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Thursday, October 16, 2003
Time is now for bowl-seeking teams

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- With Air Force and Utah on the verge of separating themselves from the rest of the Mountain West Conference, New Mexico knows there's not much margin for error as it chases a second straight bowl bid.

Air Force leads the league with a 3-0 record and Utah is 2-0 and has won four in a row. New Mexico, a preseason pick to contend for the MWC title, is 0-1 in the conference after a 10-7 loss to Brigham Young last month.

"They're all important now if we want to do anything," said New Mexico coach Rocky Long, whose team finished second in the MWC last season and played UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.

New Mexico, 3-3 overall, is at San Diego State (3-4, 0-2 MWC) on Saturday.

New Mexico is coming off a bye week, a timely break for a team that faces back-to-back road trips to San Diego and Utah. The Lobos then return home for three straight home games against UNLV, Colorado State and Air Force.

"We've got to win four of the next six to be bowl eligible, but we've got to win them all the way I see it," says offensive lineman Jason Lenzmeier. Lenzmeier, the Lobos' best offensive lineman, has been out a month with a knee injury but is expected to play Saturday.

Air Force, 6-1 overall, plays defending MWC champion Colorado State (4-3, 1-1) on Thursday and Utah (5-1) is at UNLV (4-2, 0-1) on Saturday. Long says there's still enough parity in the league that it will be difficult for one team to go undefeated.

"I have a strong belief that the winner of our conference is going to have two losses," Long said. "Utah is probably playing the best right now and Air Force is next, but if they lose a quarterback, all of a sudden they become very average.

San Diego State knows all about the kind of hit a team takes when it loses its starting quarterback.

Senior Adam Hall suffered an ankle injury in the season-opener against Eastern Washington and was out a month. He returned against Brigham Young and threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-36 loss to the Cougars.

Last year Hall threw for more than 300 yards five times last season and for more than 500 yards in back-to-back games against Arizona State and Idaho.

"He was certainly missed when he was injured," said Aztecs' coach Tom Craft.

"They really pulled in the reigns when Adam Hall went down," Long said. "They started to expand their offense to a lot of the things they did last year as soon as he came back."

While the Aztecs' offense struggled without Hall, the defense has been solid. They lead the league and rank 16th nationally, giving up just over 296 yards of total offense per game. Linebackers Kirk Morrison and Matt McCoy together average just over 19 tackles a game.

New Mexico's defense is tough against the run, suspect against the pass. The Lobos lead the league in rushing defense, giving up just 80 yards a game, but are last in pass defense and 108th nationally with an average of 280 yards a game.

Long expects Craft to give Hall's arm a workout Saturday.

"I expect him to throw the ball about 90 times," Long said. "We're a pretty decent run defense and statistically we're not a very good pass defense."

Since Long took over the program in 1998, New Mexico is 6-0 in games coming off a bye week. This time, Long said, the Lobos used the off week to "tweak" their schemes on offense and defense.

Both he and Craft agree a bye week usually helps a team.

"You get healthier than you've been and you get a day or two extra for preparation," Long said.

"I don't think there's any question that it's an advantage and especially toward the middle of the season," Craft said.