Fresno State (3-2) faces New Mexico (3-2) Saturday for its Homecoming game. The Bulldogs are coming off a 27-10 win at San Jose State and are sitting at 2-0 in Mountain West play. The Collegian spoke with Robert Maler, the sports editor at New Mexico’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Lobo.
DG: New Mexico is 3-2 on the year. How do you think the season is going so far for the team?
RM: I think UNM’s record coming out of the bye week would be considered a success by most Lobo fans. The team probably lost a game it shouldn’t have against New Mexico State, but picked up a win as a double-digit underdog on the road at Tulsa – so they may have taken the scenic route, but things are probably about where most fans expected them to be. The Lobos were 2-3 at this point last season and ended up with nine wins. So I’d say fans should be cautiously optimistic.
DG: The Lobos are coming off a bye week, and they won two straight games the weeks before. Do you think the bye week could slow their momentum?
RM: Not at all. In fact, the consensus seems to be that the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time. The team had some controversy surrounding it after the protests during the national anthem in the game against Air Force and also had some injury concerns. The bye week likely gave those players the extra time needed to recoup.
DG: New Mexico won its fourth bowl game in school history last year. Do you think the Lobos have built off that win so far this year?
RM: The short answer to that is probably No. Getting a bowl win was a big deal for the team, but one of the major questions I had heading into the season was if the team could realize it couldn’t bring any of last year’s nine wins into this season, while still drawing on the experience those games provided. The team seems to thrive more when players seem to feel they have something to prove. In some ways, separating this season from the validation of last year’s bowl win might be a necessary step to continue moving forward.
DG: What impact has head coach Bob Davie had on the Lobos since his first year in 2012?
RM: Prior to Davie taking over the program, New Mexico had won just three games over the previous three seasons. Davie helped the team surpass that combined win total in his first season on the job, going 4-9 in 2012. The rebuilding process has been slow, but expected – and now UNM finally appears to have turned that proverbial corner. The team has exhibited the ability to compete with pretty much any opponent week-in, week-out. New Mexico also experienced the best two-year stretch in program history in 2015 and 2016 under Davie. That said, the head coach has consistently talked about how small the margin for error is, and being on the right side of one or two plays could be the difference between victory and defeat any given week.
DG: Of the Lobos’ five games so far, which one showed you the most about the team?
RM: The game that really surprised me and showed me the most about this year’s team was the 16-13 road win over Tulsa in Week 4. The Lobos were staring a 1-3 record right in the face, limping into the game with its third-string quarterback against an offensive juggernaut. It wasn’t surprising that the defense stepped up to answer the call, but it was really put to the test after some untimely turnovers by the offense. UNM turned over the ball twice in the red zone, which is usually a recipe for disaster. Finding a way to grind out that win and kick a 53-yard field goal (which was a longer attempt after a UNM penalty) as time expired really showed some fortitude and may have saved the season.
DG: Quarterback Lamar Jordan is in his senior year and has plenty of experience. How has he developed over his time as a Lobo?
RM: Jordan has really appeared to make strides over the past couple of seasons with his arm strength and accuracy. He has also seemed to thrive in the past when someone behind him is pushing him to be great (or threatening to take away some playing time). Backup quarterback Tevaka Tuioti replaced an ineffective Jordan against NMSU and nearly completed an improbable comeback. Third-stringer Coltin Gerhart has also shown promise, and Davie mentioned any or all of the QBs could see the field Saturday. But Jordan’s ability to run the triple-option with a level of speed that is difficult for defenses to prepare against in practice is what makes him special. If he can continue to improve his passing game throughout the season, the added versatility could make UNM even more difficult to game plan against.
DG: Running back Richard McQuarley is averaging 5.9 yards per carry. How important is he to the offense?
RM: One could argue that McQuarley’s yards per carry average is probably a little misleading since he had 63-yard and 65-yard touchdown runs against Air Force, but McQuarley is definitely a leader and big part of the Lobos’ success. He struggled a little bit early in the season with ball security, but things were getting settled along the offensive line as well. He made no excuses though, owning the mistakes and has put in the work to correct them. Though he is probably more known for his punishing run style, he is also deceptively fast and has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as well. His five-touchdown performance against the Falcons showed his worth, and, if the line continues to create the holes it did in the last game, he and the rest of the New Mexico running backs could be well on their way to reasserting the vaunted rushing attack that led the nation last season.
DG: Who should Fresno State fans watch for on New Mexico’s defense?
RM: The New Mexico defense has a lot of new faces, but is probably more talented than last year despite the inexperience. It can sometimes be susceptible to giving up a big play, but has shown the ability to make second-half adjustments and really put the clamps on when the game is on the line. Senior linebacker Alex Hart has been solid, and defensive lineman Garrett Hughes can really wreak havoc by applying pressure to the quarterback and disrupting plays. I think the jury is out on the Lobo secondary, and that could be an interesting matchup if the Bulldogs should decide to test things with some deep passes.
DG: What is your game prediction?
RM: So much of the outcome hinges on the Lobos’ ability to limit big plays on defense and protect the ball on offense. It’s no secret New Mexico will try to assert itself with the ground attack, but Fresno State has a very formidable run defense and could cause major problems if the team is able to stymie UNM’s triple-option. Ultimately, something has to give, and I think the team that wins that battle takes home the victory. But I think things will be close, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either team executing a final drive to win the game or put things out of reach. I know it’s a cop out, but I’ll predict a final score instead of a winner, 31-23.