Lobos will have their hands full with Wolfpack
By Gary Herron, Sports Editor
ALBUQUERQUE — Sure, says University of New Mexico football coach Rocky Long, winning Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl would be nice, but it’s not the be-all, end-all for his career.
Speaking at a media luncheon Thursday, Long said a victory over Nevada in the second annual bowl game, kicking off at 2:30 p.m. at University Stadium, is the best thing that could happen to his seniors.
“It’ll mean more to the seniors than me, because the rest of the team thinks they got another chance — they can do it again next year,” Long said. “(The seniors) will brag about (a victory) the rest of their lives.”
Long said his career would better be enhanced with a Mountain West Conference championship, which has eluded him in his 10 years at the helm.
Besides, he added, outside of Lobos (8-4) fans and Wolfpack (6-6) fans, nobody really cares about the New Mexico Bowl.
Or the Rose Bowl. Or the LIberty Bowl. Or the Cotton Bowl.
Really, nobody cares about any of 31 of the 32 bowl games being played between Dec. 20 (Poinsettia Bowl) and Jan. 7, when the BCS championship game between Louisiana State and Ohio State is contested.
Long, of course, is aware of the disappointment he hears from fans about annually losing in bowl games.
“I hear it here. Friends will ask me, non-friends will ask me and bums will ask me ... but once I leave New Mexico, no one knows, no one cares.
“There’s only one bowl game that the final score matters to anybody in this country other than your fans, and that’s the national championship game,” he said. “If you’re not a fan of USC (or Illinois), they don’t care who wins the Rose Bowl — unless you’re a fan of one of those two teams.
“Now, people care about who wins that Ohio State-LSU game, because that’s the national championship game. That’s why they ought to be a damn playoff — because then, every team matters.”
Right now, Long said his biggest concern is seeing if his defense can contain Nevada’s. So far, the Lobos’ D is having trouble against the scout team.
That problem, he said, is because of the height of Nevada starting QB Colin Kaepernick, who stands 6-foot-6, and tailback Luke Lippincott, who lines up directly behind Kaepernick, even in shotgun formation, which makes it hard for the defense to track the ball.
“He’s hiding the tailback,” Long said. “Sort of like the fullback in the Wishbone -- linebackers can’t find that Wishbone fullback, so a guy at the line of scrimmage better hit him because the guys back there can’t see him.
“Normally, a quarterback under center is about six yards from the tailback,” Long explained. “So there’s a lot of room in there that you can actually see the quarterback and the tailback and the offensive line. So by the offensive linemen and the action, you can usually tell if it’s a play-action pass or a running play.
“You can’t see the offensive linemen by the time those two mesh — and two or three times in practice, we had the quarterback running with the ball and nobody knew he had it. ... So it’s got to be the relationship between the quarterback and the tailback. The mesh is better or the action is quicker — I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s making it’s making it much more difficult for our defense to read if it’s run or play-action pass, bootleg, or whatever.
“And I’m sure (Nevada) runs it better than our scout team runs it.”
Long said redshirt freshman Blair Peterson, who stands 6-3, has been running the scout team and he hides the scout team tailback. “You can’t see those guys back there ... the linebackers in the middle of the field can’t see (the tailback).”
Kaepernick is a redshirt freshman; he assumed the reins when sophomore Nick Graziano got hurt in the fifth game of the season. Since then, Kaepernick threw for more than 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns, with three interceptions, and has earned WAC Freshman of the Year honors and National Freshman of the Week honors along the way.
In fact, former NFL player Bill Curry, an analyst for ESPN, called Kaepernick “the best young freshman quarterback I have seen in my life.”
Long said Kaepernick runs well, too.
“It’s always tougher to defend a mobile quarterback, opposed to an immobile quarterback,” Long said, comparing him to San Diego State QB Kevin O’Connell, who ran for 82 yards and scored twice in UNM’s narrow, 20-17, victory at San Diego on Oct. 20.
All Lippincott did was lead the WAC in rushing, accumulating 1,380 rushing yards to lead the WAC and score 18 TDs. He was fifth in the entire nation in pass efficiency with a rating of 161.06.
Long said Nevada occasionally runs out of a single-wing formation.
“What (the defense has) to do is start concentrating more on the line of scrimmage. Get the action out of the backfield, but see if it’s run or pass from the line of scrimmage,” Long said. “Linemen have a hard time disguising it: If it’s a running play, they’re down the field. If it’s a passing play ... they never leave the line of scrimmage and they usually block a lot higher.”
On defense, the Wolfpack came on strong late in the year and finished third in the WAC in total defense. The D is led by senior LB Ezra Butler, who led the WAC in tackles for loss (1.25 per game).
Nevada will have its hands full with UNM running back Rodney Ferguson, who ran for 1,177 yards and scored 14 TDs, and capable receivers Marcus Smith and Travis Brown.
Ferguson could be the key to the game.
“We play well when we can run the ball,” Long said. “If we can’t run the ball, we don’t usually play very well.”
Ferguson ran for 102 yards on 22 caries in last year’s New Mexico Bowl, when he also caught eight passes, good for another78 yards, but coughed the ball up twice. UNM fumbled the ball away four times in the 20-12 loss to San Jose State.
If UNM can finally win a bowl game, Long says, “The players coming back will be really happy. If you’re happy, you perform better in the off-season.
“I don’t think necessarily, winning is going to help our recruiting,” he continued. “I think if it’s a good game on TV; last year’s bowl game helped our recruiting, because that was a good game — it was a fun game to watch.
“Being on ESPN, national TV, there’s a lot of people sitting around on Saturday before Christmas; there’ll be a lot of people watching the game,” he said. “Now, if you get blown out, it’s going to hurt recruiting. But if it’s a good, entertaining game, it’ll tremendously help recruiting.”
Win or lose — the Lobos are 0-4 in bowl games under Long — Long said the best thing about being invited to a bowl game is the additional practice players get, to be ready for the next season, and to have fun.
“They have to have a good time. I mean, this is a reward — they have to have a good time,” he continued. “You’re going to ruin the incentive for playing in a bowl game if they don’t have a good time. A lot more than losing the game, and I agree with that.
“I think I have a lot to prove here,” Long said. “This win in this bowl game’s more important because it’s more important to our team. It doesn’t mean a damn bit of difference to me. Now, I said that, but I want to win. I want to win maybe as bad as our players, but that doesn’t justify my existence, that doesn’t make me feel like any better coach — it doesn’t.
“I think we can do better here than we have. Am I proud of what we’ve done? Yes. I’m very proud of what we’ve done to this point,” he concluded. “Do I think it’s enough? No, I don’t think it’s enough ... We’ve got to get a lot better and we’ve got to win a lot more games.”
Lobo lowdown: Fans should expect a close game Saturday: Nevada has been in five bowl games since 1992 and no game has been decided by more than three points, including the Wolfpack’s 21-20 loss to Miami at last year’s MPC Computers Bowl in Boise.
... This will be the second trip to New Mexico in less than two months for Nevada, which edged New Mexico State 40-38 on Nov. 2 at Aggie Memorial Stadium. Kaepernick threw a 31-yard TD pass with one minute left in the game for the final points. LIppincott ran for 143 yards on 30 carries against the NMSU defense.
... UNM and Nevada haven’t met on the football field since 1942, when they dueled to a scoreless tie in Reno. In 1941, 36 days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, UNM beat Nevada 23-7 at Zimmerman Field.
... The Lobos have 21 seniors on this year’s roster; six start on defense, six start on offense; punter Jordan Scott and kicker John Sullivan, a Walter Camp All-American, are also seniors.
... Long predicted that “three or four spots out there in the college coaching world, that if they lose their bowl game they’re going to get relieved of their duties.”
... Don’t look for former Rio Rancho High School standout Michael Love to get on the field Saturday. Although he was suited up for the Lobos’ regular-season finale vs. UNLV, Long said he didn’t think Love would play — and that Love, whose grandmother died in the fall, is the only person holding himself out from playing football.
... Long is UNM’s all-time leader in victories, with 60. He’s also the school’s all-time leader in losses, with 61. “We’re a good football team and we’ve got a good, solid football program. We’re not special — I’d like someday for people to think we’re special,” he said.
... Tickets for the New Mexico Bowl are available at the UNM ticket office at The Pit Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., online at unmtickets.com and newmexicobowl.com; they also will be sold on game day, starting at 10 a.m. at University Stadium.
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