New Mexico’s defense has finally reached its potential.
After weeks of inconsistent play, the Lobos’ defense shut down Utah State in a 14-13 win at University Stadium on Saturday. UNM made several big plays and held USU to just 294 total yards of offense.
USU had a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, but kicker Brock Warren missed a 41-yard field goal to give UNM (5-4, 3-2 Mountain West) the win.
“Defensively, (it was) probably the best game we’ve played since we’ve been here,” head coach Bob Davie said. “We finally put it together enough and executed enough that we had a chance to win.”
UNM’s defense came up huge in stopping the run. USU rushed for just 78 yards on 37 attempts, which is about 104 yards less than its season average.
Another reason UNM’s defense was so successful was that it held when it needed to. The Lobos came up with two key fourth-down stops while the Aggies were deep in Lobo territory in the first half. Safety Daniel Henry also came up with a huge fumble recovery late in the fourth quarter with USU in scoring position after intercepting quarterback Austin Apodaca.
“It’s amazing. It’s an awesome feeling to go out there finally playing together,” linebacker Dakota Cox said. “The defense went out there and played with the guy next to him. We owned our individual space and everyone did their job and executed.”
However, the defensive effort might have been wasted if not for running back David Anaya. He didn’t tally any offensive yards and even went 0-1 passing, but he made a couple of big plays on special teams.
Anaya’s first game-changing play came on a punt return, when he knocked the ball loose from USU wide receiver Andrew Rodriguez’s grip, which ended up being recovered by Lobo tight end Reece White. On the very next play, Richard McQuarely pushed UNM’s lead to 14-3 with a 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
The next play by Anaya might have saved the game for the Lobos. After USU cut UNM’s lead to 14-13, wide receiver Carlos Wiggins fumbled the ensuing kickoff return and Anaya somehow came away with the ball. The refs reviewed the play extensively to make sure that Anaya had actually recovered the fumble.
“We played well enough to win. It wasn’t a fluke,” Davie said. “They certainly had their opportunities, so it’s fun. It’s a big win for us. It’s a good feeling.”
UNM’s first points came in the second quarter, when quarterback Lamar Jordan scrambled, then pulled up to hit a wide-open Delane Hart-Johnson for a career-long 86-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead.
The dual quarterback system didn’t fare well for UNM. Jordan started the game and went 2 of 5 for 97 yards and a touchdown, while Apodaca had just 7 yards, completing 2 of 5 attempts with an ugly interception.
Overall, the Lobo offense never did get going against the Aggies. UNM finished with just 236 total yards of offense, with 132 of those yards coming on the ground.
“Again, their defense overwhelmed us a number of times,” Davie said, “particularly when they knew when we were going to throw. We had a hard time protecting.”
The Aggies’ (5-4, 4-2 MW) only touchdown of the game came in the third quarter, when quarterback Kent Myers hit a diving Rodriguez for a 24-yard touchdown. Myers went 13 of 24 for 213 yards with that lone score.
With the win, UNM is just one win away from becoming bowl-eligible. The last time the Lobos went to a bowl game was in 2007.
“Like I said before, it builds our confidence going into these last three games,” Cox said. “I think we made a statement tonight, and our defense can continue to get better and play hard. This whole team is coming together. I’m proud of this team of stepping up, and it’s an awesome feeling.”
The Mountain West announced on Sunday that linebacker Kimmie Carson will be suspended for the first half of New Mexico’s upcoming game at Boise State.
Carson is suspended for a hit that was to the head and neck area of a defenseless player. That hit came in the second quarter against Utah and resulted in a personal foul penalty.
Thomas Romero-Salas is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ThomasRomeroS.