Lobos after back-to-back bowl bids for first time in school history
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The playing field at University Stadium is in pristine condition, not unlike the expectations for a New Mexico program no longer mired in mediocrity.
Loaded with starters and lettermen from last year's team that finished second in the Mountain West Conference and played UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl, everything is in place for the Lobos to make back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in school history.
"I get a feeling that the community has higher expectations, but I don't know if it's the best it's ever been," coach Rocky Long says of the preseason atmosphere in Albuquerque. "I wasn't here when they had consistently good football teams in the '60s, when they won a couple of conference championships."
New Mexico opens the season Aug. 30 at home against Texas State-San Marcos.
"We're anticipating a big season but what helps is knowing the community is expecting it too," says sophomore wide receiver Hank Baskett.
New Mexico won or shared three straight Western Athletic Conference titles from 1962-64, but over the next 32 years had just seven winning seasons.
There were no conference titles or bowl bids until 1997, when the Lobos won the Mountain Division of the WAC under then coach Dennis Franchione. UNM then lost to Arizona in the Insight.com Bowl.
The last time New Mexico won a bowl game was 1961, when it beat Western Michigan in a short-lived postseason event known as the Aviation Bowl.
The Lobos are just 13-12 overall the past two seasons. But with 54 lettermen and 20 starters back from last season, they are confident they're headed for a bigger year than their 7-7 record in 2002.
"Another bowl season, that's going to be something special around here," says third-year starting quarterback Casey Kelly. "But we haven't had a conference championship around here in a long time either, so why not set the sights high and go for it."
Long, however, says consecutive bowl appearances won't be a big deal.
"I'll be disappointed if we don't compete for a conference championship," he said. "That's a much higher goal than going to a bowl game."
The Lobos are deep at virtually every position.
An offensive line with starters averaging 6-4 in height and 319 pounds per man returns intact. So too does most of the defensive unit that has finished among the top 30 nationally each of the past three seasons and has led the MWC in sacks three straight years.
The Lobos' weak spot in recent years has been scoring, but Kelly says that will change this season because New Mexico will go with a more wide open attack.
"If we don't come out and score a lot of points and put up big numbers, we're going to be disappointed," says Kelly, who last season threw for 14 TDs and ran for six more.
In sophomore halfback DonTrell Moore and junior D.D. Cox, a transfer from Oklahoma State, the Lobos have two solid backs.
Moore made the all-conference team last season after rushing for 1,134 yards and 13 touchdowns. Cox, who converted to linebacker at Oklahoma State, ran for more than 1,500 yards and 22 TDs his senior year at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo.
"Last year we didn't have an adequate backup and the times when DonTrell got dinged and had to leave a game, our running game struggled," Long said.
Long said the Lobos' running game also will be better if the wide receivers can run deeper routes and catch more of Kelly's passes. Last season the Lobos ranked near the bottom nationally in passing.
"In practice the receivers have gotten deep and open more often than they did last year and we're making a lot more of the hard catches than we did last year," Long said.
Among the receivers are senior Dwight Counter, who over three seasons has 91 catches, and Baskett, a 6-foot-4 leaper who has high-jumped 7-feet.
Baskett is fully recovered from a spinal concussion he suffered just before the start of the 2002 season. He was sidelined for much of last season and played mostly on special teams. In his most extensive playing time, he caught two TD passes against Utah State.
"I think he's just scratching the surface," said Long. "In the next two years he'll be a lot better ... because he's starting to gain the skills of being a receiver."
The Lobos also have Katie Hnida, a walk-on place-kicker who last season made history by becoming the first woman to compete in a Division I football game.
Long sent her into the game to kick the PAT after the Lobos' first TD against UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl. The kick was blocked, but Hnida, nonetheless, attracted plenty of attention from the national media for days after the bowl game.
Hnida begins this season No. 4 on the depth chart and Long says he doesn't know when or if Hnida will get another chance. Long also said Hnida's appearance in the bowl game wasn't an attempt to attract attention for his program.
"When I decided to let her kick ... I thought it would be a story for about 24 hours, but I had no idea it would get the national attention that it did," Long said.
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index