Air Force will test stout Lobo run defense
ALBUQUERQUE — Somewhere along the way to its unorthodox 2-2 start, The University of New Mexico football team has made two landmark discoveries that the rest of the college world is just now learning about.
First, the Lobos can play a little defense against the run.
Often shredded up front over the years, the Lobos currently rank 17th in the FBS in team rushing defense. They are giving up just 97 yards a game, having kept Tulsa to 156 yards in a dramatic 16-13 win last weekend on the road. The Golden Hurricane had rolled up over 800 yards in their previous two contests.
Second, the quarterback situation may be a little muddled, but there are a few viable options under center.
Starter Lamar Jordan suffered a brutal hit in a loss to Boise State two weeks ago and sat out the trip to Tulsa with concussion symptoms. His backup, freshman Tevaka Tuioti did the same last week.
The team’s third-stringer, a senior graduate transfer from Arizona State, filled in quite nicely in their place. Coltin Gerhart led the team in rushing and total offense against Tulsa, engineering the game-winning drive that resulted in a 53-yard field goal by reining Mountain West special teams player of the week Jason Sanders.
UNM head coach Bob Davie said this week that Jordan will get the start Saturday against Air Force at Dreamstyle Stadium. Tuioti is also available. But, Davie said, it’s nice to know he has options if he needs to utilize them.
“Now you have confidence that [Gerhart] can go in there and move this football team and play within the offense,” Davie said. “How this plays out, nobody knows.”
The team focus is squarely on getting back to the break-even point in MWC play. The Lobos’ upset win at Tulsa has given the team renewed hope moving forward. Davie called it a “gut check” win in adverse conditions of 90-degree heat, a small crowd and no national TV exposure.
“All you guys, like everybody, like all of us, kind of looked at that schedule before the season, right, and you kind of projected saying, OK, they’ve got two games at home and there’s a good chance they can win those two games,” Davie said. “Then, man, they go to Boise, they go to Tulsa the next two weeks. So a lot of people probably thought we would be 2-2 right now, maybe not the same way it has shaken out, but if you look at our schedule that’s probably realistic right now.”
Even more unconventional is the way they’ve done it, with strong defense and an offense that is still sputtering along behind a running game that hasn’t produced the way people probably expected.
While the Falcons’ defense features Santa Fe native and St. Michael’s graduate Santo Coppola as a pass rusher off the edge, the defense will get a stiff test against the Air Force offense still running that same triple option it has always run.
The Falcons rank 10th in the country rushing, averaging 287 yards a game. While some defenses can force certain schemes to work outside their comfort zone by padding a particular part of the defensive alignment with extra personnel, Air Force has historically run the ball regardless of the situation.
“With the triple option, numbers don’t matter,” Davie said. “All they’re going to do is go a different way. … You’re not going to talk them out of running the ball. That’s what they’re going to do.”
If the season has taught Davie anything else, it’s that the Lobos’ defense is only now starting to scratch the surface with its potential. The unit is loaded with young, talented players, many of whom are forming the foundation for a scheme that will only get stronger in the next two or three years.
“I said we would know a lot more about our defense, particularly our run defense, after the Tulsa game” Davie said. “Well, we feel a lot better about it, quite honestly.”
Coppola: The number to watch is No. 97 in white. That’s Coppola, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive end for the Falcons. His only prior visit to UNM came two years ago when he was a defensive tackle during his sophomore year.
Now a team captain, he has a sack and nine tackles in the team’s first three games.
Redshirt, maybe: True freshman Bryson Carroll has been taking this season as a redshirt year for the Lobos. The injuries to Jordan and Tuioti forced the Lobos coaching staff to put him in uniform for last week’s game against Tulsa.
Davie said it wasn’t his intention to play Carroll, a 5-6, 183-pound product of Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, Texas. When Gerhart suffered what turned out to be a shoulder sprain on a long run late in the first half against the Golden Hurricane, Davie had no option but to insert Carroll.
He was in the game for one snap, his only play of the season.
NCAA rules say a player can appear in his team’s first three games and still use a redshirt year provided he become injured and not play again the rest of the year. Carroll’s case is unique in that he was forced off the bench for a single play and the coaching staff has no intention of playing him at any point until 2018.
Davie will appeal to the NCAA, requesting that Carroll not lose a year of eligibility.
Jordan: Davie said Jordan is back to 100 percent and will play quarterback until the situation calls for a change. He was healthy enough to play against Tulsa but held out for precautionary reasons.
High gear: With both UNM and Air Force built around the running game, Davie said the goal this week in practice has been speed, speed and more speed.
“The whole emphasis is to try to practice as fast as what it’s going to be in the game which, really, is impossible,” he said.
Snap decision: It was the input of kicker Jason Sanders that landed L.C. Hampton in the role of long snapper for the Tulsa game. Sanders said Hampton, a junior college transfer who had never played in a Division I game before, had a tendency to snap the ball in such a way that the holder always caught the ball with the laces out. It makes that job of placing the ball on the turf for the kicker that much easier.
Last week, Hampton approached Davie about the possibility of him staying behind in Oklahoma after the game to be with family following the death of his great grandmother. A product of Zena, Okla., he wanted to attend her funeral the day after the Tulsa game.
Davie allowed it.
It was Hampton’s perfect snap that helped Sanders nail his career-long 53-yarder with no time left to win the game.