UTSA takes an important step in the program's brief history Saturday, appearing in its first-ever bowl game.
First-year head coach Frank Wilson led a three-game improvement from 2015, completing the Roadrunners' sprint to the postseason with a home win over Conference USA counterpart Charlotte on Nov. 26. UTSA fans stormed the Alamodome field to join the team in celebration.
Hoping to spoil the celebration, New Mexico seeks to defend home turf and pick up its first postseason win since 2007, when the Lobos won this very bowl game.
Bob Davie's done a remarkable job in his five seasons at New Mexico, inheriting a program that won just three games combined in the three seasons preceding his arrival. The 2015 Lobos reached the New Mexico Bowl and finished the campaign with a winning record. This year's squad has already rolled off eight wins, and went into the latter part of the season with an opportunity to win the Mountain West Mountain division.
A victory in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl would match the 2007 season as one of the best in Lobos history. All they have to do is deny UTSA some history of its own.
New Mexico Bowl: New Mexico vs. UTSA
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: University Stadium (Albuquerque)
Spread: New Mexico -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Multifaceted Rushing Attacks
Popular opinion among coaches facing an option offense dictates the more time a defense has to prepare, the more effective it will be in containing the offensive attack. UTSA head coach Frank Wilson and his defense will need that extra time to game plan for the Lobos.
Few teams employ the option as effectively as New Mexico, which led the FBS in rushing yards this season with 360.9 per game. What's more, the Lobos broke off a staggering 6.81 yards per carry.
The Lobos have a pair of running backs who eclipsed the all-important 1,000-yard milestone this season: Teriyon Gipson (1,209 yards with 12 touchdowns) and Tyrone Owens (1,084, 7 on just 134 carries; also missed the season finale). And, as with any effective option, New Mexico also features a dangerous playmaker at quarterback in Lamar Jordan (658, 3 on the ground alone).
The UTSA rushing attack isn't quite as prolific, but does employ a three-man look. Running backs Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes combined for more than 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns, while quarterback Dalton Sturm added 263 yards and four scores. It's not New Mexico's option, but the Lobo defense stopping UTSA's multifaceted ground game is just as key to a New Mexico win as slowing the option is for the Roadrunner defense.
2. Clock Management
New Mexico dominates time of possession, as one might expect of an option offense. Sitting on the ball for an average of 34 minutes, 11 seconds per game, the Lobos wear down opposing defenses with long drives that allow little time for opponents to catch their breath.
UTSA doesn't just need to prevent New Mexico from scoring points early -- though that is a pretty obvious key to the Roadrunners' prospects of victory. For the sake of the big picture, UTSA must find ways to get off the field early, and keep defenders who will see a bevy of cut blocks fresh for the second half.
Three-and-outs are critical, as the Lobos have not given away many possessions on the campaign. New Mexico's 14 turnovers are tied for 18th-fewest among all FBS teams.
3. Give Sturm A Chance
Roadrunners quarterback Dalton Sturm showed flashes of brilliance throughout this 2016 campaign, including a three-touchdown game against Arizona State early in the season.
Sturm's performed particularly admirably when accounting for the high number of sacks (43, No. 125 in the FBS) UTSA has yielded through the season. While Sturm takes blame for a few, his pocket shrinks quickly and limits his accuracy. He's completed less than 60 percent of his passes on the year, but he's relatively free of turnovers with just five interceptions.
When he has time and room to operate, Sturm distributes the ball among a wide range of targets. Four Roadrunners have at least three touchdowns on the campaign, and five have gone for 200 yards or more. With New Mexico bringing an aggressive pass rush, keyed by lineman Garrett Hughes and linebacker Dakota Cox, Sturm will need to get the ball out quickly.
Besides Strum, the Lobos should expect to see Jared Johnson, a senior who started his collegiate career at FCS member Sam Houston State, get some snaps at quarterback for UTSA. Johnson has seen limited action this season, but the plan is for him and Strum to share the QB duties against the Roadrunners.
UTSA first kicked off with official games in 2011, playing an FCS transitional season. Through a stint in the now football-defunct WAC, to membership in Conference USA the last couple seasons, UTSA has continued to grow. As first-year head coach Frank Wilson told reporters following the Charlotte win, via GoUTSA.com, "it's just the beginning" for Roadrunners football.
Indeed, the ceiling for UTSA football is high, and Wilson is more than capable of helping the Roadrunners reach it. In the New Mexico Bowl, however, securing the program's first bowl win is a tall task.
Davie's done a masterful job in Albuquerque, revitalizing a program that was arguably the worst in FBS when he took over. The Lobos' tenacious defense and option offense present serious matchup problems for the Roadrunners. Look for UNM to join the 2007 and '97 teams as nine-game winners.
Prediction: New Mexico 42, UTSA 24
(Top photo courtesy of via GoLobos.com)