STEVENS: For Lobos & Aggies, This Is a Turf Battle That Matters
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  09/25/2009
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Sept. 25, 2009

Lobo Football
New Mexico State at Lobos
When/Where: 8 p.m. Saturday, University Stadium
Radio: 770 KKOB-AM, Lobo Radio Network
TV: The Mtn (Comcast 276, DirecTV 616)
Online: GameTracker; game story on GoLobos.com

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

For all Lobos, it's a war of turf, respect and boasting rights. It's a game where New Mexico State Aggies and New Mexico Lobos could scratch out a football field on some distant mesa, the high heat would still be on, and the fans would come.

For Lobo Chris Hernandez, the intensity and the significance of this battle for a state's football bragging rights surely are about as high as it gets. For most of his young life, Hernandez was an Aggie.

"I was expecting to be an Aggie and I'd go to school wearing Aggie gear," said the product of Las Cruces Mayfield High. "I wasn't expecting to come to UNM and I had a bunch of Aggie gear. I gave it all away."

The 6-foot-3 Hernandez was one of the top receivers in New Mexico for the Mayfield Trojans. He caught 70 passes for 1,084 yards his senior year and he said the Aggies were dangling a scholarship in front of his nose. Then the Aggies did what a lot of schools try to do. They tried to save a scholarship by getting the local kid to walk on.

Often that works because the local kid grew up wanting to play for the hometown college. He wears a lot of gear from the school and makes it clear where his heart lies. Why waste a scholarship on a kid who is already hooked?

It might have worked on Hernandez, too, but then this school from up North said, `Come be a Lobo. We'll give you a scholarship.' Hernandez liked that.

"The Lobos were excited to have me and Coach (Rocky) Long offered me a scholarship," said Hernandez. "As soon as I committed to UNM, I went to school wearing Lobo stuff. I got a lot of heat for it.

"There is just a different attitude up here about recruiting in-state players. It was an easy decision to be a Lobo."

Of course, it's not so easy going back home to Cruces in the summer and facing a town full of Aggies -- especially if you lose. Hernandez and no Lobo have had to deal with that losing thing of late.

"They don't talk too much considering we have won six straight," said Hernandez. "But I'm expecting them to come out with some confidence on Saturday because we haven't gotten off to such a good start.

"I would say it's the biggest game of the year down there in Cruces. I have a lot of friends who are Aggie fans, but not so much my family anymore."

The 0-3 Lobos are looking at the 1-2 Aggies as a way to get on the winning side of the scoreboard this season and to snap a seven-game UNM skid streak dating back to 2008.

"If you can't get up for this game, then this isn't the right sport for you," said Lobo Jonathan Mader, a redshirt freshman tight end from Albuquerque Cibola High. "You never want to lose to the Aggies and especially not at home."

Said Lobo linebacker Clint McPeek, an Albuquerque La Cueva High graduate: "If we lose, we'll never hear the end of it."

In order to win and crow for a seventh straight season, the Lobos have to do a few things well that they haven't been doing so well in their first three games.

They need to generate more yardage. They need to take better care of the football. They need to create more turnovers. They need to do better on third-down conversions on both sides of the ball. Did we mention they need to score more points?

Ditto for the Aggies.

Both teams have struggled this season at the quarterback position. Lobo Coach Mike Locksley planned to throw both senior Donovan Porterie and redshirt freshman B.R. Holbrook at the Aggies on Saturday. That plan was lost when Holbrook came down ill. Now, Poterie is the main man in the huddle with Brad Gruner as the backup.

"I'm ready," said Porterie. "I've prepared just like I've always do. I still have a lot of confidence in myself and in our offense."

The Aggies have been flip-flopping Jeff Fleming and Trevor Walls this week in practice and NMSU Coach DeWayne Walker has been mum about which of the two QB will get the start. Neither have turned any Aggie heads nor set a scoreboard on fire.

Fleming went 6-of-13 in NMSU's loss to UTEP in Cruces. He heaved no TDs, but did throw two interceptions. Walls came in to go 4-of-10 with no picks, but he did have a pass for six points. The Aggies, who average 13 points a game, are looking for a QB to guide them into the promised land of points.

Ditto for the Lobos. UNM averages 9.7 points a game and the only Lobo to see pay dirt has been tailback James Wright, who averaged more than 25 yards a carry in UNM's loss to Air Force.

The Lobos go at NMSU trying to establish a run game to help open up Locksley's no-huddle, multi-Lobo attack. UNM still lists freshman Demond Dennis as the starter, but James Wright has slipped into a tie for second on the tailback depth chart with A.J. Butler.

The Aggies hope to add a bit more passing so the Lobos won't lock down on the NMSU running attack. Which isn't bad.

Aggie tailback Seth Smith ran for 150 yards in NMSU's only win - 21-18 over lowly Prairie View. He also ran for 99 yards against a decent UTEP team in the Aggies' 38-12 loss to the Miners. Smith averages 88.7 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry.

"They will give you the two-back run offense, with two tights (tight ends) two backs and get physical with you," said Doug Mallory, UNM`s defensive coordinator..

Smith likely will be the Aggie that Coach Walker throws the most at UNM behind that Aggie O-line that likes to get physical. As always, the war of the trenches will be huge, but maybe even more for this game.

If the Lobos can't run, they'll have to look to Porterie to win the game. That hasn't yet been a winning solution in 2009. If the Aggies can't run, they'll have to turn to an unproven spot in their huddle, too.

Then, of course, there are the intangibles of this game: the big plays and the big turnovers that have hit both teams like an unwanted flu bug. You also have the war of dirt and turf and pride. It will be emotional and nasty - the way it should be when Lobos and Aggies scratch out a line in the dirt..

"This is one game you have to win no matter what it takes," said Lobo senior Frankie Baca.

Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net. Previous articles are available at The Richard Stevens Corner