Sam Houston State at New Mexico
Time, location: Dreamstyle Stadium, 4 p.m.
Radio: KKOB-AM 770 (Robert Portnoy, DonTrell Moore, Ned James)
Line: Lobos favored by 9
By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Assistant Editor
Call it the first-ever college football must-win in August.
Hope shines eternal within the University of New Mexico football program as the Lobos open the 2019 season against perennial Football Championship Subdivision power Sam Houston State.
UNM will attempt to put to end a seven-game losing streak that has now gone on for nine months — the Lobos lost 31-3 at Wyoming on Nov. 24, 2018, in their last game that pushed that skid to seven games.
The task for New Mexico for Saturday — and for the 2019 season — is to focus on what it can control and avoid wasting time on things it can’t control.
That’s because, outside the program, the picture isn’t as rosy.
The Albuquerque Journal reported Friday that season ticket sales total 6,213 — the lowest total for the school in 27 years and just more than one-third of the program record of 17,404 in 2005.
That total is more than the total average attendance UNM had in 2018 when the attendance was reported to be 16,587.
And the reported attendance includes season tickets sold to fans, who apparently lost interest in the team in the second half of the season as the actual attendance — the actual number of fans in the stands the last two games — was probably half the reported average.
UNM will have two weeks off after the SHSU game to prepare for No. 7 Notre Dame in South Bend on Sept. 14. The Lobos then return home to face in-state rival New Mexico State on Sept. 21.
From the standpoint of retaining fan support, the Lobos can ill afford to lose to the Bearkats … again.
A 48-45 Sam Houston State victory over New Mexico in week four of the 2011 season signaled the end for former Lobo coach Mike Locksley’s turbulent three-year tenure.
Davie took over in 2012.
“We came back after that, I guess, and rescheduled them to another opportunity to come to Albuquerque,” Davie said of SHSU during his weekly news conference, inferring he was not part of the decision-making process to reschedule the Bearkats. “I’m not sure that was a great decision after they beat you once to invite them back.”
Sam Houston State is coming off a down year in 2018 in which it went 6-5. The Bearkats won 46 games over the previous four years — averaging 11 ½ wins per season.
Seventh-year coach K.C. Keeler said in an interview with KNML-610 AM earlier this week that Football Bowl Subdivision schools have been hesitant to schedule his program after SHSU scored 45 points on Texas Tech in a 59-45 loss to the Red Raiders to open the 2015 season.
The Bearkats return nine starters on defense from a year ago, have their starting quarterback from 2018 returning in sophomore Ty Brock, who threw for 2,417 yards with 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last year.
Yet, he is expected to share time at QB on Saturday with fellow sophomore Eric Schmid.
SHSU has a three-time 1,000-yard receiver in senior Nathan Stewart, and junior running back Kyran Jackson rushed for 809 yards and eight scores last season.
The Lobos, meanwhile, enter Saturday’s game with several question marks. They have new schemes on both offense and defense.
Senior linebacker Alex Hart and senior defensive end Trent Sellers, who missed most (Hart) or all of 2018 (Sellers) due to injury, return to give the Lobos a pair of reliable playmakers for their new aggressive scheme.
The Lobos have to get pressure on the QB while they break in a relatively inexperienced secondary.
The offense has some experience on the offensive line and in its receiving corps, but it still needs a running back to step up and give the unit a burst it has lacked since the 2016 season when UNM led the nation in running.
The biggest question is the status of starting quarterback Tevaka Tuioti. The sophomore only has six fall practices under his belt, so how much he will play Saturday remains to be seen.
Davie said he has faith in Sheriron Jones, Trae Hall and junior college transfer Brandt Hughes to play the position. Jones is the only one with FBS experience, and he had an up-and-down 2018 filling in for an injured Tuioti last year.
To his credit, Davie did express some confidence in his team.
The Bearkats “are experienced. They come in here expecting to win, as do we,” Davie said. “The fact that they’re more experienced doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re more prepared than us.”
The Lobos need a win Saturday to keep external skepticism from permeating a program that has ended the last two seasons each on seven-game slides.
UNM’s 9-4 campaign in 2016 is so far in the past that during Davie’s first weekly news conference of 2019, he referred to that season as the 2017 season.
Davie needs the team to start fast to repel noise about his job security that grew as the 2018 season went on.
“Hopefully, when you have success, you get some momentum,” Davie said.
The Lobos need a fast start to legitimize the hard work they’ve put in during the offseason. A favorable early start can give the program the head of steam it desperately needs.
A loss Saturday may not doom the Lobos, but a muted aftermath could be deafening.