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Running game, defensive line raise Lobo expecations

September 2, 2017 GMT

ALBUQUERQUE — The momentum is full steam ahead and, clearly, the payoff is supposed to come right now for a University of New Mexico football team desperately trying to change the climate on the school’s south campus.

A year removed from a nine-win campaign that ended with a bowl victory and a share of the Mountain West Conference’s Mountain Division championship, the Lobos open the season at home Saturday night against Abilene Christian.

It’s a game that, on paper, should be a blowout for head coach Bob Davie’s crew. The Lobos return a number of key starters from last season, not to mention a swagger rarely seen out of a program that has experienced more than its fair share of losing over the years.

Still, it’s not enough to change the veteran coach’s thinking. After five seasons at Notre Dame and now in his sixth with UNM, he said the worst part of any opener is the unknown. The trick in getting past it is being prepared, something he and his staff have spent years trying to do.

“A lot of times in opening games, there’s so much energy in it early because you’ve invested so much in it that one little needle to the balloon can pop the balloon,” he said. “All of a sudden everybody’s worked so hard and everybody’s put so much into it and all of a sudden a couple things go bad and it’s like the air just comes out of the balloon.”

That used to be an issue with UNM teams in the past. Slapped with disciplinary action that sliced scholarships and limited depth when he first arrived, the Lobos have steadily built the roster into a seasoned group whose expectation is to win now, not later.

“There’s a lot of new guys, but we believe we can keep what we did last year going,” said starting tailback Richard McQuarley, a senior who turned into a touchdown machine last year in Davie’s option offense.

The dive back, McQuarley teams with all-conference running back candidate Tyrone Owens to form a formidable 1-2 punch behind senior quarterback Lamar Jordan. While the team does have a handful of receivers Davie is high on, the bread and butter for a unit that led the country in rushing last year is still the ground game.

The biggest improvement may come in a defensive line that is, to be honest, still a mystery.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a [defensive] line that actually looks like a college defensive line,” Davie said.

The three-man front starts two seniors and a junior. Johnny Williams, a 303-pound run stuffer will start at nose tackle, but he’s hardly the only one in the mix as three players will rotate into the position in any given situation.

“We’ll probably nose guard by committee,” Davie said.

Senior Garrett Hughes and junior Cody Williams start at the ends, but fans can expect to see a lot of senior Kene Okonkwo at either spot since depth is better now than it ever has been during Davie’s tenure.

“We’ve got a few more bodies, we’ve got a little more explosiveness,” he said. “I don’t know that it changes a whole lot schematically other than we have to cut those guys loose a little more.”

In other words, get after the quarterback and try to create turnovers, something the defense has struggled to do at times in recent years.

Saturday’s game is the first of six at home for the Lobos this season. That includes a date with New Mexico State next week and MWC games against Air Force and Colorado State.

To keep the momentum from the last two years, the Lobos will need to do most of their heavy lifting on the road as they take trips to each of the two MWC division winners from last year, Wyoming and San Diego State. Other road games include Boise State, Texas A&M and Tulsa.

GAME NOTES

Wins at a record rate: The Lobos have won 16 games the last two years, tied for the most ever in consecutive seasons. The last time UNM did it was during the memorable 10-1 season in 1982 that was followed by a 6-6 campaign in 1983.

The record for most wins in a three-year run is 22.

Running wild: The Lobos averaged 350 yards rushing per game last season, the most in the country. They also scored more points than any team in UNM history (36.7 points per game).

While Davie lauded the work Jordan has done to become a better passer, he said there’s no reason to expect the Lobos to deviate from the identity they’ve crafted by running the ball like no other team in America.