Beauty of '12 Football Season in Eye of Beholder
Nov. 29, 2012
By Greg Archuleta
After all that the Lobos had been through the last three years, a four-win season is cause for holiday cheer.
Except for those wearing Grinch-colored glasses.
The University of New Mexico football team completed the 2012 season under first-year coach Bob Davie with results that will be debated throughout the offseason.
Lobo football naysayers - the "Grinches" - will point to a six-game losing streak and a fourth consecutive one-win season in Mountain West play as examples of how little the program improved.
Then again, we all know that Grinches' hearts are two sizes two small.
The 4-9 finish looks a lot better compared to 3-33 - the program's record from 2009-11.
Davie, however, says his rebuilding project is too new to judge it by its record.
"Probably the biggest single thing is this team each and every week gave itself a chance to win a football game," he said. "And as a coach, it always does come down to winning and losing, but I'm not going to let that take away in my own mind of what these kids have accomplished.
"We're all disappointed. I wish we could've won more games, but really it doesn't take way from some significant strides these players made this year. I said early in the season that it was too early to judge everything on wins and losses, I still feel the same way."
Besides, the Grinches will point out, the four wins UNM had - against Southern, New Mexico State, Texas State and Hawai'i - were against programs that had a combined 10-37 mark.
You're vile ones, Mr. and Mrs. Grinches.
DEPARTURE FROM THE PAST
The Lobos ended a 24-game road losing streak with a 27-14 win at New Mexico State on Sept. 22. They followed that by snapping a 26-game Mountain West road losing streak with a 35-23 win at Hawai'i on Oct. 13.
New Mexico lost five games in 2012 by seven points or fewer and had the ball late in the fourth quarter with a chance to win or tie. In two of those games, UNM had the ball inside the opponent's 20-yard line, only to be turned away.
In 2011, the Lobos' foes outscored them by a combined 500-144 for a point differential of 356. That means that the average score of the Lobos' games was 41.7-12 for the other guys - an average of 29.7 points per game.
This season, UNM was outscored 393-335 for a 58-point differential. The score of the Lobos' games was 30.2-25.8 against UNM, a difference of 4.4 points.
UNM was second in the country in improved point differential from 2011, a positive change by 298 points. Only fellow MW member Fresno State had a better point differential from 2011 to this season. The Bulldogs outscored their foes by a combined 216 points after being outscored by 86 in 2011 - a difference of 302 points.
Of course, Fresno State has the likely first-team All-MW quarterback in junior Derek Carr, who was No. 8 nationally with an average 311.8 passing yards per game with 36 touchdowns on the season and just five interceptions (including one vs. New Mexico that was returned for a TD).
The Lobos had to make due with two QBs who took turns starting because of injuries to each. Senior B.R. Holbrook played in 10 games, started eight and finished seven because of injuries to his ribs, his head and his shoulder.
After suffering a separated shoulder in week nine against Fresno State, Holbrook missed the next three games but started the season finale against Colorado State, threw for a season-high 205 yards and was 16 yards away from writing a storybook ending with a victory on the final play of the game and the season.
"I think it's pretty appropriate there that the last play of the year, B.R. Holbrook is still taking his shots and giving us a chance to win," Davie said.
True freshman Cole Gautsche played in 11 games, started four and finished eight. He suffered head and neck injuries from weeks seven-to-nine that limited him to about three quarters of football during that span, and flu-like symptoms limited him to a handful of plays against CSU.
Gautsche rushed for 760 yards - the third most ever by a Lobo quarterback - and seven TDs. Davie said several times that Gautsche should've redshirted this season but was pressed into service because of a lack of depth. UNM needed Gautsche because six of the seven quarterbacks recruited to the Lobos from 2009-11 quit the program and the seventh never made it to UNM.
If anyone had said in August that the Lobos' second-leading rushing this season would be Gautsche, the likely response would've been, "Who?"
Gautsche's next step is to develop some consistency in the passing game to make the offense more balanced.
"Cole can become that kind of guy. He's 230 pounds and he can wear you down," Davie said. "In the end, it comes down to the intangibles at that position. The great ones have the ability to get better at the things that aren't your strengths. So Cole's offseason, Cole's spring, Cole's next three years ... I'm banking he has the intangibles to get better at the things that right now maybe are his weaknesses."
KASEY AND THE SUNSHINE
While Gautsche's 2012 performance was a surprise, the biggest "Who?" in UNM's Whoville in 2012 might be running back Kasey Carrier. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound junior, who missed the entire 2011 season with an ankle injury and was the team's leading rusher in 2010 - with just 373 yards the entire season -turned in a record performance with 1,469 rushing yards. That broke the single-season mark that belonged to DonTrell Moore, who had 1,450 rushing yards in 2003.
Carrier also set the Mountain West and UNM single-game records with 338 rushing yards against Air Force on Oct. 20. He had an amazing month of October - running for 826 yards (a 206.5-yard average) and 11 of his career-high 15 TDs on 116 carries in four games.
After every interview this season, Carrier always said his success was directly attributed to his offensive line, The unit, under the tutelage of assistant coaches Jason Lenzmeier and Derek Warehime, helped the Lobos rush for 301.2 yards per game, which not only ranked as the fifth-best rushing offense in the country but also was a 188-yard improvement in the run game from 2011.
The offense set a school record with 10 300-yard rushing games in 2012 and tied the 1971 team in consecutive 300-yards games with nine. The Lobos, who entered the season without a 100-yard rushing performance since Nov. 21, 2009, had 10 100-yard individual rushers (seven by Carrier, two by Gautsche and one by Demarcus Rogers).
UNM's ability to run the ball helped the offense lead the nation in time of possession with an average of 33 minutes, 47 seconds per game.
Perhaps, it was no surprise that when Carrier slowed down because of two sore hamstring muscles that he played with during the entire month of November , UNM's offense slowed down as well.
"I think Kasey Carrier breaking the school rushing record - who'd have thought? Who'd have thought?" Davie said. "When we're out here standing in spring practice with these hodge-podge of guys, looking at where they had been statistically, to have a player become the all -time leading rusher, to lead the nation in time of possession, to be as good as we were in turnover margin ... a lot of things surprised me."
The Lobos were 17th in the country in turnover margin, averaging plus-0.85 turnovers per game. They forced 25 turnovers and committed just 14. Last season, UNM forced just 13 turnovers and committed 21 for a minus 0.67 ratio to tie for 100th nationally.
UNM's ability to produce nearly double the amount of turnovers helped the defensive coaches get through a 13-game, no-bye schedule on a unit with scarce depth.
The Lobos defense actually gave up more yards per play - 6.8 in 2012, compared to 6.7 in 2011 - but turnovers and the offense's ability to keep possession of the football helped the unit give up 11.5 fewer points and 47.9 fewer yards per game.
And while lack of depth at quarterback crippled UNM offensively, the dearth of available secondary players was equally concerning on defense.
UNM had 10 scholarship athletes in the secondary during spring practice. That number was down to five by the end of the year - a foot injury sidelined safety Julian Lewis all season, and both safety Jamal Merritt and cornerback DeShawn Mills suffered season-ending knee injuries in week six against Texas State.
And on a team that lost 15 scholarships over a three-year probation period from 2009-11, consider:
Counting Tabannah and Williams, eight DBs - and seven scholarship DBs - no longer are in the program.
That's a big part of the reason UNM gave up 83 explosion plays - passes of 20 or more yards (45) and runs of 15 or more yards (38) - this season.
"It was hard to watch at times," Davie said. "It was frustrating for the fans; it was frustrating for the coaches. There were a lot of things we had to do to try and piecemeal this thing together."
Bad defense, the Grinches say.
Others might call it excellent coaching for the Lobos to play through that and still have a legitimate chance in the fourth quarter to win 10 of the 13 games.
A LOOK AHEAD
Now, the team turns its attention toward 2013, and there is no hyperbole in Davie's words: "This will be as critical a recruiting class as there will ever be in the history of this program because there are no juniors, there are no upperclassmen to speak of.
"We need numbers. We need to go out and sign 25 recruits and get them in here quickly. The reality is, and our players know this, there will be a lot of players on that field next year that aren't even on campus, yet."
Those players will have to mesh quickly with a solid nucleus of players that have formed a stronger foundation than Davie anticipated before the year.
UNM loses its entire starting wide receiver corps, two senior tight ends and Holbrook. Four of UNM's five starting offensive linemen will return, and the entire running back unit returns and adds University of California transplant Trajuan Briggs, who sat out 2012 because of transfer rules.
The 2013 secondary could be entirely new as it loses three senior starters.
"Defensively, it will be a completely different-looking team," Davie said. "The scheme will change dramatically. On offense, we have to get more balanced to give ourselves a chance to win. To stabilize the program and give ourselves a chance to win like we did this year, it's still going to be heavy option."
Just as critical, Davie said, is for the team to get bigger, stronger and faster in the weight room and to keep up on its school work.
"When I took over here last year, I forget the number of guys that were ineligible, but it was unbelievable how hard guys had to work just to get eligible. That takes so much of your time and your energy as a young guy. We're going to try to get ahead of it. Academics are a key for us."
And although Davie understands the considerable work ahead, he said he has been pleased with the team's progress so far.
I think we've probably exceeded a little bit, in my mind, in changing the culture. I really do," he said. "We've set a bit of a foundation. I think we've got a head start on it. I feel like we can do it here, I feel like we can get it done and I'm excited about it."
Davie's four wins are the most by a first-year Lobo coach since Joe Lee Dunn led the team to six victories his first year in 1983. There have been four first-year coaches since then (not counting interim coach George Barlow last year) - Mike Sheppard, Dennis Franchione, Rocky Long and Mike Locksley.
Sheppard and Locksley combined for an 11-76 record.
Franchione guided the team to a 3-8 record his first year in 1992 (the team was 3-9 in 1991) and needed six years to get the team to a bowl game in1997.
Long finished 3-9 in his first season at UNM and needed five years to get the Lobos to a bowl game in 2002. And he inherited a team that had gone 9-4 the year before he arrived.
Davie inherited a program that is completely starting over.
ONLY THE BEGINNING
As such, he reserves the right to be a bit Grinch-like himself, so that nobody starts thinking that the program has arrived.
"I'm realistic. We could've won some games, but that's not going to hide or mask the real challenge of this program, to get this program back on a solid foundation," he said. "This is a three- to five-year rebuilding situation, three years minimum. I don't think anybody should get ahead of themselves. We're just starting here; we're just starting."
If only the Grinches can think of it that way, they might actually cheer how the Lobos played.