New Mexico coach Bob Davie has been around college football long enough to understand the challenge that lies ahead for the Lobos.
They beat FCS school Incarnate Word at home by 32 points last week in the season opener. They travel to No. 5 Wisconsin this week.
Of course, Davie wants to win. He’s also realistic.
“Well, the elephant in the room is I know what you’re thinking,” Davie told reporters this week. “Incarnate Word to Wisconsin. Incarnate Word with 560 yards and now you’re going to Madison, Wisconsin. Well that is the reality right there.”
Incarnate Word averaged a whopping 7.7 yards per play against the Lobos, including 7.1 yards per carry. The Lobos now will face star tailback Jonathan Taylor, a Heisman Trophy hopeful running behind another behemoth line.
Davie, in his seventh year at New Mexico, is just focusing on taking small steps forward.
“We know what (the challenge) is, but if you keep it in the context of just getting better, just individually get better,” he said. “It’s a heck of an opportunity to get better in a big-time atmosphere.”
For the Badgers, the New Mexico visit is the second of three winnable nonconference home games to start the season. They beat Western Kentucky 34-3 last week, though the Taylor-led offense didn’t get off to a smooth start.
It could be chalked up just to the inconsistencies that might accompany any season opener. After all, the Badgers ended up figuring out the early problems posed by the Hilltoppers’ early pressure to take a three-touchdown lead by halftime.
Taylor had a nice debut with 145 yards and two long touchdown runs on 18 carries through three quarters. The Badgers also got a promising outing off the bench from backup running back Taiwan Deal. The often-injured senior is heathy again, running for 53 yards on eight carries against Western Kentucky.
“I had never seen Taiwan play in person in a game,” Taylor said. “They talked about how he was a physical runner. Now he’s healthy and he got out there and you could see his physicality when he ran.”
These kinds of early September games are meant to iron out any problems before Big Ten play begins in a couple weeks. Even the Badgers, with their vaunted offensive line, could improve in picking up blitzes.
“Absolutely, absolutely in a few different areas,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “Like I always say about protection, everyone’s got to be involved in it, and everyone’s got to do a good job in helping each other.”
Wisconsin could get two projected starters back in tight end Zander Neuville (right knee) and defensive lineman Isiahh Loudermilk (left knee), who each returned to practice this week after being limited by long-term injuries. A senior, Neuville is the team’s most experienced tight end and gives quarterback Alex Hornibrook another important target in the passing game. Loudermilk, a sophomore, played well off the bench last season.
One of the country’s top rushing teams last season, New Mexico tweaked its offense this year to attack more through the air. Tevaka Tuioti threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns in the 62-30 win over Incarnate Word. It was the most touchdown passes in a game for a Lobos quarterback in 20 years.
“We’re realistic about some of those plays that we made when we went over the top ... and caught the ball probably won’t be there” against Wisconsin,” Davie said.
Although throwing the ball isn’t a bad idea to probe Wisconsin’s young secondary, which features three first-year starters to go with senior safety D’Cota Dixon. The new alignment made a promising debut against Western Kentucky, especially fellow safety Scott Nelson, a redshirt freshman. The secondary needs all the on-the-job training it can get before conference plays starts.
Coach Paul Chryst isn’t downplaying New Mexico.
“I’ve been impressed with how they’ve learned it and understood it. It didn’t look like the first game of a new offense,” Chryst said.