The Utes have been here before. A good season, heading in the right direction, goes terribly bad with a meet against the Lobos. Since 1994, it has been a series of nightmares for the Utes and one that hopefully ends Saturday.
1994: Dreams Shattered
It all started in 1994, the year Utah finally ended decades of mediocrity. Under Ron McBride, Utah shot to an 8-0 start, climbed into the top-10 and were on an apparent course with the best season in Utah football history. All they had to do was travel to Albuquerque for a game against the pitiful Lobos. Easy enough, right? The Utes collapsed, losing to the Lobos by 2 and ending any hopes of a great season. The loss gave Utah a hangover, as they would go down to defeat the following week against Air Force. And though Utah rebounded to finish 10-2 and ended up in the top-10, it still didn't excuse the complete humiliation at the hands of a New Mexico team that would go 5-7 that year.
2002: The Goalposts Come Down
To be fair, Utah wasn't really good in 2002, but the New Mexico game was the difference between a winning season and McBride getting his pink slip. In the end, it worked out, as Urban Meyer found his way to Salt Lake, but at the time it was a hair pulling loss.
Utah entered the game 2-5 and it was pretty much understood Ron McBride would not be back as Utah's head coach, barring a miracle. That miracle could have happened, had the Utes defeated the Lobos in Albuquerque that October day. The Utes needed a win, knowing a loss would doom them to their second losing record in three years, while a victory could at least leave the slim hope for not only a winning season, but a bowl game. It didn't happen.
Utah blew a 28-14 lead and eventually lost in overtime to the Lobos, their first defeat -- of many -- against New Mexico since the near-epic 1994 season. After the game, Lobo fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts. Ouch.
2003: Even Urban Meyer Loses to the Lobos
With that loss to New Mexico in 2002, Ron McBride's fate was sealed and the Utes fired him at the end of the season. Utah replaced him with Urban Meyer and soon, the Utes began dominating.
They rolled through teams like Cal, Colorado State and Oregon, then entered a home contest against the Lobos on a five game winning streak. The Utes were ranked and poised to win their first outright conference championship in over 50 years. Except it didn't happen quite the way many Utah fans thought it would. Just like in 1994, the Utes struggled against the Lobos and in the end suffered a 35-47 loss. It was the lone conference loss of the Urban Meyer era and marked the start of a school record 18-game winning streak.
2005: Near Season-ending Devastation
Utah finally appeared to figure out New Mexico, as the Utes crushed them in 2004. Entering their contest in '05, however, things were far different. There was no Urban Meyer or Alex Smith and the Utes were far from being the dominant team they were only 12 months prior. Yet there was no reason to believe Utah couldn't beat New Mexico. The Utes were riding high after killing Wyoming (sound familiar?) and looking to roll into Provo on an impressive winning streak (again, sound familiar?). It didn't happen and instead, one of the worst games in recent history took place. Not because Utah lost the game, rather because of what they lost prior to the final seconds ticking off the clock.
The game actually turned out to be fairly exciting. The Utes jumped out to a 27-19 first half lead and held a slim two point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Then devastation, as Brian Johnson lost the ball on a failed option pitch after being hit. The ball was picked up by the Lobos and ran into the end zone for what would become the game winning touchdown. Utah, though, would still have a chance and looked as if they might, just might, pull it out.
Leading the team down field, Johnson got the Utes dangerously into Lobo territory. But disaster again struck, as Johnson was hit and injured his knee -- an injury that would keep him out the entire 2006 season. A late helmet-to-helmet call gave Utah one last chance, but backup quarterback Brett Ratliff threw an interception and thus ended Utah's chance at a comeback victory. The loss was painful, but losing Johnson hurt even more, something that would become more evident in 2006.
2006: Blown Lead
2006 probably hurts the most, because of how the game played out. Utah was coming off a blowout loss to Wyoming the week before and sorely needed a victory over New Mexico. Instead of getting that victory, however, Utah reached its lowest point of the Kyle Whittingham era to that point. All because of a big halftime lead that was lost.
Utah blew the game open early, cruising on offense and building a
21 14-point halftime lead. Everything looked to be going Utah's way, however, in the second half it was a different story. The Lobos made adjustments, came out firing and Utah's defense failed to adjust to those adjustments. The poor play allowed New Mexico back into the game and finally gave them the lead with nearly two minutes left in the game. Utah couldn't answer and lost their second straight game of the season.
The Utes ended that season by winning 4 of 5, but that loss was hard to take. As was the loss in 2005, 2003, 2002 and 1994. Each loss had far reaching influence on Utah's season outcome. Saturday, this game will be no different. A loss to the Lobos will mean Utah is out of the title race and most likely back to where they were before the winning streak. New Mexico has a history of ruining Utah's seasons, Whittingham and crew can't allow that to happen this time around.