With four games left in their season, the New Mexico Lobos have already won as many games as they did in any of the past three years.
Of course, their highest win total over that span is two, so that isn't saying much.But the fact is the Lobos (2-6 overall, 1-2 in the WAC) have played decently against some good teams. Arizona was ranked 20th in the nation when it beat New Mexico 25-10, and Wyoming was 23rd when edged the Lobos by a field goal two weeks ago. "This year we seem to play pretty well against (nationally ranked) teams like BYU," said Lobo Coach Mike Sheppard, who was recently given a contract extension despite a 6-37 record in four seasons.
Last week the Lobos were blown out 47-7 by a Colorado State team rebounding from a crushing loss to BYU. Sheppard said he had considered the possibility of a letdown by his team after the disappointing loss to Wyoming the week before, but he's not sure a letdown is what happened.
"I don't know if it was a letdown as much as it was CSU picking it up." he said. "They played as good a game as we've had played against us in quite a long time."
One thing that has hurt the Lobos the past two weeks has been the subpar passing of quarterback Jeremy Leach, usually the strength of the Lobo offense. Leach completed 8 of 20 passes for 84 yards and two interceptions against the Rams, and against Wyoming he completed 14 of 31 passes. Against CSU Leach was replaced by Marcus Goodloe, but the backup managed just 3 of 9 passing. For the season, Leach is ninth in the WAC in pass efficiency and has completed just 47 percent of his passes.
Sheppard said the Lobos have worked this week on simplifying their offensive playbook, although he isn't sure that will solve their problems.
"Right now, we're not very good at everything we have," he said. "If you're not executing, you need to change it, or pare it down and get better with what you do have."
But, he added, "Even if you eliminate a lot in the playbook, it still comes down to practicing what you have and doing a good job with that."
There have been a few bright spots for the Lobos. The defense has registered 34 sacks, already five more than it had all of last season. Senior linebacker Steve Vaipulu shares the conference lead with Mitch Donahue of Wyoming at 11 sacks, even though he hasn't had one the past two weeks.
The rest of the defense has been less impressive. The Lobos were 19th in the nation in rushing defense before the Rams ran all over them, dropping them to 37th. They rank seventh in the WAC in pass-efficiency defense, sixth in total defense and seventh in scoring defense.
The Lobos have an impressive record of scoring when they get close to an opponents' end zone. The last 10 times they have been inside a foe's 20-yard line, they have scored. One thing that has helped has been a short-yardage set featuring the running of 6-foot-2, 282-pound nose tackle Monte Cuba, normally the starting nose tackle. Cuba has scored two touchdowns in four rushing attempts this season.
When Cuba isn't running the ball, its been carried capably by three running backs - Aaron Givens, Derek Coffman and Dion Morrow - who are all averaging slightly more than four yards per carry. Coffman is out for the season, however, after undergoing knee surgery a week ago.
Wide receivers Mike Henderson and Eric Morgan continue to be among the WAC leaders in catches. Morgan leads the WAC with 53 catches and Henderson has 35.