They're fearless and looking for a brawl, with a cocky ‘bring it on' attitude to them and a coach willing to take on any team anywhere. While New Mexico comes into Saturday's match-up with Washington State on a two-game losing streak, they have been competitive in all of their contests this season, out-gaining their opponents each game. So, if you heading to Pullman this week and are expecting a cakewalk, you'd better park near a bakery.
Washington State (2-1) is currently a 16-point favorite over New Mexico (1-2). The game is scheduled for 2:00 PST and—surprise, surprise—it will not be telecast. This is the first meeting between the two teams.
The Cougars are still on cloud nine after last week's mile high victory, but need to keep their feet on the ground for this one. New Mexico is no cream puff and if they don't prepare hard this week, they will be in for four quarters of serious football they hadn't counted on having to play. Personally, I hope they sit down and watch a tape of UNLV's blowout win over Wisconsin last week or Maryland's collapse against Northern Illinois just to remind themselves what can happen when you don't get up for a game.
THE LOBOS ON OFFENSE
Overview: Need a reason to take New Mexico seriously? Get a good look at their offensive line when they come out of the tunnel. They average 6-5, 320 pounds and are among the best run blockers in the country. Need another? Two words: returning starters. The entire Lobo offense is back from last year's Las Vegas Bowl squad; seven of them are now seniors. Even the starting kicker and punter are back just for good measure. So far this season they've averaged 484 yards and 36 points per game, which ranks them 8th in the country in total offense. Still not sold? Remember a fellow by the name of Tali Ena? The ex-WSU backup quarterback is now wearing a slightly different shade of crimson, but he knows a thing or two about our offense and should have the Lobo defense well prepared this week.
Strategy: The Lobos are a run first-pass second style team, gaining 235 yards on the ground on average. But it has been a renewed emphasis on passing that has really got the offense firing. With opponents focusing far more on the Lobo running game, Coach Rocky Long is regularly watching for opportunities to burn a defense that creeps up too much. Obviously the Cougs are going to have to shut down the running game first, but they can't expect to cheat the Lobos by not playing good pass defense. The most important thing will be preventing the Cougar D from getting tired. The Lobos are enormous and when they get long drives going it really uses up a defense's energy fast (as well as the game clock). The Cougs need to get plenty of rotation in their personnel and make sure Matt Kegel's offense gets them a good breather whenever possible.
Players to Know:
DonTrell Moore, RB: The Lobos have a lethal one-two punch at tailback. As a freshman, Moore had over 1,100 yards rushing and has already racked up over 250 in his sophomore campaign with 5 TDs to his credit. He is expected to get the starting nod against the Cougs although he has been a little banged up this year.
D.D. Cox, RB: The junior has had a breakout season so far with 282 yards and 4 scores. At 6-0, 211 pounds, he is a very similar build and style to Moore, and like Moore he has been hampered by an ankle injury. As much as the Lobos run the ball, we will see them both regularly.
Casey Kelly, QB: Kelly won't blow you away with his arm strength, but he is a tough senior who is accurate on short-to-intermediate passes. As with the last two QB's WSU has faced, his primary job will be to minimize turnovers and keep himself out of the training room. Coach Long is well aware that the last two QB's have been knocked out of the game by the Cougs so expect him to rely on quicker passes to minimize the hits. Kelly had trouble with overthrows against BYU.
Jason Lenzmeier, OT: Lenzmeier normally anchors the left half of the Lobo line but he's out with an injury this week. His presence will be sorely missed. The rest of the group has great size and agility but will need to find a new leader. Lenzmeier was generally considered the team's best NFL prospect.
THE LOBOS ON DEFENSE
Overview: New Mexico runs a 3-3-5 that isn't too different from Colorado, so the Cougar offense should feel fairly familiar with it. The Lobos defense was outstanding last week, holding BYU to 308 yards, including just 172 passing yards. Again, experience is the word here. Nine seniors lead this group, seven of which are returning starters from last season. They've had to defend BYU's passing and Air Force's rushing throughout their careers so they are a well-rounded group. Their weak point was thought to be at the corners but they looked pretty sound last week.
Strategy: The Lobos have had limited success getting to the quarterback so the Cougs should fire away and give those corners another good testing. UNM was focused on preventing the big play last week so expect the shorter routes to be left open. Statistically nobody has run with any success against the Lobos this year, but then again, BYU, Texas Tech, and SW Texas State aren't exactly rushing juggernauts. Jonathan Smith and company might be just fast enough to run around the larger Lobo defenders and break some solid gains. The Cougars should strive to continue the offensive balance that has brought them success thus far. Through three games, WSU has run exactly the same number of runs as pass plays, averaging 4.8 yards per rush and 7.5 per pass attempt. That kind of high-end balance is a nightmare for defensive coordinators.
Players to Know:
Billy Strother, OLB: Strother is on the Butkus watch list and currently leads the team in tackles. He has good speed and is an animal in the weight room. He is a run stopper at heart but is happy to blitz quarterbacks too.
Nick Speegle, OLB: Speegle combined with Strother make up arguably the best linebacker tandem in the Mountain West Conference. He is a 3rd year starting junior and is listed at an impressive 244 pounds. Despite his size, New Mexico staff claim he runs a 4.6 forty.
Daniel Kegler, DE: Kegler is New Mexico's best pass rushing threat on the line. He has a great motor and can really disrupt things when he is focused but he has been pretty quiet so far this season. With the lobos racking up just 7 sacks this season, Kegler will need to step it up a couple notches and get more pressure on the passer. Reminiscent of a slightly quicker Fred Shavies.
Brandon Ratcliff, S: A returning all-conference first team selection, he leads a veteran Lobo secondary that features 4 seniors. The group has forced only three interceptions despite defending a ton of passes in their first 3 games. He and fellow safety Sidney Wiley need to have a big game on Saturday.
DJ Renteria, NT: Renteria was moved over from defensive end to bring more athleticism to the interior. He has excellent mobility and power but is still learning the position.
THE LOBOS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Katie Hnida, K: If you've never heard of Katie, you should have. She is the first female player in NCAA division-1A football history to actually participate in a football game. She is technically the 3rd string kicker on the Lobo's squad but she has hit two extra points this season. I'm not sure if she will be making the trip up to Pullman but you should take note of her if you spot her on the sidelines. From a politically correct point of view, you shouldn't miss an opportunity to see such an extraordinary athlete who has done so much to tear down barriers for women. But from a much shallower, chauvinistic perspective, she's freaking hot! I'm sorry, call me naïve, but I had relatively low expectations for what history's first female football player might look like. But as it turns out, Kathy Ireland's character from Necessary Roughness wasn't a farce--it was a prophecy! I will always love Mrs. Moore, but two things this wonderful haven't come together since some medieval monk decided to brew barley with hops! Oh yes, and kicking is a weak point for New Mexico, could cost them the game, yada yada yada.
As the emotional aspect of the game goes, the Cougars are taking on the Lobos at a great time. New Mexico was flying high after week one, beating SW Texas State 78-8. They went into Lubbock, Texas the following week feeling pretty confident and were brought back down to earth, losing to Texas Tech 42-28 despite generating 584 yards of offense. They got back on their feet and then lost a hard fought brawl with rival BYU 10-7 at home. Now they have to get up for another road game against a team that looks like a better version of Texas Tech. They will be ready to play, but lingering fears of a blowout will be in the back of their minds. WSU should do everything they can to knock this team out early. If the Lobos feel the game is out of reach going into halftime they may fold up shop. But if they are still lingering around in the 4th quarter WSU could be in trouble. New Mexico's offense is nothing to toy around with when your team is tired, and their pass defense virtually shut down BYU last week.