New Mexico Lobos Football --- at UTEP Miners
When/Where: 6 p.m., Saturday – Sun Bowl, El Paso
On The Air: Fox College Sports (TV); 770-AM KKOB / Lobo Radio Network
GoLobos.com: Game Story, Statistics
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The question that teases the minds of so many Lobos will find a window of answers Saturday night in a hostile and hot Sun Bowl as fired up UTEP Miners try to answer that question in a negative way.
Can Clayton Mitchem duplicate at the major-college level for Lobos all the wonderful stats he produced at the junior college level?
At Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College (NEO), Mitchem was a Norsemen phenom – with his quick feet but especially with his strong right arm. He was the conference player of the year. He threw a school record 2,435 yards with 27 touchdowns. He ran for 728 yards with 13 TDs
He scored more touchdowns and threw for more yards in 2012 than the Lobos did as a team.
But it’s easier to rack up numbers against teams like Coffeyville and Cisco than it is teams like UTEP, Wyoming, Boise State, etc.
Now, that doesn’t mean Mitchem can’t make the jump in an impressive way. There are 55 former Norsemen that made the jump to the NFL. Mitchem has former NEO teammates playing at Oklahoma State, Georgia State and Tulsa. Mitchem is good. Mitchem is multi talented.
But a big part of that question about Mitchem is whether he is ready to make that jump Saturday against an aggressive Miner defense hungry and rabid to start its season. This will not be an easy debut.
“I have complete faith in Clayton. Clayton has all the ability he needs,” said Lobo LaMar Bratton. “The whole team is behind him.”
Said Lobo Dante Caro of Las Cruces: “We have seen Clayton perform and he’s a performer. He’s ready.”
Mitchem says he’s ready, too. “This is what I came here to do and now I have to go out and do it,” he said. “I get more confidence every day, every snap.”
Lobo offensive coordinator, Bob DeBesse, said two things he seeks from Mitchem on Saturday are “poise and confidence.” Mitchem’s ability is not questioned. However, DeBesse also knows the hostile environment created by Miners and their fans -- and their defense -- “will be a real challenge for him.”
Mitchem takes over the huddle from the hard-running Cole Gautsche, who is out with concussion symptoms and hoping to return for the Pittsburgh game. Gautsche won the huddle because of his running ability and his command of UNM’s pistol offense triggered primarily by a powerful option.
But the option’s power was quieted a bit in the final game of 2012 and again last Saturday in a 21-13 loss to UTSA. The Rams of Colorado State and the Roadrunners of San Antonio made defensive adjustments to slow down the Lobo run game. UNM did not have enough counter measures through the air to punish those defensive shifts.
In 2013, the Lobos are trying hard to add an aerial attack. They had 84 yards passing against UTSA – not enough.
The Lobos’ challenge at UTEP will be to unleash that option at a higher level and do better over the top. An effective run game will help the passing. A threatening passing game will help the running. The UNM’s offensive line is a key in both areas. So is Mitchem.
“We are going to have to simplify things and maybe not ask as much from him as we would have with Cole,” said DeBesse.
The Lobos’ passing package isn’t overly complex for an obvious reason. It takes time and lots of snaps to polish an option. It is a precision attack of timing, angles and reads. It’s complicated. When you put in an option and do it right, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of time to expand the passing game.
But that doesn’t mean the passing game can’t be dangerous. You simply need to be efficient in execution. You need to hit your targets. Your targets need to catch the ball.
And interesting element on Saturday will be how well Mitchem reads and executes the option -- and how much UNM allows him to pass. The poise and confidence elements mentioned by DeBesse also will be crucial.
For sure, the Sun Bowl will be howling at the rookie quarterback from New Mexico and the UTEP defense will be on a headhunting mission. The heat will not be limited to a blistering Texas sun.
“I think it will be a fun challenge,” said Mitchem. “You hear a crowd like that, you can’t help it. But you are there to quiet them down. And you don’t really think about the crowd once you start playing.”