now facing Utah State, San Diego State and Boise State over the next four weeks in their attempt to become bowl-eligible, they need to unload their entire offensive chamber now.
UNM will be an underdog in at least three of its next four games, and harnessing the offense to protect Jones will put the team at a greater disadvantage.
The Lobos have to let Jones loose and trust him to avoid big hits to give them a better chance to pull off an upset.
Davie said after the game he thought QB Coltin Gerhart was still two weeks away from returning from a sprained foot. He reiterated that he was not going to turn Jones loose until Gerhart’s return.
If that is the plan, then the Lobos have to rotate in Patrick Reed to run the ball and give them a triple-option threat.
The other part of that equation is that Jones still is a work in progress in the passing game, having completed 15 of 32 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown and one interception vs. the Bulldogs.
Perhaps, some open-field runs will help his confidence in the passing game.
2. Zebra interference
Officiating usually receives way too much blame in the outcome of games. So let’s just say that early calls certainly did not help UNM.
On the Lobos’ initial possession, Delane Hart-Johnson caught a 43-yard pass to the Bulldogs 17, but a dubious offensive pass interference call on Hart-Johnson nullified the play.
In the second quarter, Jones made a nice scramble on third-and-8 from the UNM 13 and made a 19-yard run. He threw the ball in the air after the carry, which a Lobo teammate caught.
But Jones drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Perhaps still thinking about that play, Jones threw an interception on the subsequent play. The Bulldogs turned the turnover into a touchdown and a 17-0 lead with 3:29 left.
UNM then clawed back into the game at 17-7 when another call set back the home team.
And after committing a personal foul facemask penalty with less than a minute left, UNM cornerback De’John Rogers stared at the Fresno State sidelines a little too long and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The combined penalties, coming after an 11-yard pass play, resulted in 41 yards toward the Lobo goal line.
Bulldogs quarterback Marcus McMaryion threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to KeeSean Johnson and a 24-7 halftime lead.
To be fair, the refs blew a call on a missed Fresno State field goal in which the Lobos jumped offsides in the first quarter. The Bulldogs would’ve gotten a fresh set of downs had the penalty been called.
3. Discipline slipping away
The Lobos’ first eight penalties of the game all were personal foul penalties, including three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and one targeting foul, leading to the ejection of running back Zahneer Shuler in the first half.
In fact, the penalty on Shuler was not accepted, meaning that UNM actually had nine personal foul penalties, but only eight counted.
Both Davie and Hart-Johnson admitted that the first offensive pass interference penalty against the Lobo WR was a big momentum-shifter and the root of the team’s growing frustration.
But UNM is not a team that can allow opponents to get 15-yard chunks throughout the game.
Frustration also may be a continuance of the Lobos’ heartbreaking loss to Colorado State last week and then facing an immovable object in the Bulldogs on Saturday.
Davie denied any CSU hangover, saying the frustration was all due to the 6-1 Fresno State team.
Davie certainly doesn’t want to curb his team’s emotion, but he does have to make sure the team plays under control, especially if the officials are looking for any opportunity to flag a misbehaving player.
UNM has to play more under control next week at Utah State.
4. If Delane Hart-Johnson is ever going to live up to his potential, the time is now.
The Lobos senior receiver had another quiet game with three receptions for 25 yards against Fresno State, although he tied for the team lead in receptions.
Hart-Johnson does lead the team with 22 catches for 295 yards and four touchdowns on the season. However, when Davie decided to gravitate away from the triple-option and toward the spread-option, part of that thought process had to include seeing what he had at wide receiver.
Hart-Johnson, Jay Griffin IV and Elijah Lilly have been and should still be dynamic playmakers for the UNM offense. The trio has a combined 51 receptions on the season, 14 fewer than Hawaii’s John Ursua, who leads the nation with 64.
Hart-Johnson seemed destined for similar numbers by himself. Tuioti’s season-ending broken clavicle has been a factor in Hart-Johnson’s lack of production.
But he would seem to be a natural safety valve for a struggling Jones, and the Lobos should look at targeting the 6-foot-3, 219-pound more often.
Much more often.
5. The defense needs some playmakers in 2019 (because they likely won’t get any more in 2018).
UNM again opened OK against a dynamic offense but eventually wore down.
Davie said that he was disappointed his defense couldn’t stop the Bulldogs more than they did, knowing that the FS defense was not going to yield many points.
“We tried to hang in there on defense; we didn’t create many plays,” Davie lamented. “We don’t have the difference-maker. We don’t have the guy that’s going to wreak havoc in the backfield.
“(Aaron) Blackwell couldn’t get in there to disrupt things. If we don’t get someone in there to disrupt things, we’re going to have a hard time.”
The Lobos did manage one sack on McMaryion, but it didn’t create any turnovers and didn’t really make McMaryion uncomfortable all night. He was able to sit in the pocket and wait for receivers to get open, most notably Johnson, who had eight catches for 149 yards and two TDs.
With Jones and the offense still trying to figure out the spread-option, the defense also must get more aggressive to create turnovers or other big plays. More blitzes and stunts might force the opposing offense to make mistakes and give UNM’s offense short fields.
What does the unit have to lose?