‘A team like us’ — Nevada Wolf Pack hosts New Mexico | NevadaAppeal.com

‘A team like us’ — Nevada Wolf Pack hosts New Mexico

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

Bob Davie doesn’t believe there are all that many differences between the Nevada Wolf Pack and New Mexico Lobos.

“It’s two teams that are probably pretty evenly matched,” the Lobos coach said this week. “They are a team like us.”

Being compared to a team that is 2-6 overall and 0-4 in the Mountain West and has a record of 8-24 since the start of the 2017 season isn’t exactly flattering to the 4-4, 1-3 Wolf Pack. But that is where the Lobos and Wolf Pack find themselves before their showdown Saturday night (7:30 p.m., ESPNU) at Mackay Stadium.

“This is the time of year when the cream rises to the top,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “We pride ourselves on improving as the season moves along.”

The similarities between the Lobos and Wolf Pack are numerous. And it starts with the head coaches. Norvell and Davie are former Power Five coaches. Norvell was an assistant at seven Power Five schools before coming to Nevada. Davie was head coach at Notre Dame from 1997-2001 and an assistant at four Power Five schools. The two also have a coach in common. Norvell was an assistant on Charlie Strong’s Texas team in 2015 while Strong was an assistant at Notre Dame under Davie for two years in 1997-98.

The Pack enters Saturday’s game after three losses in its last four games. New Mexico is riding a five-game slide. Both teams have allowed exactly 301 points and are tied for last in the Mountain West in points allowed at 37.6 a game.

Both teams also struggle mightily on defense against the forward pass. The Pack is 10th in the Mountain West, allowing 272 passing yards a game while New Mexico is 12th at 345 a game. The Pack has allowed the most passing touchdowns in the conference with 24 while New Mexico has given up 21. The Lobos (59 penalties) and Pack (68) are also the two most penalized teams in the Mountain West.

“They are looking for consistency on offense, a lot like us,” Davie said. “They probably feel like they should be playing better as an offense, a lot like us. These are two very similar teams.”

The Pack and Lobos also share one other thing. Both teams are desperate for a victory.

“I’d just like to win a game,” said Davie, who has a record of 35-60 at New Mexico since he arrived in 2012. “I’d like to win for us and for everybody. I’m keeping it just as narrow as that.”

The Wolf Pack needs a victory to keep its West Division title hopes alive. The Pack trails first-place San Diego State (7-1, 4-1) as well as Hawaii (5-3, 2-2) and Fresno State (3-4, 1-2) in the West Division standings with four games to play. The Wolf Pack, which will play Fresno State and San Diego State on the road and UNLV at home to finish out the regular season, also still needs two more victories to become bowl eligible.

“We have a lot of great things to look forward to,” Norvell said. “We want to play well and win on our own home turf.”

“It’s a game that’s big for both teams,” Davie said.

The Lobos’ two victories this year have come against New Mexico State, an independent FBS team that is now 0-8, and Sam Houston State, a 5-4 Division I-AA (FCS) school. But while the Wolf Pack has lost four games by 26 or more points, New Mexico has suffered just one blowout loss, a 66-14 defeat at Notre Dame. The Lobos’ other five losses have all been between seven and 14 points.

“The issue has been whether or not we can play better for a longer period of time, particularly when the game is in the balance, when the game really matters,” Davie said.

The Lobos, like the Wolf Pack, have had a tendency to start games slowly. New Mexico has scored a total of 27 points combined in the first half during its current five-game losing streak. In the second half of those five games the Lobos have scored 66 points.

“Early in the game, it’s hurting us, especially us as a fragile team that needs confidence,” Davie said.

Norvell said almost the same exact thing this week.

“It’s important for us to get off to a good start,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack has been outscored 170-76 in the first 30 minutes of games this year and has led at halftime just twice (against UTEP and San Jose State) in eight games. “It’s important for our confidence.”

The Lobos outscored Hawaii 28-10 in the second half last Saturday after trailing 35-3 at halftime in an eventual 45-31 loss. The Wolf Pack, by comparison, trailed Hawaii 31-3 at halftime on Sept. 28 at Mackay Stadium and eventually lost 54-3.

“I am very pleased that when we got down 35-3 against Hawaii we came out and we outscored them (21-0 over the final seven minutes of the game),” Davie said. “But are we just a team that when we get behind its, “Hey, look, they looked pretty good there at the end.” You know, enough. Can we do it at the start of the game and be consistent throughout the game?”

New Mexico will likely start sophomore Tevaka Tuioti at quarterback on Saturday. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Tuioti passed for 293 yards and two touchdowns last week against Hawaii and has seven touchdowns, six interceptions and 1,013 yards this season in five games.

“Our football team depends on him to get some games under his belt,” Davie said. “We need to stop the (quarterback) carousel a little bit and that kid (Tuioti) needs reps. He has to stay healthy and play well.

“Will our quarterback be consistent enough and accurate enough in the big picture for us to win games? At this moment right now, the answer is no. Tevaka’s legacy will be whether or not he can stay healthy enough and play well enough to get through all of the inconsistencies.”

The Lobos also feature running back Ahmari Davis, who currently leads the Mountain West with 743 rushing yards. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound senior from Oakland, had 200 yards and two touchdowns last week against Hawaii. He also had 133 yards against New Mexico State and 107 against Sam Houston State.

“They are a very balanced team offensively,” Norvell said. “But they like to run the ball. We have to step up and be physical and control the running game.”

Davie said he expects the Wolf Pack to air things out on Saturday. Pack quarterback Carson Strong has thrown for just three touchdowns this season (all in the season opener on Aug. 30 against Purdue) and had been intercepted six times. The freshman, though, was 26-of-40 for 247 yards against Wyoming in a 31-3 loss last week after playing just one half of football over the previous month.

“That has been a glaring thing that has been a problem for us, making plays on the back end (in the secondary),” Davie said. “The fact that we only have one interception all year by a defensive back speaks volumes. Can we make a play on the ball? Can we make as many plays as (the opposition) makes on us? Right now we can’t.

“They (Nevada) will throw the ball on us, just like everybody. That’s kind of the recipe, to come out and throw the ball (on New Mexico’s secondary).”

The Lobos and Wolf Pack have not met since a 35-26 New Mexico victory in Albuquerque in 2016. The series between the two teams is tied 3-3-1 with the Wolf Pack going 2-0-1 at home.

“We just have to start playing with tempo and urgency,” Norvell said. “It’s been frustrating to watch us play the way we’ve played the last two weeks (a 36-10 loss at Utah State and 31-3 at Wyoming) but I know we can play much better. We are certainly in position to get ourselves strong and have a great finish to the season.”