Date: Saturday, December 17th
Time: 1 P.M. CST
Location: University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Stream: Watch ESPN
Radio: Ticket 760 AM (SA), ESPN Radio (Sirius XM 80)
Betting Line: New Mexico -7, O/U 59.5
Live Stats: SideArm Sports
Series History: Series is tied at 1-1. New Mexico won the last meeting 21-9 in 2014 in San Antonio.
On this date seven years ago the University of Texas at San Antonio didn’t have a football team. All the program had to boast was a make-shift jersey and a map of San Antonio. The program’s first head coach Larry Coker and his staff would use their only two assets to recruit the “Original 18” players that would form the base of the program.
While all of the players and coaches that started the program have moved on, their legacy echoes. This week the Roadrunners will play in a bowl game, tying the record for fastest start up to compete in a bowl game. UTSA will be playing on the ESPN flagship station for the first time in their history and they’ll do so against a familiar opponent. The New Mexico Lobos will seek to earn their first lead in the series following their successful 8-4 season and they’ll have the home field advantage working in their favor.
New Mexico Outlook
Has there been a more quiet eight win team this year than the Lobos? Had New Mexico pulled off close games against New Mexico State and Rutgers they would head into this game with a ten win record yet they managed to mostly avoid national attention this year. Coached by former Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie, the Lobos transitioned to a triple option offense following Davie’s hire in 2012. They’ve finally perfected the system. With senior quarterback Lamar Jordan leading the charge, the Lobos have become the nation’s top rushing attack as running backs Tyrone Owens and Teriyon Gipson have both eclipsed the 1,000 yard rushing mark this season.
While Jordan, Gipson, and Owens make all of the highlights, Richard McQuarley does the dirty work in the red zone. The big body back has accounted for 16 touchdowns for the Lobos as their short yardage specialist. None of the players previously listed would get far without New Mexico’s brute, laboring offensive line. The Lobos are wise and violent at the point of attack, often blowing up laughably large running lanes for the dive man in the triple option.
New Mexico’s offense is much more exotic than other option offenses like Georgia Tech or Navy. The Lobos routinely utilize the triple option out of the shotgun, featuring traditional wingbacks as well as a zany formation that stacks three running backs in a straight line behind the quarterback. UNM will even motion out one of the stacked running backs so that they can get to the edge as a blocker faster or spread the field as a decoy.
The Lobos also have a quasi-diamond formation that features a tailback, an offset back, and a guy in no man’s land between the other two backs. You can see New Mexico shock Boise State with the formation as they run a dive for an untouched 62 yard touchdown on this play.
Also, because it’s worth mentioning, New Mexico huddles. Not just to start drives or to enter the victory formation. The really huddle before nearly every play. While in some way’s New Mexico’s offense provides a glimpse back to the 1970’s, the Lobos are creative enough to keep defenses guessing.
If you’re like me and you subscribe to the theory that defenses excel against the same offenses that their own team uses then it shouldn’t be surprising that the Lobos are pretty strong against the run but awful against the pass. UNM’s defense faces off against a weak passing offense every day in practice which inhibits their ability to prepare for more robust passing offenses.
Of course the flip side of that is the experience New Mexico’s front seven has against the best rushing attack in the nation. Linebacker Dakota Cox leads the Lobos’ senior-laden defense with 63 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception, a pass breakup, and a forced fumble. Cox is at his best coming downfield and plugging rushing lanes— he’ll certainly remind UTSA fans of Josiah Tauaefa.
UNM’s defense is bolstered by a beefy but agile defensive front that features 6’3”, 290 draft prospect Nik D’Avanzo. He’s brought down five sacks on the year and is the Lobos’ leader in tackles for loss with nine. Garrett Hughes holds down the other end of the line with 7.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks while linebacker Donnie White has also caused havoc playing at the defensive end position.
Despite the Lobos’ success on the ground, they rank 124 out of 128 teams in defense on passing downs. While UNM has been able to get to opposing quarterbacks, they’ve been susceptible to long plays through the air. Senior cornerback Nias Martin has broken up 11 passes attempts and safety Ryan Santos has picked off two passes. That’s about all of the statistics of note for the Lobos’ secondary.
If there’s one thing we know for sure, the Roadrunners won’t be lacking for motivation in their first bowl game. UTSA has come such a long way from where they were over their past two losing seasons and it’s hard to imagine them coming out flat in their first ever post-season game.
The Roadrunners pro-style offense will likely use two quarterbacks— junior starter Dalton Sturm and graduate transfer Jared Johnson. Sturm has been solid for the Roadrunners but head coach Frank Wilson has been rewarded for inserting Johnson into the past two games to provide the Roadrunner’s offense with a spark. UTSA tends to move to more of a spread attack when Johnson enters the game and that could bode well against a weak Lobo pass defense.
Similar to UNM’s tandem of running backs, Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes keep UTSA’s offense afloat. The two running backs have rushed for 775 yards and 756 yards respectively. UTSA’s running attack has been fairly successful this season but they’ve really excelled when oft-injured junior lineman Austin Pratt has been able to play road grader. Pratt is expected to play this week which should provide the Roadrunners with a nice boost to the run game.
UTSA is led by a duo of brothers in the pass game. Junior Josh Stewart has hauled in 682 yards and five touchdowns on the year while Kerry Thomas Jr. has totaled 510 yards and eight touchdowns. The Lobos have had a tough time matching up against taller receivers so 6’4” Stewart should see plenty of targets despite a cold and windy weather report.
Defending against the triple option is a different beast entirely but the Roadrunners have been quite efficient combating the run in a vacuum. UTSA is ranked inside the top 50 in rushing defense as calculated by the S&P+ formula while they’re also ranked #46 in defending against the rush in run-favored downs and distances.
The Roadrunners’ defense placed a freshman on a conference first team for the first time in program history after Josiah Tauaefa was appropriately recognized for his crazy freshman season (73.5 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, one interception, one pass break up) by Conference USA. Tauaefa’s strong nose for the football should keep the middle of the field contained if defensive tackles Baylen Baker, King Newton, and Vontrell King-Williams are able to keep blockers engaged at the line of scrimmage. Fellow linebacker La’Kel Bass has also been a force for the Roadrunners, totaling 11 tackles for loss and five sacks.
UTSA’s young defense has made huge strides throughout the length of the season. After a strong showing against Texas A&M, UTSA held Conference USA’s leading rushing team to just eight total yards on the ground to secure their bowl placement. The extra week of practice before bowl preparation should help the many freshmen on UTSA’s defensive line further improve their play recognition and technical prowess.
Since the Lobos rarely throw the ball, UTSA’s secondary will be tasked with getting off blocks and supporting in protecting the edge of the field. I would expect reserve cornerback Devron Davis to see more snaps than usual over true freshman Teddrick McGhee as Davis has shown a knack for coming downfield and delivering hard hits against ball carriers.
Safeties Michael Egwuagu and Nate Gaines are particularly strong against the run but graduate transfer Jordan Moore has struggled with assignments and tackling at times this season. The LSU product is playing defense for the first time since high school but has the physical tools to dominate against a triple option offense if he can stay disciplined to his assignment.
I haven’t seen a single outlet predict a Roadrunner win this week despite the spread being set at just seven points. Most bowl game victors end up being the team that wants the win the most and I think UTSA will likely be that team this week. It’s really tough to predict how a team will defend against an offense they’ve never seen before but I’m a big believer in UTSA’s coaching staff. They’ve had an extra week of preparation to get the Roadrunners ready to play sound, fundamental football in front of a large traveling fanbase anxious to celebrate their first bowl game. Give me the Roadrunners in a close one, 28-24.