By Jerry Briggs
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Three weeks ago, UTSA players started the celebration by tossing a cooler full of Gatorade on first-year coach Frank Wilson.
After that, they lifted him off his feet. Up he went, above the players’ shoulders. Wilson, fearing bodily injury, pleaded with his athletes not to carry him too far.
“Put me down before I fall,” the coach demanded.
In many ways, the moments of pure joy that followed a 33-14, bowl-eligibility clinching victory over Charlotte will define UTSA’s sixth season as a program and its first under Wilson.
Fans who witnessed it will never forget it, and neither will the players.
But as so often happens when a football team makes history, it wakes up to find that the pressure has mounted, and another challenge awaits.
Such a moment has arrived. The Roadrunners (6-6) will play their first bowl game on Saturday against the favored New Mexico Lobos (8-4) at University Stadium.
A crowd of between 20,000 and 28,000 is expected for the 11th Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Another 2 million people could be watching on television.
Even though those numbers are expected to be modest in the big picture of college football's bowl system, playing in the game is clearly another milestone achievement event for UTSA.
The team's showing against New Mexico could define the season every bit as much as the victory over Charlotte, so, naturally, the Roadrunners want to make a good impression.
“You play the game to win the game,” Wilson said at Friday’s news conference. “Our intent is to play to the best of our ability, to compete, to put ourselves in position to win this football game. I think it’s a part of an overall scope of a season.”
Whatever happens with the outcome, Wilson wants his team to play well.
“How we play will define us (and) not necessarily the game itself,” the coach said. “But if we put our best foot forward and we go out and compete and do the things we’re trained to do, that’s the … definition of what UTSA football is about.”
Weather is destined to be a factor.
Forecasts call for low temperatures in the 20s on Saturday morning and highs in the 40s on Saturday afternoon.
On top of that, rain or snow and wind gusts of more than 40 mph loom as possibilities, with kickoff set for noon local time (1 p.m. in San Antonio).
Wind started to kick up on Friday afternoon, blowing tumbleweeds across roads. If it’s still blowing on Saturday, it could favor the run-oriented Lobos. But both coaches downplayed the impact that weather might have on the game.
New Mexico coach Bob Davie joked about how a windy day might affect his strategy.
“It really disappoints me,” he said, tongue in cheek. “You know, we were going to throw it 55 times as our plan going in. That changed our game plan.”
Turning serious, Davie said it remains to be seen how much the weather will factor into what the coaches on each side will decide to do with their schemes and how their players will react.
“You know, I’ve been in so many games where you think wind or conditions were going to be a factor and most times they end up not being (that way),” he said. “I don’t really think it’ll be much of a factor. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Wilson also brushed off a question about the weather, noting that his team practiced in cold, windy conditions last week in San Antonio.
“I think we’re acclimated to it and prepared for whatever the weather may be,” the coach said.
Nevertheless, the cold has a chance to neutralize the deep passing game that UTSA has used all year to keep teams from crowding the line of scrimmage.
UTSA running back Jalen Rhodes said he is prepared in the event that he and others are asked to carry the load in a rushing-oriented scheme.
“If coach feels like doing that, and he entrusts the game (to) me and Jarveon (Williams) and whoever else is carrying the ball, we’ll have to take care of business,” Rhodes said.
Williams, UTSA’s starter, leads the Roadrunners with 775 yards and eight touchdowns rushing. Splitting time with Williams, Rhodes has added 756 yards and nine TDs.
New Mexico’s offense is run out of a pistol formation, where the quarterback receives a snap from center in the shotgun and then sets in motion a triple-option attack.
Quarterback Lamar Jordan is the playmaker, blessed with ability to run or throw. Halfback Teriyon Gipson averages 9.1 yards per carry and Tyrone Owens 8.1. Both backs have rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
With two weeks to practice since the game was announced, UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport said the team has prepared sufficiently to defend a unique-style offense.
“I feel like we had too much time (practicing against the option), not to be prepared, not to be ready,” Davenport said.
Attendance records: The biggest crowd in the history of the bowl turned out for the inaugural game in 2006 when 34,111 watched San Jose State defeat New Mexico 20-12. The smallest crowd showed up in 2012 when officials announced 24,610 for Arizona's 49-48 victory over Nevada.
The game drew 30,289 last year when Arizona defeated New Mexico 45-37.
Even though it was the third-best crowd in the history of the bowl, it had a bowl record-low television audience of 1.8 million, according to the Albuquerque Journal. According to the newspaper, the previous low was 1.9 million television viewers in 2014 when Utah State beat UTEP, 21-6.
Lobos in the postseason: The Lobos have qualified for a bowl for the second straight year. All time, they are 3-9 after losing 45-37 to Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl last year. They haven’t won a bowl game since 2007, when they shut out Nevada 23-0, also at the New Mexico Bowl. In that game, they won in a bowl for the first time since 1961.
Dreaming of the NFL: Two of UTSA’s most talented seniors, safety Michael Egwuagu and running back Jarveon Williams, both said Friday morning that they plan to continue training in hopes of playing in the NFL.
Davie said he thinks some of his New Mexico players also will get a shot at the pros.
Two of the best prospects from the Lobos are tight end Cole Gautsche and linebacker Dakota Cox. Gautsche, 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds, played quarterback against UTSA in both 2013 and 2014.
Old friends to meet: Williams, a former Judson standout, said he looks forward to playing against his friend, New Mexico cornerback Isaiah Brown.
Brown also played at Judson before transferring to Katy. A senior at New Mexico, Brown is the younger brother of former UTSA cornerback Erik Brown. Erik Brown is tied for the most interceptions in a season (four) at UTSA. He did it in 2012