Lobo football looks to put an exclamation point on one of the most successful seasons in program history with a win at the 11th annual Gildan New Mexico Bowl on Saturday.
New Mexico (8-4, 6-2 MW) stumbled out of the gate this season, losing leads in two of its first three games, resulting in an early 1-2 record.
But the Lobos turned things around and found ways to win tightly contested games throughout the rest of the season. They earned bowl eligibility for the second straight year with several games remaining on the schedule.
Junior quarterback Lamar Jordan said at the beginning of the 2016 campaign that a division title was something the team was eyeing, and the Lobos accomplished that feat for the first time since 1997.
Jordan said “that was for ‘Kel” following the 56-35 win in the final regular season game, referencing a pledge to former safety Markel Byrd — who died in a car accident shortly after last year’s final game — to bring home the crown.
Although the Lobos didn’t get a chance to compete in the conference championship game this year, winning a bowl game — another preseason goal — might be the perfect way to send out the senior class.
Senior safety Daniel Henry said it is an honor to play in the postseason anywhere, but it will likely be even more special for Henry and the other seniors to end their collegiate career playing in front of the home crowd one more time.
A win would mark just the fifth time New Mexico finished the season with nine or more wins and the first bowl victory since a 23-0 win over Nevada in the 2007 New Mexico Bowl, a release stated.
Meanwhile, Texas-San Antonio (6-6) became eligible by winning its regular season finale. UTSA opened 1-3 before reeling off four of its next five, but needed a 33-14 victory over Charlotte to keep its postseason hopes alive.
First-year UTSA coach Frank Wilson said the team has endured a lot playing in so many tightly contested games during the season — something that might have helped the team prepare postseason play.
“The ability to learn from mistakes and build on them and learn how to finish…I can’t say they are surprising,” Wilson said in a release. “All types of adversity came our way, and we were able to stay to the course.”
The contrast in how the two school’s seasons unfolded may have left some wondering if the pairing made sense, but weathering the storm after rough starts is only one of several things the teams have in common.
Both teams have been trying to build — or rebuild — their respective programs over the last 5-plus years, and both are trending in the right direction.
The schools also share a propensity for the big play, especially from a talented run game. The Roadrunners’ Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes each rushed for over 750 yards and had runs of 80 yards or more.
The Lobos still have the apparent advantage on the ground with the best running game in the nation. It is headlined by a pair of 1,000 yard rushers in Teriyon Gipson and Tyrone Owens, who helped lead the team to a school record 4,331 rushing yards this season.
The bowl game marks the 13th in program history for New Mexico, while UTSA, a fledgling football program, makes its first bowl appearance in the team’s sixth season.
Jeff Siembieda, the executive director for the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, said there is a lot of buzz around the Roadrunners’ first bowl appearance from the UTSA fan base.
“There’s excitement. There’s a video I saw of people wrapped around the gym the other day,” he said. “They are responding incredibly well.”
The schools have met twice in the past, with each school winning on each other’s home field. The Roadrunners bested the Lobos 21-13 in the 2013 season opener, but UNM got revenge the following season with a 21-9 win.
There is a free pep rally set to take place at 4 p.m. on Friday in Old Town Plaza. Both schools will be represented in a battle of the bands as the teams and fanbases get a chance to have a little fun before the game.
The Gildan New Mexico Bowl officially kicks off college football’s bowl season for FBS competition. The game has a scheduled start time of noon at University Stadium and will be aired on ESPN.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers football and men’s and women’s tennis. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @robert_maler.