Opponent outlook: Notre Dame to face depleted New Mexico squad

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

New Mexico will be without its head coach, starting quarterback and nose tackle and team captain against Notre Dame.

UNM (1-0) already entered their matchup against No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0) at a seismic disadvantage talent-wise. UNM is coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons and has not defeated a Power Five opponent since 2008. Now the Lobos are without three of their most important pieces.

Offensive line coach Saga Tuitele takes over as acting head coach while Bob Davie recovers from his recent health scare. Davie, 64, was rushed to the hospital following UNM’s Aug. 31 season opener. The former Irish head coach expects a full recovery and a return to coaching but will watch Saturday’s game (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC at Notre Dame Stadium) from home.

Quarterback Brandt Hughes earned the nod as the starter in UNM’s 39-31 victory over Sam Houston State. The JUCO transfer finished 12-of-29 passing for 218 yards. Sidelined by a shoulder injury, Hughes will not suit up against the Irish. Senior quarterback Sheriron Jones rotated heavily with the 1s, going 6-of-11 for 122 passing yards with 35 rushing yards and two touchdowns on six carries.

The Lobos have not announced Jones as their starter against the Irish. Two other quarterbacks may receive time, in fact. UNM’s quarterback situation was considered wide open heading into the season. Junior Tevaka Tuioti, freshman Trae Hall, Hughes and Jones competed throughout preseason camp.

Davie also announced in his Tuesday press conference that nose tackle Aaron Blackwell is out for the season with an ACL injury. The three-year starter and captain for the Lobos was named honorable mention All-Mountain West last season.

What will UNM look like with these recent developments? We caught up with Steve Virgen of the Albuquerque Journal for more insight on the Lobos.

• How have the Lobos responded to Bob Davie’s health scare?

Virgen: I haven’t seen the team much since the season opener when Davie experienced his health scare, but in the few times that I did, the Lobos appear fine. Saga Tuitele, the acting head coach, said several players were emotional in the days after Davie was rushed to the hospital. But their spirits were lifted when he made a visit to the practice facility at a team meeting last Thursday. It will be interesting to see how the Lobos respond on the field.

• What are you expecting from Tuitele and how UNM will approach coaching Saturday’s game?

Virgen: I’m expecting Tuitele to stress to the team to be businesslike in their approach, rather than rely on emotion and passion. Now that they know Davie is doing well and recovering, they can focus on the task at hand. Davie has told Tuitele to have fun with this week.

• Where does UNM stand with its quarterback situation now that Hughes has been ruled out for Saturday?

Virgen: UNM will not announce its starting quarterback until Friday, maybe even Saturday. Tuitele said Sheriron Jones, Tevaka Tuioti and Trae Hall have been getting an even amount of reps. I would expect to see Tuioti as the starter and Jones as the backup. Jones did have a good second half in the season opener and, much like Tuioti, is a dual-threat quarterback.

• Who are some players to watch on both sides of the ball?

Virgen: On offense, Tuioti is the Lobos’ most dynamic player, but we’ll see if he even plays. Running back Ahmari Davis had a breakout game in the season opener. Wide receivers Elijah Lilly and Jay Griffin IV have great speed. On defense, safety/nickelback Johnny Hernandez led the team in tackles in the season opener. Linebacker Alex Hart made a great return from a knee injury suffered last year, as did defensive end Trent Sellers. The Lobos will be without nose tackle Aaron Blackwell, a senior team captain who is out for the season after suffering an ACL injury in the season opener.

• What will UNM need to do to make this game closer than expected?

Virgen: The Lobos would need some long, clock-draining drives on offense and some big turnovers to keep it close. Their strength appears to be their passing game, but they need to be more consistent and precise to have any hope of success.

Prediction: Notre Dame 52, UNM 20

Virgen: I think the Lobos will be able to move the ball on offense. But their defense will struggle to stop the Irish.

New Mexico defensive tackle Aaron Blackwell (52) is out for the season with an ACL injury.