Wyoming-New Mexico Preview

Coming off a 2006 bowl snub and a preseason conference projection that showed a bit less respect than they would have liked, the Cowboys will be looking to make a strong statement to the rest of the conference in their Homecoming match-up this weekend with New Mexico.

If a 4-1 start and a victory over the league's preseason favorite isn't enough to send a message to MWC media voters, a win this weekend might do the trick.

Even after winning five of their last seven contests in '06, the Cowboys were picked to finish sixth out of nine in the Mountain West by media pollsters this summer. The projection came just months after the Pokes rallied in the second half of the season to finish in a tie for third in the conference standings and gain bowl eligibility.

In the minds of voters, however, it wasn't enough to send the Cowboys to a bowl game; nor was it enough in the preseason rankings to lift them ahead of two teams they beat last season, Utah and New Mexico.

Needless to say, head coach Joe Glenn wasn't exactly happy with the situation.

"They made us mad again," he said in the off-season. "Last year they picked us last and we finished third in the league. This year they picked us fifth, so if we move up six spots from fifth, we should finish one ahead of the champions."

Glenn's players echoed his sentiments.

"We're better than a fifth-place team," tight end Wade Betschart told the Casper Star Tribune in July, "and Virginia and the non-conference teams are going to realize that right away."

For the most part, they have. Only 2006 BCS-buster Boise State has left its mark on the Pokes' loss column, and TCU, the '06 conference favorite, fell to the Cowboys in their first week of league play.

The Pokes are now the sole one-loss team in the MWC, and they'll get a chance to gain an even firmer foothold on the league when New Mexico comes to town for Homecoming this weekend.

The '06 Road Win…

Last year the Pokes found themselves down 10-0 at halftime to the Lobos in Albuquerque and on the verge of losing their fifth game in a row. Wyoming was unable to get anything going for the first 30 minutes. Quarterback Karsten Sween threw two picks and had a fumble that was recovered by the Lobos. New Mexico capitalized on Sween's turnovers and put 10 points on the board despite only having three first downs in the half.

The Cowboys came out of the locker room a different team in the third quarter. They scored immediately on their first possession and eventually put the game away on a four-yard TD reception by Michael Ford.

Wyoming's defense played great and held the Lobos to only 190 yards of total offense. The 14-10 victory sparked a two-game winning streak that featured a 31-15 Homecoming beating of Utah and a 24-0 rout of CSU the following week.

New Mexico finished the ‘06 season one spot below the Cowboys in conference play (4-4) but had a better overall record at 7-6. It was enough to propel the Lobos into their own backyard, postseason party, where they lost to San Jose State 20-12 in the inaugural New Mexico Bowl.

Meanwhile, the Pokes were left with plenty of time to wonder why a team they beat on the road and finished ahead of in the conference standings was playing on TV while they watched from their living rooms.

So far this season, the Lobos are 3-2 with their only conference game resulting in a loss to BYU at home. The other loss came in their season opener to Utep on the road. Despite leading the Miners in almost every statistical category, New Mexico failed to put the ball in the end zone, and UTEP came away with a 10-6 victory.

The Lobos rebounded with three straight wins, beating New Mexico St., Arizona and Sacramento State, before losing to the Cougars. BYU took advantage of several late-game Lobo mistakes to secure a 31-24 win.

Personnel Picture…

This year the Lobos return 8 starters from a mediocre 2006 offensive unit. UNM ranked fifth in the MWC and 83rd in the nation in total offense last season, but the team has seen dramatic improvement this year. The Lobos currently rank second in the MWC (to BYU) in total offense, putting up over 467 yards per game, and they have the best scoring offense in the league, averaging more than 32 points per contest.

Leading the offense at the QB position is sophomore Donovan Porterie. Porterie played in five games last year and orchestrated impressive comebacks against UNLV, Utah and CSU that got the Lobo fan base behind the young QB. He only took half the team's snaps against the Pokes in 06, completing seven out of 17 passes for 68 yards.

Porterie has evolved into one of the league's best quarterbacks. Can the Cowboys slow him down?

After sitting out the final two games of last season, Porterie is off to a fast start in ‘07. He has completed 111 out of 169 passes for 1,329 yards, seven touchdowns and three picks. His best games of the year have come at Arizona on the road where he shredded the Wildcat secondary for 327 yards and three TDs, and against New Mexico St. where he had 342 yards and two TDs on 24 attempts.

At running back, the Lobos have their own version of thunder in Rodney Ferguson. Ferguson had a great year in '06, racking up 1,234 on 252 attempts (4.9 per carry) and finishing first in the MWC. He also added seven rushing scores, 291 yards receiving and two more TDs through the air.

Ferguson will be a threat to score every time the Lobos get into Wyoming territory. In his last four outings, he is averaging two touchdowns a game.

In '07, Ferguson is on pace to top his impressive sophomore season. In the first five games, he's put up 560 yards and eight touchdowns on 125 carries (112 yards per game). He has already eclipsed his ‘06 TD total and is on pace to beat his ‘06 rushing total by more than 100 yards. The only question mark for Ferguson could be durability. He has been a work horse for the Lobos, carrying the ball 25 times per game. We'll see if his body can hold up throughout the season.

The Lobos are returning eight players on a defense that has also improved dramatically since last season, when it ended the year eighth in the conference in total defense, allowing more than 355 yards per game. This year the Lobo defense has jumped to fourth in the MWC, but its secondary remains suspect.

Leading the unit is senior defensive end Tyler Donaldson, who had a great '06 campaign with 49 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, five sacks, three broken-up passes, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one safety. He had a monster game against Wyoming, putting up 10 tackles and 2 sacks.

He hasn't slowed down at all since then. In the first five games of '07, he's totaled 29 tackles (tied for first on the team) six tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, one interception, one pass broken up and six QB hurries. He is on pace for a great year, and Wyoming's offensive line will get another big test this weekend.

Leading the Lobos' secondary is junior cornerback DeAndre Wright. Last season Wright had four picks and ten passes broken up. He also led the MWC with 14 passes defended. Along with his defensive skills, Wright has proven to be an outstanding kick returner, averaging 25.9 yards per return (1st in the MWC). Last year against the Pokes he had an interception in the end zone that stalled a potential Wyoming scoring drive.

Wright has looked even better in '07; he already has 16 tackles and two interceptions.

Wyoming's Keys to Success:

1. Slow down the Lobos' potent offense. So far this year the Lobos are averaging more than 80 yards more per game than their opponents and nearly 12 more points. In a way, this will be the biggest test for the Cowboy defense of the year—although Wyoming's offense should have better luck keeping its D off the field than it has in past weeks. Other than Wright, the Lobos don't have the kind of talent in the secondary that the Cowboys have faced in their last three contests. That should open things up for Sween, which, in turn, will make a nearly unstoppable rushing attack that much more dangerous.

2. Get the running game going early. As we have all seen thus far, there are not very many teams in college football that can stop the Pokes when they get established on the ground. If Thunder and Lightning get rolling, it could be a long day for the Lobos and a big one for D-Mo and Wynel.

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