When Coach Al Luginbill says New Mexico is the best 1-8 football team in the country, listen carefully. He speaks from experience. His San Diego State team already has beaten the only other.
"I know it sounds like a cliche, but you will see a much different New Mexico team than last year's," Luginbill said. "This team concerns me."
Actually, there might be some fire in Luginbill's smoke.
Although the Lobos remain winless and stuck in last place in the Western Athletic Conference, there are signs of improvement entering tonight's 7:05 game against the Aztecs (4-3-1, 2-2) in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
After being outscored by an average of 29 points a game last year--though only by eight in their 18-10 loss to SDSU--New Mexico has cut that to 9.3 points per game this season. What's more, the Lobos are coming off two of their better losses, if such a thing is possible.
Two weeks ago, served up as Gator bait in front of 72,000 on homecoming in Gainesville, Fla., New Mexico stayed close enough to lose, 27-21, to No. 19 Florida. Last Saturday, in their own homecoming in Albuquerque, the Lobos lost to defending WAC champion Wyoming, 24-23, when their two-point conversion try failed at the end.
The statistical improvement is not lost on Coach Mike Sheppard, who is 3-29 in three seasons at New Mexico after moving over from Cal State Long Beach.
"The biggest (difference from last year) is in every game, with the exception of Hawaii (60-14 loss), we've been in the game, and all but (Texas El Paso, 26-7 loss) we've been in until the fourth quarter," Sheppard said. "We still have 13 players playing their first year for us as starters, which is one reason we haven't been able to get that last mile."
Another reason might be their inability to develop a running attack. Of their 3,171 yards in total offense, 2,501 yards have come in the air. That amounts to 78.9% of their total offense.
The Lobo passing game is centered on quarterback Jeremy Leach and split end Terance Mathis.
Leach, a sophomore from Granada Hills High School, has completed 54% of his passes (188 of 348) for 2,387 yards and 14 touchdowns, against 15 interceptions.
Mathis, his favorite target, returned for his senior season after sitting out last year for academic reasons. He is a multi-faceted threat and has accounted for 10 of the Lobos' 22 touchdowns, eight by receiving and two by kickoff return. He leads the team with 57 catches for 833 yards and has averaged 25.3 yards on 18 kickoff returns.
But the Lobos have rushed for only 670 yards as a team. The Aztecs have two running backs--Darrin Wagner (721) and Ron Slack (678)--with more.
The Aztecs are fourth in the country in total offense (507.4 yards per game). Their passing game, led by junior quarterback Dan McGwire, is averaging 323.9 yards and their running attack is averaging 183.5 yards.
With four games left, the Aztecs already have rushed for at least 200 yards in four games for the first time since 1980. But that rushing game could be slowed tonight because of injury and illness.
Wagner did not practice all week because of the flu, Luginbill said, and his availability is uncertain. Slack has been at practice mainly as a uniformed observer because of a groin pull. Luginbill said he expects Slack to play, but he might have to depend heavily on Curtis Butts, a sophomore walk-on with nine career carries.
With such personnel questions, maybe it is best that the last-place Lobos are tonight's visitors. Only three of the 106 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division I-A teams have a worse record--Temple (0-8), New Mexico State (0-8) and Northwestern (0-7). Fittingly, the Lobos' lone victory came against New Mexico State (45-13) in their second game. Since then, they have lost seven in a row.
The Aztecs' first nine opponents have a combined 13-32 record at the time they played the Aztecs. But SDSU has made much of their opportunity. They have won three in a row and four of five for the first time since their 1986 WAC championship season.
The game is a homecoming of sorts for Wayne Moses, New Mexico's first-year receivers coach. Moses coached running backs at San Diego State for three seasons under Denny Stolz, and his nephew, cornerback Wayne Moses, starts for the Aztecs. . . . The Holiday Bowl will have scouts on hand Saturday to watch six teams: Arizona (6-2), Illinois (6-1), Iowa (4-3), Ohio State (5-2), Penn State (5-2), Washington (5-3) and West Virginia (6-1-1). The bowl, to be played Dec. 29 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, will match the Western Athletic Conference champion against an at-large team. Bowls cannot officially invite teams until Nov. 25.