Updated November 14, 2020 - 7:55 pm
In an Albuquerque Journal series on the greatest, most significant or memorable games in New Mexico’s football history, the Lobos’ 94-17 loss at Fresno State in 1991 was ranked No. 3. A detailed account of the ignominious defeat ran in Tuesday’s newspaper.
So it’s not as if the Lobos haven’t been exposed to adversity.
What they had not been exposed to before the scheduled start of two-a-day practices was a deadly virus that as of Saturday morning had infected 10.8 million Americans and killed 244,250. Both totals are increasing exponentially in the manner of Fresno State’s touchdowns when then-Bulldogs coach Jim Sweeney believed (a lot of) payback for an upset loss two years before was called for.
On Friday, all nonessential businesses in New Mexico were ordered to close for two weeks beginning Monday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Public gatherings in the state, which over the past seven days has reported more deaths in any week since the coronavirus outbreak, are limited to five.
The governor has not made an exception for the football team, forcing the Lobos to take their show — along with tons of weightlifting equipment — on the road. The past two weeks they’ve been practicing at uninhabited Sam Boyd Stadium, the former home of the UNLV football team.
After losing at San Jose State and Hawaii, the Lobos played their first game in their new home away from home Saturday. They lost 27-20 to UNR.
Worth the effort
Playing a home game in a virtually empty stadium that UNLV previously called home against the Rebels’ scorned intrastate rival amid a killer pandemic might not be as noteworthy to man-cave dwellers as a 94-17 loss to Fresno State. But there’s a good chance New Mexico’s largest newspaper might have to revise its list of greatest, most significant or memorable games to fit this one in.
First-year coach Danny Gonzales, an Albuquerque native and former Lobos safety and punter, said his team was looking forward to playing a home game, even if it was 575 miles from home. “The fact that we’re practicing in the stadium where we’re going to play will help,” he correctly surmised.
The Wolf Pack (4-0) were a 17½-point favorite, but had to rally in the second half to defeat the 0-3 Lobos, who have been living like Tibetan monks at the Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa — save for the $70,000 a week it is costing for COVID sanctuary. Athletic department officials say New Mexico will more than make up for the expenditure via Mountain West TV and College Football Playoff payouts expected to total $4 million.
“If I’m going to spend $300,000 to put our team in Las Vegas, but I know that at the end of the day I’m going to get $3.7 million or zero (to not play at all), I think I’d go for 3.7,” New Mexico athletic director Eddie Nunez told The Athletic.
Just like home (sort of)
The giant banners from last year’s Las Vegas Bowl still were draped on the facade of the stadium when the teams arrived. But the staffs at Sam Boyd and New Mexico did what they could to create atmosphere.
The Lobos’ corporate sponsors were acknowledged with seven vinyl billboards on what used to be the visitors side of the old stadium. The field was relined and the end zones emblazoned with “NEW MEXICO” and “LOBOS” in the school’s official font. Ersatz crowd noise concealed the eeriness of grandstands devoid of spectators, and anthems from MC Hammer and AC/DC were played during frequent TV timeouts.
The Lobos’ marching band even offered a rousing rendition of “Hail to Thee, New Mexico,” via virtual scoreboard hookup.
If one in the press box squinted, it almost seemed like another unnecessary bowl game. The Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl is no longer, at least not under those corporate designations. Just the same, a silent vow was made never again to poke fun of it.
So despite a spirited effort, New Mexico’s debut in its home away from home was spoiled by mad bomber UNR quarterback Carson Strong (336 yards passing, three touchdowns) and the cannon possessors from up north. But in a key statistic one won’t find in the game summary, the Lobos have yet to have a player test positive for COVID-19 since arriving in the desert.
In a season of uncertainty such as this, you take a negative nose swab and a silver lining wherever you can find one.