Oct. 24—The magic man is back.
After leading the University of New Mexico football team to a pair of improbable wins to close out the abbreviated 2020 season, Isaiah Chavez reemerged Saturday afternoon in Laramie, Wyo., leading the Lobos to a 14-3 win against Mountain West Conference rival Wyoming.
It makes Chavez 3-0 as the primary quarterback for UNM, which snapped a five-game losing streak with what head coach Danny Gonzales said was his team's best defensive effort of the season.
"They showed a fight," he said. "They show up to fight, and that's the best thing we have going."
The Lobos improve to 3-5 overall, 1-3 in the conference. It leaves Wyoming (4-3, 0-3) as just one of two teams without a win in league play.
UNM's win also snapped the nation's longest active road losing streak at 16. The Lobos pass the baton to New Mexico State, which entered Saturday night's game at Hawaii riding a 15-game road skid.
Chavez set the school record for completion percentage, connecting on 10 of his 11 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown. His lone miss came on an incomplete pass out the back of the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
A redshirt freshman out of Rio Rancho, Chavez was also the team's leading rusher with 51 yards on 16 carries. It was a product of UNM's adjusted offensive approach, one that employed the triple option as a means to get Chavez acclimated, keep Wyoming's defense guessing and kick-start a Lobos offense that entered the game as the statistically worst unit in the country.
Chavez engineered a nine-play, 77-yard drive late in the first quarter to put the Lobos in front for good. They converted twice on fourth down, including a brilliant play call that produced a 43-yard touchdown pass to receiver Trace Bruckler to make it 7-0.
Chavez said the decisions to go for it on fourth down twice on that drive were "game changers."
"Those big conversions were amazing," he said. "They set the tone for, like coach G stated, we're a hard-nosed football team. That's what we're trying to be. We're not quite there yet."
The Lobos forced one fumble and four punts, stopping Wyoming twice on fourth down. More importantly, the offense was on the field for more than 34 minutes compared to 26 for the Cowboys.
"We weren't getting as many reps, which means we were more healthy during the game and not getting as tired," said redshirt freshman linebacker Cody Moon. "If the offense is able to control the clock throughout the game like they did tonight, we're going to have a great rest of the season."
Moon recovered a Wyoming fumble at the Cowboys' 19 early in the fourth quarter, finishing the game with a sack and five tackles. He, Bruckler, Chavez and receiver Luke Wysong were among a number of freshmen who had breakout performances, including the first career touchdown from true freshman running back Aaron Dumas. His 2-yard dive up the middle in the final minute of the first half set the stage for a scoreless second half that saw UNM's defense rise to the occasion time and again.
Afterward, Gonzales said the Lobos have reached a point where they're trying to establish an identity of fearless play from a team built on physical, hard-hitting players who trust the process. That culture, he said, made taking risks on fourth down an easy decision.
"We're a 2-5 football team," he said. "I thought we were playing good on defense, I thought we had a good plan."
Gonzales said he made the decision to start Chavez on Friday after the swelling in senior Terry Wilson's nonthrowing left elbow hadn't come down enough to justify him playing. Wilson dislocated the elbow in a loss two weeks ago at San Diego State.
Chavez had missed the first six weeks of the season while dealing with concussion symptoms. He was cleared before last week's game against Colorado State, playing part of one series late in the game. Given the success he had last season, he had garnered enough confidence from Gonzales and the coaching staff to take the reins against Wyoming.
"Football is kind of like riding a bike," Chavez said. "Maybe add on the training wheels again just to get a groove, but once you hop back into it, it's a good feeling, especially to come out with a win the first time back out in the huddle."
The Lobos finished with 259 yards of total offense, just four yards more than their nation-worst season average. They were held to 12 first downs but got 147 yards on the ground, largely thanks to the option. They managed to control the time by burning much of the play clock before each snap.
Launching the triple option clearly kept Wyoming's defense off balance.
"I'm sure they didn't prepare for it," Gonzales said. "I mean, we haven't shown but five or six triple option plays all year, and all we ran for the most part was triple-option stuff and some play action."
Unicorn sighting: Until their first touchdown drive, the Lobos hadn't scored an offensive TD since an Oct. 2 loss to Air Force. Of their previous 45 offensive possessions, they had punted 29 times, turned it over 10 times, failed to convert on fourth down three times, had time expire at the end of the half once, kicked a field goal once and scored one touchdown.
Up next: The Lobos head into their bye week with a chance to rest and recover. Their next game will be at home Nov. 6 against UNLV, the MWC's only other winless team in league play.