Thursday, October 22, 1998
to end skid
They had high hopes at theBy Paul Arnett
start of the season, but have
This version of New Mexico's century season wasn't exactly what Rocky Long had in mind.
The rookie head coach for the defending Western Athletic Conference Mountain Division champion envisioned more of the same after he took over for TCU-bound Dennis Franchione.
Sure, there was the challenge of replacing nine starters on defense. And yeah, putting in the West Coast offense proved an ill-fit for senior quarterback Graham Leigh, who was better-suited to creating on the perimeter than staying in the pocket.
But after opening the season with victories over Idaho State and Utah State, Long figured the Lobos would again be bowl-bound.
Then the Lobos lost their next five games -- three by a total of seven points -- leaving Long looking for answers entering tomorrow night's WAC game with winless Hawaii.
"In reality, we've won two games and the second one we won was very, very close," Long said of New Mexico's 36-30 overtime victory over Utah State. "Since that time, other than the (56-14) loss to Air Force, we've played everybody else fairly close.
"I think our players realize that we were just a play or two away from winning some of those games. And despite the fact we're probably not going anywhere this season, our guys have kept a positive outlook."
Leigh, who last year led the Lobos to a 9-4 mark that included a 20-14 loss to Arizona in the Insight.com Bowl, echoed his coach's sentiments.
Last year, the quarterback from Mesa, Ariz., finished fifth in the nation in touchdowns scored with eight rushing and 24 passing.
He was fourth nationally in pass efficiency with a 153.6 rating. By comparison, UCLA's Cabe McNown finished first with a 168.6 rating. Leigh completed 166 of 276 passes for 2,318 yards. He also rushed for 528 yards on 111 carries in the option phase of New Mexico's offense.
"We haven't completely given up on the West Coast offense," Leigh said minutes after New Mexico touched down at Honolulu International Airport yesterday.
"But what we've done is taken some plays from the West Coast phase of our offense and added them to some things we did well last year, and I think it has helped.
"It's still frustrating knowing we won't be going to a bowl game. And it's hard to lose a game like we did last week to San Diego State when we scored 33 points. But all we can do is move forward and try our best to win these last five games."
The current five-game losing streak has been particularly hard for Leigh, who like Long, had high hopes for a stellar season.
Over the summer, he was projected as an All-America candidate by several national magazines. But he hasn't been able to live up to those expectations.
This season, Leigh has thrown for 1,740 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 141 yards and a TD.
"I'm sure this has been tough on Graham," Long said. "But he has faced these difficulties straight on. We've maintained a level of consistency on offense, but we've struggled on defense."
That would be an understatement. All five starting defensive backs from last year's team had tryouts in NFL camps. And losing linebacker Blake Irwin, the team's leading tackler in 1997, also has hurt the Lobos, who finished 21st nationally -- one spot behind the Rainbows -- in total defense last year, yielding 322.4 yards a game. This season, the Lobos are giving up 407.6 yards a game.
"We are getting better every week, but it has taken time to get to where we want to be," Long said of his defense, which is allowing 32 points a game.
"We not only had to replace nine starters, but with the personnel we had coming back, we had to change our defensive philosophy somewhat. Obviously, all of that has had an effect."
Injuries also have plagued the Lobos on defense. Cornerback Edwin Garrett (herniated disc) and tackle Barrett Garrison (knee) are lost for the season, defensive end Travis Journagan (knee) is out for at least another week and nickel back Derrell Moten is questionable tomorrow with a bad shoulder.
Tailback Lennox Gordon has been slowed with a broken hand, but the senior is expected to play. He leads the Lobos in rushing with 419 yards and four touchdowns.
"I look for this to be an entertaining game between two teams trying to get their first league win," Long said. "We've both had our problems, but one of us is coming out of here with a big victory."