Pack travels to Vegas to take on New Mexico
The New Mexico Lobos are limping through this college football season.
“The team looks tired,” Lobos first-year head coach Danny Gonzales said after a 39-33 loss at Hawaii last Saturday night. “Well, if they’re tired, that means we’re not mentally tough enough and that’s ridiculous.”
The Lobos, now 0-2, will take on the unbeaten (3-0) Nevada Wolf Pack this Saturday (3:30 p.m., Fox Sports 2) at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. The Lobos have been in Las Vegas for the past two weeks (with the game at Hawaii in between) because of a coronavirus outbreak in Albuquerque, N.M.
“Part of the problem is that we have way too many guys that have feelings that are way too soft,” said Gonzales, a former New Mexico player and assistant coach who returned to lead the program this year after two seasons as Arizona State’s defensive coordinator. “You should have your feelings hurt when you give up long touchdowns.”
Hawaii quarterback Chevan Cordeiro passed for 410 yards and four touchdowns against New Mexico last weekend. The Lobos have allowed 38.5 points and 541 total yards a game this season. They are last in the Mountain West in both categories.
“I’m going to sound like a broken record but you can’t give up big plays in the passing game like we have,” Gonzales said. “We’ve got to coach better.”
The Lobos now have to take on the best offense (511.7 yards a game) in the Mountain West. And the Wolf Pack has the best passing combination in the conference. Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong has thrown for 1,181 yards and nine touchdowns, connecting with wide receiver Romeo Doubs 26 times for 473 yards and five touchdowns.
“If we can make plays in the secondary we’ll have a chance to win,” Gonzales said. “If not, we’ll get embarrassed.”
The Lobos also have problems on offense. Gonzales announced this week that starting quarterback Tevaka Tuioti will miss Saturday’s game because of a concussion suffered in the fourth quarter against Hawaii.
Tuioti has played well this year, completing 37-of-66 passes for 475 yards and four touchdowns and also leading the Lobos with 140 rushing yards on just 19 carries. He was 19-of-36 for 237 yards in a 21-10 loss to the Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium last year.
The 6-foot-2 Tuioti, a junior, will be replaced in the starting lineup this Saturday by 6-foot-2 sophomore Trae Hall. Hall took over for Tuioti late in the Hawaii game and was 2-of-6 for 39 yards and was intercepted once. He has started one game in his college career, completing 10-of-21 passes for 107 yards and two interceptions and rushing for 115 yards and two touchdowns in a season-ending 38-25 loss to Utah State last year.
Hall, whose first name is actually Vontraevious, nearly won the starting job going into this season. Tuioti was named the starter just a week before the Lobos’ scheduled season opener against Colorado State on Oct. 24, a game that was cancelled because of the Albuquerque coronavirus concerns.
“He (Hall) probably missed a couple throws (against Hawaii) but after a week of practice when he’ll get all the reps with the (starters), he should be OK and give us a chance,” Gonzales said.
New Mexico has lost 11 games in a row overall as well as 17 Mountain West games in a row. The last time the Lobos won a Mountain West game was 50-14 over UNLV on Oct. 6, 2018 at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“We play good opponents every week but the biggest opponent we play is ourselves,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said.
That might be true this year more than ever. New Mexico will be the fourth team in a row that has faced the Wolf Pack looking for its first victory of the season. The last time the Pack played four consecutive winless teams to open a season was 1976, the first year of Chris Ault’s career as head coach.
Norvell, though, has warned his team about being overconfident.
“You can’t let one slip,” he said two weeks ago. “You can’t let someone jump up and get you that really shouldn’t beat you.”
“We always respect our opponents,” linebacker Daiyan Henley said. “We never say we’re going to beat somebody or whip them out of the gate. We never want to say a team is beaten before we actually beat them.”
The Wolf Pack, which will play six of its eight regular season games this season in the state of Nevada, is already 1-0 in Las Vegas. The Pack whipped UNLV 37-19 at the Las Vegas Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium two weeks ago to return the Fremont Cannon to northern Nevada.
This week’s game will be the Pack’s first at Sam Boyd Stadium since it blew a 23-0 lead in a stunning 34-29 loss to the Rebels on Nov. 24, 2018. The last time the Pack won a game at Sam Boyd was 45-10 over UNLV when Brian Polian was head coach on Nov. 26, 2016.
“We adapt,” Henley said. “The change of venue (from Albuquerque to Las Vegas) doesn’t matter. It’s just about battling New Mexico whether the game is in New Mexico or down south (in Las Vegas). We’re going to battle them wherever, whenever.”
New Mexico’s defense is led by coordinator Rocky Long. Long stepped down after nine seasons (2011-19) as head coach at San Diego State. Long previously was the head coach at New Mexico from 1998-2008 (beating the Wolf Pack 23-0 in the 2007 New Mexico Bowl). Gonzales played for Long at New Mexico and coached with him.
“It’s always a challenge every time you have to play a Rocky Long defense,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack beat Long’s San Diego State Aztecs last year (17-13) and in 2018 (28-24). “But they’ve just started teaching that defense and they are not at the same place as San Diego State.”
The Pack used two Strong touchdown passes (57 yards to Doubs and 20 yards to Elijah Cooks) to beat the Lobos last year.
“They will be a hungry football team,” said Norvell of New Mexico. “You can see the improvement of this team, how in all areas they are getting better.”
The last time the Wolf Pack played a game in Las Vegas against a team other than UNLV was in the 1996 Las Vegas Bowl, an 18-15 win over Ball State. The first time the Pack played in Las Vegas was in a 12-12 tie against Northern Arizona at Butcher Memorial Field in 1938 behind two 80-yard touchdowns (on a run and a punt return) by Walt Powers, the father of former Wolf Pack baseball player and coach Gary Powers.
The Pack also played games in Las Vegas (not against UNLV) in 1944 (a 25-6 win over Northern Arizona), 1946 (a 53-0 win over Loyola Marymount) and 1947 (a 33-13 win over Arizona State).
“We’re enjoying (the season),” Pack linebacker Lawson Hall said. “Obviously that’s because we’re winning. But we love practicing and preparing and we just want to go out and play ball.”