By the time Saturday afternoon's New Mexico-Utah football game reached the early part of the third quarter, the Lobos already had things well in hand, and weren't shy about saying so.
They had just scored another touchdown to take a 27-0 lead when the Utes overheard wide receiver Eric Morgan call it a day. "That's it!" Morgan said to his Lobo teammates. "They're done. They're out of here."Heaven knows, the Utes, after two days of reading the local newspaper, had already had enough of insults. "That did not sit well with us," said Ute linebacker Anthony Davis. Maybe that, as much as anything, explains Utah's improbable comeback. The Utes rallied for 29 unanswered points in the final 25 minutes of the game to pull out a wild and amazing 29-27 win over the hard-luck Lobos.
The Utes, who squandered two scoring opportunities at the goal line, marched 50 yards - thanks to a fumblerooski play - to score the game-winner. With 1:07 left in the game, freshman halfback Charlie Brown scooted five yards around the left end for the touchdown. All that remained was for the defense to make one more big play and it did. With the Lobos driving, linebacker Anthony Davis - or was it Pita Tonga or Mike Lewis? (they all claimed credit) - blocked a pass by Lobo quarterback Marcus Goodloe and Jimmy Bellamy intercepted the deflection.
Inside the Utes' locker room there was clapping, chanting and cheering, and no one could blame them for celebrating. After all, they had been routed their last two times out and had won just three games all season.
"This is as good a comeback by a football team as I've ever seen, because we looked like we were dead in the water," said Utah coach Ron McBride, whose team is 4-6 overall, 2-5 in conference play and headed home for its season finale against BYU.
By all rights, the Utes would have stayed dead if not for the relentless play of their defense, which, after the Lobos' opening possession, allowed UNM only one drive of longer than 26 yards. And those 27 points? All but three of them were set up by offensive turnovers deep in Ute territory.
All week long, McBride had insisted that the return of just two players - Davis and Bellamy - could make a dramatic difference in his defense. He was right. Davis, playing in his first full game in more than one month - playing with a sprained ankle and wrist - was a gang. He had 9 solo tackles, 3 assists, 3 tackles for loss (worth minus-26 yards), 1 pass deflection and 3 sacks. Bellamy, who missed last week's game because of the chicken pox, had 7 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception and 1 sack.
It wasn't really until the very end, with 4:28 to play and the game on the line, that the Ute offense (net gain: 267 yards) finally responded, and then only with a bit of trickery. On second-and-25, the Utes called for the fumblerooski play: the center snaps the ball, drops it to the ground and then squats over it, without his knees touching the ground; the left guard lays over the center, waits for the right end to clear out, then picks up the ball and runs.
To pull off this play, the Utes called on veteran center John Anderson - who had been sidelined earlier with a sprained knee - and guard Wade Absher, who hadn't played a single down this season. "He's our fastest lineman, so we use him on that play," says McBride. The play went exactly as planned and Absher ran for 17 yards. On third down, Mike Richmond passed 18 yards to Greg Hoffman. From there the Utes pounded the ball down to the goal line, with Brown scoring.
Thus, ended one zany afternoon of football. What happens when two of the worst teams in the Western Athletic Conference meet? Try 9 fumbles (four lost), 5 interceptions, 10 sacks, 16 penalties, 1 blocked field goal and 1 bungled PAT kick. Even the coaches got in on the knucklehead act. Especially Mike Sheppard, who made at least two strange decisions during the afternoon:
1) Leading 27-14, Sheppard decided to go for it on fourth-and-three at the Utah 32-yard line rather than take the field goal. Safety Sharrieff Shah and Bellamy sacked Goodloe for a 16-yard loss. The Utes took possession and scored.
2) Leading 27-21 with 4:32 remaining and the ball on his own 10, Sheppard elected to take an intentional safety rather than risk a blocked punt. The ensuing free kick was fielded by Utah's Ed Miller at the 35 and returned to the 50 to give Utah good field position for its game-winning drive.
"This is the lowest ebb since coming here," said Sheppard, whose 2-9 Lobos have lost nine of their last 21 games by a touchdown or less. "I'm not a believer in teams finding a way to lose; however, that belief is being challenged considerably."
The Lobos had certainly expected to win this one. At least that's what the Utes gathered from the local newspapers. "They made some very bad remarks about us," said Davis. "They didn't think much of us."
Said defensive coordinator Greg McMackin, "They said in the newspaper that this would be a good game to try out their new quarterback (Goodloe) because he wouldn't have to play a perfect game against us. And they said even (defensive tackle) John Bell could play quarterback against us. I made copies of the stories and passed them out to the defense."
The Lobos backed up their words for a time, with help from the Utah offense. Their first score - a 1-yard run by 282-pound noseguard-cum-fullback Monte Cuba - was set up by Steve Abrams' fumble at the Utah 18-yard line. A 35-yard field goal by Dave Margolis was set up by linebacker Mike Good's interception at the Utah 40-yard line. A holding penalty on a punt gave the Lobos a second chance at midfield and another Margolis field goal, this one from 38 yards, which made it 13-0 at halftime. It would have been worse if Cuba hadn't fumbled at the Utah two-yard line on the Lobos' opening possession.
Things got worse for Utah before they got better. On the first play of the second half, fullback Dean Witkin fumbled and Good recovered at the 19-yard line. Goodloe burned a Ute blitz with a quick-hitting 24-yard touchdown pass to Morgan. The two-point conversion pass failed, and UNM led 19-0.
The Ute offense tried again, and on first down Richmond threw an interception directly to Good, again. That set up Goodloe's 12-yard TD pass to Mike Henderson, making it 27-zip.
And what of the old Utah offense? In the first half it netted 27 yards and 3 first downs, with Richmond completing 3 of 11 passes for ZERO yards. (Richmond eventually completed 12 of 26 passes for 129 yards.) The defense began the rally. Under pressure from Dave Chaytors, Goodloe threw an interception to Mike Lewis at his own 15. Two plays later, Brad Foster scored on a 2-yard run to make it 27-7. Moments later, Goodloe was intercepted again, by Mark Swanson at the 20. On third down, wide receiver Darrel Hicks ran 21 yards on a double reverse for the touchdown to cut the gap to 27-14 with 8:51 left in the third quarter.
Following Sheppard's foiled fourth-down try, the Utes struck again, with Richmond throwing a 30-yard TD pass to Bryan Rowley near the end of the third quarter.
The Utes could have taken the suspense out of the game early in the fourth quarter if they had not stalled at the goal line. A taunting penalty cost the Utes one score. Instead of fourth-and-1 at the 5, they faced fourth-and-16 and had to settle for a field goal try by Wayne Lammle - which was blocked. Later they had first down at the UNM 3-yard line and failed to score.
Somehow the Utes managed their second last-minute victory of the year anyway. "What a day for the defense," declared Lewis. What a day for the Utes.
Defense - Anthony Davis had 9 solo tackles, 3 assisted, 3 for a loss (worth minus-26 yards), 1 pass deflection and 3 sacks. Sean Knox had 10 solo tackles.
Mike Richmond by the half - Went 3-11 for 0 yards and 1 interception in the first half; went 9-15 for 129 yards and 1 TD in the second half.
Fumbles, etc. - There were 9 fumbles in the game (4 of which were lost), 5 interceptions and 16 penalties.
Unanswered points - New Mexico scored 27. Utah returned the favor and scored 29.