TCU is the next page in New Mexico's story, hosting the Lobos this Saturday in Fort Worth. (TCU page, schedule, roster, stats) The story has been dismal almost since the day Mike Locksley set foot on campus, following the 2008 season. The stats bear tedious witness: the Lobos’ average rushing offense since Rocky Long left: 98th; passing offense: 98th; total offense: 103rd. The average rushing defense: 104th; passing defense: 102nd; total defense: 113th. This has been a bad football team. Bad enough that, with generous help from off-field incidents, the administration fired Locksley early this season. The former head coach now has an award named for him at Paul Myerberg's indispensable Pre-Snap Read.
The two-and-a-half year averages obscure significant improvement in the passing attack, which rose from 106th in the nation last season to 57th so far this season. The improvement has come first from the quarterbacks Tarean Austin and B. R. Holbrook. Austin was supposed to be the starter, but he couldn't keep Holbrook out of the competition, and together they're a decent duo. UNM has upped its pass yardage (from 158 per game to 233) and cut down on interceptions, which accounts for much of the rise in QB rating in Albuquerque—almost 115 this season, compared to 98 in '10, and 105 in 2009. The other stat lines from QB are similar to last year's (bad) lines: 54% completions (up from 52% last season), six touchdowns (on pace to top last year's 11 by just one), and about 6.5 yards per attempt (up from 5.18 last season).
There's argument to be made that New Mexico is this close to being dangerous through the air; their 233 passing yards per game is second in the conference; but their six passing touchdowns is tied for last. New Mexico's 6.5 passing yards per passing touchdown point is almost twice as high as the conference's second-worst, Colorado State (3.9 passing yards per passing point). Not surprisingly, if you double UNM's passing touchdowns, keeping all its other stats the same, the Lobos' QB rating jumps to 125. That's still only decent, but it's a lot better than the recent norm in Albuquerque.
The quarterbacks have gotten help from the receiving corps. Deon Long and Ty Kirk have hauled in 72 passes for 933 yards and three scores. Lamar Thomas, Lucas Reed and James Wright are good for a couple catches a game, but only Thomas has made anything out of those limited opportunities, averaging over 17 yards per catch, and scoring twice.
On the ground, the story is improving, slightly, but is still sad. The Lobos are averaging 129 yards per game this season, a significant improvement over 2010, which, seven weeks in, saw only 86 yards per game from New Mexico. The averages this season, 3.7 yards per carry for 129 per game, is 81st nationally, up from 106th and 110th nationally the previous two seasons.
The ballcarriers are primarily Tarean Austin, Crusoe Gongbay, and James Wright. Freshman Gongbay, besides warranting a berth in the Name of the Year tourney, emerged in the game with Texas Tech (14 carries for 61 yards) and has become a mainstay in the Lobos backfield. Senior James Wright is the thunder, as much as New Mexico can say it has any thunder (5-11, 227 lbs.) and Gongbay is the lightning (6-1, 196 lbs.).
The big men blocking for the offense are led by Korian Chambers, a JUCO transfer who quickly became New Mexico’s starting right tackle, but traded spaces with Dillon Farrell at left tackle. Farrell is the starting right tackle and the only returning starter on the front. McDowney and Bratton are LG and C; the RG position has not been continuously staffed. These fellas are almost the worst in the nation at protecting the quarterback, allowing almost three sacks per game (102th nationally).
Across the trench, the three year averages do not obscure improvement like they do on offense. Rather they obscure further deterioration, if that is possible. New Mexico’s rush defense is again the worst in the nation; this season its pass defense has left the building (it was 57th last season; so far in 2011 it’s 109th). Total defense: 119th, again.
Who are the culprits? On the field, the scheme is a 4-3-4, and the personnel has fluctuated in most spots all season. The consistent starters are LE Jaymar Latchison, NT Reggie Ellis, RE Joseph Harris, WLB Dallas Bollema, MLB Carmen Messina, and CB Anthony Hooks. Bubba Forrest has taken A.J. Butler’s place at one of the hybrid linebacker-safety positions that every team seems to have now. Predictably, a lineman does not appear high on the list of tackles this season; Jaymar Harris fifth (31) Latchison is ninth (22). Tackle-machine Carmen Messina leads the team with 54; safety Bubba Forrest is second with 43; linebacker Bollema third with 37.
But the takeaway is that this team is easy on opposing offenses. They don’t force many turnovers (-1.00 margin, 108th nationally) and generally stay out of opponents' backfields, only averaging four tackles for loss per game (114th nationally).
Adding it up, New Mexico is the worst opponent on TCU's schedule. Portland State is more difficult; ULM would trounce the Lobos. Only UNLV comes close to this kind of bad. The Rebels, however, have turned in some good performances this season, so they're out of the basement.
TCU is favored by over 40 points. Considering how porous the Frogs' secondary has been, this is a remarkable line. (It's moved in TCU's favor, too, since opening.) Look for TCU to score early, often, and finally to stifle another team's offense; or else look for utter panic in the stands.