ALBUQUERQUE — If not for a few kicks smacking into the uprights Saturday afternoon at University Stadium, New Mexico might have recorded its first victory of the season — and the first under first-year coach Mike Locksley — as well as a huge upset of No. 22 BYU.
In the end, though, the Cougars (8-2, 5-1) hung on for a 24-19 triumph over an inspired Lobo team (0-10, 0-6) desperate for a win.
"New Mexico plays tough. I was happy to see them come out and fight, not just kind of lay down," said quarterback Max Hall. "They haven't won a game, but they fought us to the end."
Snake-bitten Lobo kicker James Aho hit the goalpost on three different kicks — twice on field goals and once on an extra point — and had another field goal blocked by BYU senior Andrew Rich. Had those kicks sailed through, the outcome might have been different.
"You can't explain it," BYU defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen said of those bizarre misses, "but we'll take it."
Hey, there's a reason why this place is named Albu-QUIRK-e.
Asked why his team struggled against the winless Lobos, coach Bronco Mendenhall replied, "Maybe New Mexico had something to do with it. I think they drew a line in the sand and really were motivated to play a good football game today. To their credit, they did."
No doubt, the Lobos earned BYU's respect.
"I was impressed with how the Lobos played on both sides of the ball," said Mendenhall, who served as UNM's defensive coordinator for five years. "I was excited to see New Mexico's kids play that hard and make as many critical plays as they did. This is what this place is all about, I'm talking about Albuquerque. It should be difficult to come in here and win a football game."
New Mexico outgained BYU in total yards 360-355, and had the ball nearly 10 minutes longer, but the Cougar defense came up big in the end.
After a fumble by BYU running back Bryan Kariya at the UNM 37 with 3:13 remaining in the game, the Lobos, trailing 24-19, had a chance to stage a game-winning drive.
On first down, Cougar safety Scott Johnson was flagged for a personal foul on an incomplete pass to put the ball in BYU territory. But on the following play, senior defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen sacked quarterback Donovan Porterie for a 9-yard loss.
"They kept running screens. (Defensive coordinator Jaime) Hill said to stay home and he ran right back to me," Jorgensen explained. "It was nothing special that I did, but it put them in a big hole and got the momentum back in our favor. It seemed like they had all of the momentum in the world. When that play happened, all the momentum came back to us and energized our guys, I think. Then we got another sack on the next play."
That 8-yard loss was registered by Jorgensen and linebacker Coleby Clawson, giving the Lobos a third-and-27 situation. Porterie threw an incomplete pass, then, on fourth down, ran for 20 yards, short of the first down.
"I'm excited for (the defense) stopping (UNM) when they had to, to win the football game and giving up only 19 points, which will win most football games," Mendenhall said.
BYU took over possession and ran out the clock.
From the outset, the Lobos looked like they were eager to spring an upset. New Mexico took the opening kickoff and scored on a 3-yard touchdown run by Porterie. The Lobos drove 80 yards in 15 plays and 6:17 — marking the first time all year UNM had scored on its first drive. It was also the Lobos' longest scoring drive this season.
The Cougars got on the scoreboard with 51 seconds left in the first quarter on a 1-yard touchdown dive by Manase Tonga to make it 7-7.
On its first drive of the second quarter, BYU enjoyed a series of big plays and marched to the Lobo 24 before Hall's screen pass was intercepted at the line of scrimmage by UNM's Jaymar Latchison. After the Cougar defense held, BYU had another big play on a 50-yard reception by wide receiver McKay Jacobson to put the ball on the UNM 30. But the Cougars couldn't capitalize and settled for a 42-yard field goal by Mitch Payne. With 5:49 remaining in the second quarter, BYU seized its first lead of the game, 10-7.
Later in the quarter, the Cougars added to their lead on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Hall to tight end Andrew George with 1:56 left in the half to give BYU a 17-7 advantage.
Thanks to a big return on the ensuing kickoff, the Lobos drove into BYU territory, where Aho's 46-yard field attempt was blocked by Rich with less than 10 seconds remaining in the half.
New Mexico didn't let up in the second half, however. After forcing a BYU punt on the Cougars' opening drive, the Lobos put together another long scoring drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock and was capped by a 26-yard touchdown pass from Porterie to Daryl Jones.
That cut the deficit to 17-13 after Aho's PAT hit the goalpost. Aho had converted 40-of-40 PATs prior to that miss.
Aho's tough day continued when his 35-yard field-goal attempt late in the third quarter nailed the left upright, keeping the score at 17-13.
BYU responded with its most impressive drive of the day, marching 80 yards on seven plays in 1:42, culminating with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Hall to Luke Ashworth as the third quarter ended. That gave the Cougars a little breathing room with a 24-13 lead.
With 7:41 left in the game, following another solid UNM drive, Aho attempted a 42-yarder that, once again, hit the left upright.
The Lobos added a touchdown with 4:07 left on a 20-yard pass from Porterie to James Victor to make it 24-19 after a failed two-point conversion.
Mendenhall was simply happy to escape with a win.
"I was proud of our guys and how hard they fought," said Mendenhall, whose team hosts Air Force next Saturday. "The heart and determination they showed and they played well enough to win the football game."