There are a few inherent advantages college football teams enjoy from week to week.
Better facilities, greater depth, more talent at the skill positions — things like that.
For the University of New Mexico, their edge happens to come in the form of the guy who occupies the office at the end of the hallway inside the Tow Diehm Facility. That man, Rocky Long, just so happens to be the architect of the opponent they’re facing Saturday night.
Long, who is in his second season as UNM’s defensive coordinator, was the head coach for nine seasons at San Diego State. The Aztecs, whom Long led to a New Mexico Bowl appearance in 2019, became a Group of 5 powerhouse during his tenure, winning 81 times and posting at least 10 wins in four of his last five seasons in SoCal.
San Diego State has kept things rolling without Long, cracking the Top 25 this week thanks to a 4-0 start that includes two wins against the Pac-12.
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is 7:05 p.m. in Carson, Calif., the temporary home away from home for the Aztecs while their new on-campus stadium is being built.
“The image of what our program will look like is a lot of that,” said UNM coach Danny Gonzales.
Gonzales was an assistant coach on Long’s staff, rising to defensive coordinator before taking the same position at Arizona State in 2017. One of the first major moves Gonzales made after landing UNM’s job was bringing in Long as his top assistant.
The fact that more than half of SDSU’s roster was brought in by Long, and that he and Gonzales have personal relationship with many of them, doesn’t have an impact on how preparations are unfolding.
“People ask me if there is an emotional connection,” Gonzales said. “There isn’t. Now all those kids we recruited and coached, I love all those kids. They will still be, when I’m done coaching and they’re done playing, we’ll be friends.”
Gonzales said it’s nothing like the emotions he felt the first time he and Long came back to UNM to face the Lobos. Both men played for and graduated from the school, then later coached.
“When we played this game, it was miserable,” he said, recalling the feeling he and Long shared in the visiting locker room. “All three times it was miserable. We won all three and it was a relief to win.”
Saturday’s game halts a four-year scheduling rotation UNM has against San Diego State. The Lobos and Aztecs play a home-and-home in consecutive years, then take two years off before resuming the same rotation. The next cycle begins in 2024, the only exception being a meeting in the Mountain West Conference championship game.
Losers of three straight, New Mexico (2-3) has scored just 23 points in that span as the offense has struggled in all facets. The running game has fizzled, the passing game has been even worse and the Lobos have wilted in the middle of games, getting outscored 90-36 in the second and third quarters this season.
Quarterback Terry Wilson has completed just 48 percent of his passes in the three losses, averaging 125.7 yards in that span.
Gonzales said the coaching staff takes the blame for last week’s loss to Air Force, but the rest comes down to execution and avoiding the self-induced miscues like penalties, missed assignments and not finishing plays.
“If we can put our spurts where we have positive moments together, there’s nobody left on our schedule that we can’t compete with, but if we do what we did [against Air Force] we won’t be — all the scores will look the same,” Gonzales said.
To fix it, Gonzales he’ll look to the architect. With a roster loaded with young and inexperienced players, Long and Gonzales are willing to take the long road to success rather than push those players onto the field and get pounded before they’re ready. It’s what worked wonders at SDSU and what Gonzales expects to happen in Albuquerque.
One of the school’s all-time best running backs will be immortalized on the façade of University Stadium’s press box. DonTrell Moore, who was a UNM star from 2002-05, will be the sixth Lobo to be inducted into UNM’s Ring of Honor. A ceremony will take place during the Oct. 16 home game against Colorado State.
A product of Roswell High School, Moore owns 16 school records. He rushed for over 6,000 yard for the Coyotes and had 4,973 yards in his four years as a Lobo. His 51 rushing TDs still stands as a record.
“I don’t think he got as much credit as he deserved when he was here,” Gonzales said. “I was lucky enough to be a part of that staff.”
Lobos freshman Aaron Dumas currently wears No. 22, the digits Moore wore during his days as a Lobo. The two actually spent time together in the preseason about sharing the number.