The New Mexico football team showed signs of defensive improvement in Saturday’s season opener, despite an early deficit.

Both sides of the ball came out of the gates in sluggish form during UNM’s 31-24 loss to UTEP — but, bolstered by a strong defensive effort, UNM’s second-half play came within striking distance. A botched punt return in the final minutes provided too large a task to overcome.

“We had some busts early in the game, which I thought we would on defense,” said Lobo head coach Bob Davie. “We really didn’t get our cleats in until the second half.”

UNM had trouble stopping the big play in the first half. On five separate occasions the Miners pulled off plays of 25 yards or more. Missed tackles were key to UTEP’s offensive success.

“We did a couple things on defense ok,” Davie said. “It wasn’t as good as I thought it would be.”

The Lobo defense struggled in getting off the field after forcing third downs, in addition to allowing big plays. The Miners converted seven third downs on 10 attempts, and scored each time the team entered the red zone in the first half.

“We played a lot of guys on defense. We played a lot of young guys,” Davie said. “Just that one stop can give you enough confidence to kind of jump that thing forward.”

In the second half, UNM’s younger players appeared to come out of their shells. The defense responded to just about every call that UTEP sent its way.

Sophomore linebacker Dakota Cox was a key contributor in the much cleaner second half, leading the game with 17 total tackles. The team didn’t have the energy and poise needed in the first half, Cox said, leading to a lot of the problems that the Miners exploited.

“We definitely came out a lot better in the second half,” he said. “We just need to have that juice the whole game and have that enthusiasm.”

The first half of a season-opening game could be nerve-racking for any team, but Cox said he didn’t think that nerves were the issue in the first half.

“I think it’s just a mental side where guys just need to be ready to play,” he said.

Cox and Davie both said the team didn’t make any adjustments in the second half, but relaxed and played up to its potential.

Compared to the first half, the defensive unit looked like a brand new team. The Miners didn’t convert once on third down, and the Lobos held UTEP to just 120 total offensive yards after the halftime break.

“We all got comfortable in the second half,” Cox said. “We stepped it up out there and put up a fight … We need to do that the whole game.”

Cox said the team needs to keep moving forward and learn from errors rather than dwelling on what could have been.

“We have one, two days, maybe Monday too, to look at it and correct the mistakes,” he said. “We move on and take it as a learning opportunity.”

Davie acknowledged his team still has to improve as the season progresses.

“It’s one game … two teams that are fighting. Two teams that I think are improving,” Davie said. “It’s one game.”

Liam Cary-Eaves is a sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at or on Twitter @Liam_CE.