2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: As someone who led Notre Dame to three bowl games in five seasons, head coach Bob Davie's return the sidelines last year with the New Mexico Lobos was less than inspiring. Then again, after winning just a single game a year earlier, a 21-14 triumph over lowly UNLV at home, almost anything success would be a step in the right direction for the Lobos and coach Davie.
Right out of the gate UNM managed to raise more than a few eyebrows as it crushed visiting Southern University in a lopsided 66-21 triumph in Albuquerque.
"That was about the longest football game I've ever been in," Davie said after the onslaught. "That first half I didn't think would ever end. But first of all, I just told our players not to get ahead of ourselves. But the potential of this program ... You look at the ways this stadium looked when we walked in there today. The ways those stands looked behind our bench and the fact that nobody left. To me it was a big time atmosphere. And I appreciate that."
Warning his troops not to get too excited about the victory proved to be rather prophetic for Davie, as the Lobos went out in their next two games and lost by a combined 94-14 to Texas and Texas Tech on the road. The squad did rebound for their annual rivalry meeting with New Mexico State with a 27-14 win on the road, but it was also important to point out that NMSU won just a single game all of 2012 and that came against a non-FBS member (Sacramento State).
Perhaps most surprising was UNM's huge effort against Boise State at home in late September, losing by just three points (32-29) to one of the top programs outside of the Bowl Championship Series. Following that close call, the Lobos did manage to defeat both Texas State and Hawaii in back-to-back efforts, making them 4-3 after seven games, but from there the program lost the remaining six games on the schedule and finished just 1-7 in conference play.
Davie turned the 4-7 squad into a run-heavy offense, generating a whopping 301.3 ypg on the ground to not only rank second in the conference but also fifth in the nation. Unfortunately, the so-called passing attack was almost nonexistent as the squad converted a grand total of just 79 attempts the entire season, averaging a woeful 68.8 ypg and posting only one more touchdown (five) than interception (four).
OFFENSE: Coach Davie and the Lobos know exactly what they have in running back Kasey Carrier after he ran for a school-record 1,469 yards and scored 15 touchdowns on his 255 carries over the course of 12 appearances last season, so it is rather easy to look beyond him and wonder how the rest of the offense will operate.
Expecting to make a notable comeback Demarcus Rogers, the first player to run for at least 100 yards for the Lobos since 2009 as he achieved the feat in the opener against Southern, was on the field for only one play after that as he missed the bulk of the campaign with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
"I feel like a little kid again, running around on the field, doing everything," said Rogers during fall camp. "I'm just really happy to be out there."
Rogers is on a long list of running back options that includes Carrier, Crusoe Gongbay, and Jhurell Pressley, but considering how much the program intends on keeping the ball on the ground, he'll get a decent slice of the pie as long as he is deemed healthy enough.
The bigger challenge for the Lobos this year is to get some serious production from the passing game, if for no other reason than to challenge defenses and keep them on their toes. The squad has a couple of junior college transfers in Clayton Mitchem and Quinton McCown, but odds are Cole Gautsche will be presented with the starting job to lose. Gautsche had the second-most pass attempts for UNM a season ago (31), but obviously that's not saying much.
DEFENSE: While the run defense probably got plenty of reps in practice last season, trying to slow down UNM ball carriers, it was the pass defense that failed to stand tall against opposing quarterbacks. In fact, New Mexico ranked last in the MWC and was 103rd in the country with 269.2 ypg allowed. Overall, the group was 117th nationally in pass efficiency defense with a rating of 156.34.
Unfortunately, with only three returning starters on that side of the ball, the pass defense and the run defense could be quite porous again in 2013. Linebacker Dallas Bollema comes back for another year after he led the program in total tackles (89) and tied for the lead with three interceptions which he returned for a combined 94 yards. Obviously the senior has talent and can take care of his own space, but it remains to be seen what happens when he has to cover up for the youthful miscues of his teammates.
Also a senior at linebacker, Rashad Rainey is recognized as a returning starter as well, although he appeared in just 10 games and was responsible for 40 tackles.
The lone starter along the defensive line is end Jacori Greer who made the most of his 32 stops by registering eight tackles for loss, tied for the team lead, and a team-best five sacks for a loss of 33 yards.
The secondary has to be completely retooled and while Davie is confident he has a better, more talented set of players ready to assume the critical positions at safety and corner, there's just no telling how well they'll stand up to the rigors of heavy-hitting college football on a week-to-week basis.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Some good news for the Lobos comes from the special teams as both placekicker Justus Adams and punter Ben Skaer are returning starters and both are seniors who can provide some measure of leadership. Then again, how much do players listen to kickers anyway?
Adams converted all 40 of his PAT opportunities a season ago and was a decent 9-of-13 on field goals, although he failed on half of his six tries between 30-39 yards, which isn't a good sign. Skaer averaged about four punts per outing, although he wasn't even asked to take part in the Southern outing, yet he still averaged close to 44 yards per effort.
With so many running backs anxious to get in on offense, that also means they're available to bring back kicks as well. Chase Clayton, who ran the ball 32 times for 209 yards but didn't score on offense, did make a serious impact when returning kickoffs, averaging 30.4 yards on 20 chances, with two of those being brought back for touchdowns. Clayton, who scored against both Southern and Texas Tech, placed fifth in the nation in return average and was just named the preseason MWC Special Teams Player of the Year.
OUTLOOK: As was the case last season, there's no reason to think the Lobos can't have a winning record after the first five games of the campaign. It might be only a game over .500, but New Mexico has three home dates through the first week of October against Texas-San Antonio, UNLV and New Mexico State -- three squads that can all be beaten up by an aggressive rushing attack. Unfortunately, mixed in there are also stops at both UTEP and Pittsburgh, ventures that could prove to be quite disappointing.
The remainder of the schedule has only one opponent against which the Lobos have a winning record but Utah State, which trails 11-8 all-time to UNM, is new to the conference, is coming off an incredible 2012 and has not clashed with the Lobos since 2003.
If the Lobos are capable of having any real measure of success this season, surely the excitement will be lost in the final weeks of November when the squad not only travels to Fresno State, but also has to take on a Boise State program that has not forgotten how close they came to bowing to UNM in 2012.