New Mexico has been known for its tough defenses under Rocky Long, however, it's their offense that could play a role Saturday night. Even though Utah's defense is pretty good, the weapons are there for the Lobos to at least test that defense.
While New Mexico only averages 24 points and 340 yards per game, their rushing offense ranks 2nd in the conference. With 291 yards coming on the ground, the Lobos have built a solid running attack that will prove to be a tough assignment for Utah's defensive line. And with the Lobo defense as stout as it is, clock control could be a huge factor.
Leading their ground game is Rodney Ferguson, who averages over 108 yards a game. Ferguson is a senior and has had mixed results against the Utes. Last season, Utah held him to only 51 yards in a 28-10 victory. That Lobo team looks to be better than the one Utah faces Saturday, at least on paper, so that could be a plus for the Utes. In fact, Ferguson's best game against Utah came in 2005, when he rolled up 81 yards in a 31-27 victory in Salt Lake City. He missed the entire 2006 season.
So what should Utah expect from New Mexico Saturday? An offense built around Ferguson's rushing. This season already he has ran for 100 or more yards five times and two weeks ago in a 70-7 victory over San Diego State, dominated his way to 149 yards on the ground. I don't expect him to come close to that, but it goes to show he's a powerful back capable of putting together a solid game.
Outside of Ferguson, though, the Lobos offense takes a hit. Quarterback Donovan Porterie was injured four games in and his replacement, Brad Gruner, while serviceable, isn't all that spectacular. Gruner has played in seven games this season, averaging only 77 yards per game through the air, so don't expect New Mexico to test Utah's secondary much in this game. In fact, against Air Force defense last Thursday, Gruner only threw for 83 yards and zero touchdowns, though he did complete 8 of 11 passes.
Then what makes New Mexico a threat outside of Ferguson? It's their defense, which has a history of keeping Utah's offense in check.
On paper, the Lobo defense doesn't look threatening. They rank last in the conference in pass defense, giving up 214 yards per game and while their run defense is better, it's still not amazing, as they allow 118 yards. But for whatever reason, regardless of the defensive statistics, the Ute offense has struggled recently. Which is surprising, because there was a period between 1998 and 2003 where Utah averaged 34 points against the Lobos. Since their 35-47 loss at home to New Mexico in 2003, Utah has only averaged 28 points. They're also only 2-2 in that span, with their most recent loss coming in 2006, their last trip to Albuquerque.
Why do the Lobos give Utah fits on offense? I can't explain it. Maybe it's their defensive scheme, maybe it's the fact Rocky Long's teams consistently perform at a high level in the trenches. Whatever reason it is, the last few games the Utes have lost to New Mexico have been extremely close. Their recent victories, not so much. Which tells me if the game is tight down the stretch, New Mexico just may have what it takes to pull the upset.
To further show you what I mean, here is look at the last eleven games. The Utes are 6-5 in that span.
Average score in victory (1997-2007)
Average score in defeat (1997-2007)
33.5-9 (margin of 24.5)
32.8-26.2 (margin of 6.6)
As you can see, when the Utes win, they generally win by a comfortable margin, 24 points. When they lose, though, it's by less than a touchdown. The Utes have not won an extremely close game against New Mexico since their 15-10 victory in 1997. Every other close contest has gone to the Lobos. Keep that in mind Saturday if the game is up for grabs entering the fourth quarter.