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Sep. 9—The biggest jump a college football team can make is between games 1 and 2.
So says the man whose team finds itself in the void between the season opener and this week's second game.
University of New Mexico coach Danny Gonzales was none too happy with his team's performance in the opener, a 27-17 slugfest against FCS visitor Houston Baptist. Although the Lobos led the entire way and did what they had to do to get the win, it was by no means a way to kick off a week that renews the Rio Grande Rivalry after a two-year break.
Health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic wiped out last year's game against New Mexico State, marking just the seventh hiccup in the long history between the state's two biggest schools.
As he spoke about the Aggies earlier this week, Gonzales rattled off more numbers than an accountant. He has the won-lost figure memorized. He knows what year NMSU switched from New Mexico A&M to New Mexico State. He can recite scores of a few past games.
"All of that means nothing," Gonzales said. "What that means is, it gives them all the more incentive to come up here ready to play."
The Lobos and Aggies will face off at 5 p.m. Saturday at University Stadium in what some are calling the "Revivalry." UNM (1-0) has lost just 15 games to the Aggies (0-2) in 60 meetings in the Duke City and hasn't lost to NMSU since 2017.
The Aggies are coming off losses at home to UTEP and on the road to San Diego State, the later a second-half collapse after holding a 10-0 lead on the Aztecs at halftime.
Gonzales said the best coaching job in America in 2017 was done by Doug Martin and the NMSU staff. That year they led the Aggies to the Arizona Bowl, beating Utah State in an overtime game for the ages.
Top that off with what the Aggies went through last year when the pandemic wiped out the fall season. As an FBS independent, they were reduced to a two-game spring exhibition schedule where about half the team wasn't available.
Gonzales said he considers Martin a friend, and the two speak on occasion, including a long conversation in the spring when Martin was trying to hold together a program barely hanging on.
"With all that being said, I don't like those guys," Gonzales said. "I don't like New Mexico State. I don't. Played here, grew up here in Albuquerque, and that's just what it is. It's who I am. A rivalry's a rivalry."
UNM must find answers to its offense. Gonzales pointed out that the running game wasn't nearly as crisp as he thought it would be, and the play of his defense, while solid in the opener against Houston Baptist, must rise to the occasion as the competition gets better each week. Following Saturday's game, the Lobos will head to No. 5 Texas A&M on Sept. 18, then start Mountain West play the first weekend in October.
Still, he can't — or won't — divert his attention from New Mexico State. He remains staunchly unapologetic about his stance with that school down south.
Gonzales said he was in The Pit's mezzanine section for the 1992 NCAA Tournament West Regional, a Sweet 16 game that involved NMSU. The Aggies faced UCLA while Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers faced Florida State. Despite the fact that Albuquerque took a shine to its downstate rival, Gonzales did not.
"We were cheering for New Mexico State. That bothered me," he said. "This is our building, this is our home. We don't cheer for those guys."
Saturday's game is expected to draw the largest crowd to a UNM sporting event since, well, the last time the Aggies visited Albuquerque for a football game. School officials anticipate a crowd of 25,000 to 30,000 people for kickoff, making it the only game since NMSU's last visit where a crowd topped 20,000.
"It's a big deal, a big deal around here," Gonzales said. "We're the flagship university in this state now, so there's a lot of pride that goes into it."
Saturday's game will be broadcast in Navajo on the radio to listeners in the Navajo Nation. ... Gonzales made a reference to the Lobos needing to put a team away after putting its foot on an opponent's neck. He said he received an email the following morning from an unidentified UNM faculty member saying it was tone deaf to the calls for social change in the wake of incidents like the death of George Floyd. Gonzales apologized during his weekly media news conference, saying he will follow his team's mantra of doing better on and off the field. ... The Lobos have not hosted two straight games in the Rio Grande Rivalry since 1970-74. ... Fourteen Lobos made their UNM debut last week, including quarterback Terry Wilson. Of the rest, 10 of them were freshmen. ... Defensive lineman Joey Noble will start Saturday's game after sitting out the first half of the season opener due to a suspension. He did play against Houston Baptist but did not start. ... George Steinkamp of Los Alamos is still No. 2 on the kicking depth chart behind Andrew Shelley. Shelley's 77.8 percent accuracy on field goals ranks fourth all-time at UNM. Steinkamp will handle kickoffs, however. ... The Lobos and Aggies meet for the 111th time, making it the eighth-most tenured rivalry in college football. Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio) lead the way at 124. ... The Lobos have started 2-0 just once this century; in 2005 when coach Rocky Long led them to three straight wins to open the season. Most of the current players weren't in grade school when it last happened.