A week after many other schools got their football season underway, the Lobos are faced with easily the hardest game on their 2023 slate of games. College Station, Texas is one of the most storied locations in all college sports. Home to Texas A&M, the Lobos have never won there in four previous trips and Saturday will likely be no different. Head Coach Danny Gonazles knows this but also knows that the trip will be beneficial no matter the outcome.
As is the case with any of the P5 vs. G5 games, in any sport really, it’s about the payday for the G5 school, and the chance for the upset, and for the P5 school they get a chance at an early season win to pad their season record.
“It’s a $1.6m payday for the athletic department. That money will help the athletic department as a whole,” said Coach Gonzales at the Lobo Luncheon this week.
Coach is very well aware of what the odds are for his team and how much taking on a tough opponent can mean for UNM athletics as a whole. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to give it everything they can. SEC teams are known for their size, speed, and the atmosphere in which the games are played. Two of those things, the Lobos can try to prepare for in terms of scheme and game plan. But the environment is something entirely different from what these Lobos are used to playing in front of.
“We have some speakers on a cart that we had about eight feet behind the quarterback to try and emulate the noise so they couldn’t hear, and we’ll work on it throughout the week. You can’t really emulate 100k people.” Gonzales also stated that they artificially increased the humidity at UNM’s indoor practice facility to try and emulate the humidity so the players would be more used to it.
When you look at this Lobo team, you get the sense that they should be better than their record in previous seasons. Now in his fourth year, Gonzales would ideally have guys who have been in his system for multiple years and have a better understanding of what he wants to do. One of the biggest struggles this program has faced over the past seasons is the lack of consistency at the quarterback position. Between the injury issues and the inability to sustain drives, the Lobos finished the season averaging only 13.1 points per game.
The arrival of UAB transfer Dylan Hopkins is one reason that the Lobo faithful should have reason to be more optimistic about this season. Following former UAB head coach, Bryant Vincent, Hopkins came to UNM with the starting role clearly his. A veteran on the field for UAB, Hopkins took over the starting role for the Blazers full-time in 2021 and never looked back. In his career, he’s passed for over 4,700 yards, attributed for 39 touchdowns, and has a bowl win under his belt. The leadership is there in the huddle, and there’s help at the skill positions finally.
A lot was expected of Luke Wysong in 2022 and he didn’t have a lot of help. Between his duties on special teams and as one of the primary receiving targets, he exceeded expectations, but it wasn’t enough. Now, offensively incoming transfer Jacory “Bill” Croskey-Merritt should be able to relieve some of that pressure from the backfield, and with Andrew Erickson on the opposite side of the line, Wysong could find himself in situations to be even more impactful when he isn’t the lone focal point for defenses.
Going up against a talented team like TAMU will always be a challenge for a school that is deemed less talented on both sides of the ball. But, if the Lobos can control the ball, and sustain drives, there’s a chance they could pull off an upset similar to what Appalachian State did in 2022.
With veteran leadership on the offensive side of the ball, the bigger question for the Lobos coming into the season is on the defensive side of the ball. Under former Defensive Coordinator Rocky Long, the Lobos defense was ranked in the top 50 in the nation in 2021 and 2022. Losing 10 of 11 defensive starters doesn’t help either. The most notable loss for the defensive unit was safety Jerrick Reed, who was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks.
The Lobos brought in Troy Reffett to replace Long, who is no stranger to UNM, having previously been on the coaching staff from 2004-2008. It will be interesting to see how his scheme works out this season and the fans may need to throw out the TAMU game before making any decisions about the performance. This is a much more talented team than will be faced for the rest of the season.
During the Lobo Luncheon, Coach Gonzale was quick to point to Ray Leutele, Alec Marenco, and Tavian Combs as guys who will have a big impact this season. Each of them was described as a leader on the team and they represent some of the more veteran players for the Lobo defense. Gonzales also talked about the talent of incoming TCU Safety transfer D’Arco Perkins McAllister, who will likely miss this game with an injury and was not cleared to play as of Tuesday.
“We’re going to play a football team that is big and talented, and we’ve got some kids that we think are big and talented,” said Gonzales. “Whatever happens on Saturday doesn’t define our season. We’re going to go compete and try to keep it close.”
The Lobos season opener kicks off from College Station, Texas at 5:00 p.m. (MT) with the game being broadcast nationally on ESPN.