Boise State’s 60 points against New Mexico’s defense last season was not exactly an anomaly.
The Lobos allowed 58 points twice in addition to the Broncos’ scoring explosion, finishing 110th or worse in scoring defense for the second straight year.
But what a difference an offseason makes.
A scheme change, more talent and better tackling has turned the Lobos into a team that can win with defense — look no further than Saturday’s 14-13 win over Utah State with two fourth-down stops, two turnovers and 78 rushing yards allowed.
“They’re just better,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “It’s never just one thing, but they’re just playing better than they had been.”
There is a reason New Mexico is one win from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2007, and it’s not just the tricky triple option offense.
New Mexico is allowing 26.3 points and 407.9 yards per game, which is 9.6 points and 110.7 yards per game fewer than 2014. The Lobos’ 24 sacks already matches last season’s total, and they’re three shy of matching last season’s turnover total.
Shifting from a 3-4 base defense to a 3-3-5 has allowed the Lobos to add a fifth defensive back in standard looks, and that’s meant more speed and versatility to a defense sorely needing it.
“It’s really paid off for them,” Boise State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said.
Junior linebacker Dakota Cox had 116 tackles in the nine games he played last season. He has 67 so far, again leading the team, an indication he’s not the only playmaker anymore.
“That’s exactly it — guys are really stepping up, really taking to the coaching and they’re out for the team, not themselves, something we just didn’t have before,” Cox said. “It’s let me have confidence that everyone else can get the job done, not make me overextend myself and know we all are going to swarm the ball.”
When coach Bob Davie arrived in Albuquerque in 2012, he brought with him an offensive system that was unique in this day and age. With the new look of the defense, it also is a slightly uncommon look. On Tuesday, Davie said his team on both sides of the ball needs to continue to mine that identity and use it to establish consistency.
“We’re seeing a little bit of the fruits of that on defense, as bad as it’s been (in the past),” Davie said. “We’re finally now starting to reap a little bit of the rewards.”
The defensive improvement will be put to the test as the Lobos close out the regular season against Boise State, Colorado State and Air Force, teams that combined to score 153 points on them last season.
Davie made his name with aggressive 3-4 defenses at Texas A&M and Notre Dame, but the change was almost required with how teams throw the ball today. The Lobos are giving up 213 passing yards per game, 54th nationally, but Boise State will be their biggest challenge all year.
“They’re the first team that will come out and try to shred us throwing the football,” Davie said.
Junior college transfers like defensive end Maurice Daniels (team-high 5.5 sacks), cornerback Nias Martin (77-yard fumble return TD on Oct. 10 against Nevada) and the added fifth defensive back, nickel Lee Crosby (45 tackles, two interceptions), are in their first seasons on the field for New Mexico.
“A bowl game, we want it bad. We’re showing a lot of that urgency on the field. It’s been the mindset we had before the season even started,” Martin said.
New Mexico at Boise State
▪ When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday
▪ Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf)
▪ TV: ESPNU (Mike Corey, David Diaz-Infante)
▪ Radio: KBOI (670 AM), KTIK (93.1 FM); Bob Behler, Pete Cavender
▪ Records: Boise State is 7-2, 4-1 MW; New Mexico is 5-4, 3-2.
▪ Series: Boise State leads 6-0 (Broncos won 60-49 in 2014 in Albuquerque).
▪ Vegas line: Boise State by 30 1/2