Lobos battling for Rio Grande Rivalry bragging rights

September 15, 2018 GMT

The yellow brick road traveled by the New Mexico State football team last season may have ended well, but the path that leads beyond that isn’t exactly smooth sailing.

That’s the lesson the Aggies are learning after losing three straight games following December’s walk-off bowl victory in Arizona.

“Losing causes problems, and we had those problems around here for a long time,” NMSU head coach Doug Martin said. “Winning causes problems, too. They’re just different problems.”

Beaten soundly in all three of their outings against Wyoming, Minnesota and Utah State, the Aggies (0-3) turn their attention to a team they’ve had some luck with recently: upstate rival New Mexico. They’ve won two straight in the rivalry and are 5-4 against the Lobos since 2009.

Four of those wins have been by a field goal or less.

While the early returns suggest the tide may have shifted back in the favor of UNM (1-1), playing with confidence against the Lobos has become an Aggie tradition of late. What Martin hopes to see is more of it when Saturday’s game kicks off in Las Cruces.

“You know, it’s funny,” he said. “The confidence with this team has been really strange. I would have thought they came into this season really confident but I don’t really feel like they did for whatever reason. I don’t know if they’re intimidated trying to hold the standard over what happened here last year or what it is, but there’s something that’s just missing with this group right now.”

The Lobos’ biggest question mark is, as always, at quarterback. Out with injuries are the top two on the depth chart, leaving third-stringer Sherion Jones as the go-to guy against the Aggies. When asked about dipping his toes into the annual Rio Grande Rivalry for the first time, Jones repeatedly said, “No comment,” in regard to his thoughts on NMSU or what the rivalry actually means.

The learning curve for Jones has been steep all week. Inserted with the first team for the first time since training camp, he has gotten a steady diet of the team’s new aggressive offense that features plenty of passing opportunities for a team whose identity under head coach Bob Davie has been almost exclusively the triple option.

“We’re going with different packages for the quarterbacks we do have, but Sherion’s getting everything,” Davie said.

The most consistent thing about UNM’s play this season has been the defense. The Lobos gave up 566 yards to Incarnate Word in the opener and 568 last week at No. 5 Wisconsin.

Leading the Badgers for most of the first half gave Davie’s club a serious boost of self-worth. The game remained as close as 10-7 midway through the third quarter and was still a two-possession game until the game was well into the second half.

What’s more, the Lobos emerged relatively unscathed. Aside from the usual bumps and bruises, everyone of note should be on board for the trip to NMSU.

While Davie wouldn’t call Saturday’s game a must-win scenario, the truth is, it pretty much is. UNM has a bye next week, returning to action Sept. 29 at home against Liberty. After that is the Mountain West Conference with road games at UNLV and Colorado State.

A 2-1 record heading into Liberty would open the discussion for a potential run at a bowl bid, something the Lobos got two straight years before last year’s disastrous 3-9 campaign.

And, as anyone in New Mexico can attest, a loss to the Aggies is usually a sign of bad things to come.

“You know, I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good,” Davie said. “We have to go to Las Cruces with a third quarterback and go win a game.”

It would certainly help of UNM got any kind of production out of running back Tyrone Owens. Lauded with preseason accolades each of the last two years, he’s only rushed for 100 yards in two of the team’s last 16 games. He had 1,097 yards as a sophomore but just 770 last year.

He has only 115 with two touchdowns this season.

If anything is on Owens’s side, it’s the intangibles Davie spoke of when discussing his team’s senior leadership.

“I feel good about our leadership, I really do,” he said. “And I feel good about the chemistry. They’re hungry. They’re hungry. They know we’re not good enough yet, they know we’ve got some difficulties. We’ve got some injuries, we’ve got some things happening. I just like the chemistry of our team and the chemistry between our players and coaches.”

After a year of waiting for another chance at bragging rights, the time has finally come for teams heading in opposite directions.