Another one bites the dust

This time, the U football team had it. The Utes had New Mexico beat-twice. And yet in the end, they went back into the locker rooms with their second loss in a row, effectively ending Utah’s chances at the Mountain West title.

First, the Utes blew a 21-point first-half lead. But even after regaining the advantage on Brian Hernandez’s three-yard touchdown with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, they still couldn’t hang on. And the capper was a near interception and a failed fourth-down try on their final drive, adding another chapter to what has been a bizarre and unpredictable season — one that is becoming eerily reminiscent of the team’s 2005 campaign.

The Utes continue to come out on the short end of the stick in a variety of circumstances and for a wider variety of reasons.

At this point, the losses aren’t just adding up — they’re diversifying.

Thursday night, it wasn’t the turnovers — a continuing issue in recent weeks — that could be blamed; the Utes never turned the ball over. The passing game put up efficient numbers. Utah even controlled the clock and silenced the New Mexico crowd with a string of early touchdowns.

But the Lobos never panicked, somehow erasing their deficit and winning their second-straight dramatic come-from-behind victory in a row. And how.

Midway through the final period, with New Mexico holding to a three-point lead, the Utes finally caught a break, taking advantage of a rare Lobo mistake. What probably should have been an easy completion from freshman quarterback Donovan Porterie instead bounced off the hands of his receiver and into the waiting arms of Ute senior Eric Shyne. The speedy cornerback ran it back deep into Lobo territory and, with a personal foul penalty tacked on, the Utes were back in business deep in the red zone.

It took just three plays to hit paydirt, as Brett Ratliff avoided a blitz, stepped up in the pocket and drilled a three-yard touchdown to junior wideout Brian Hernandez to reclaim the lead for Utah, 31-27.

The typically reliable Ute defense was anything but on the following drive — and, for that matter, for much of the final three quarters of play. Porterie and the Lobos found every seam in the defense and took advantage of every inch the Utes gave them. In just under four minutes, the impressively poised Porterie marched the Lobos down the field for what would prove to be the game-winning drive. His 19-yard strike to Marcus Smith-capping off a huge day for the junior wideout-set the Lobos up in Utah territory. Not long after that, Porterie got it done with his legs, rushing for 17 yards on a pivotal third-and-10 to put New Mexico into scoring range.

Moments later, on second-and-10, came one of the gutsiest calls of the night by the UNM coaching staff, as sophomore tailback Rodney Ferguson got the call on a draw play and pounded his way up the middle of the Utes’ D — shedding a Joe Jiannoni tackle along the way — for an 18-yard gain and a first-and-goal situation. Two plays later, Martelius Epps escaped a penetrating Ute defensive attack to scamper for a 1-yard touchdown that put the Lobos back out in front.

Of course, there was still more than two minutes on the game clock-plenty of time for the Utes to mount a comeback. And it looked like they might do just that, at least for a minute or two. Ratliff completed consecutive passes to Hernandez to take the Utes to midfield, but then things got a little hairy. On third down, Ratliff threw behind intended receiver Bradon Godfrey for what looked like a game-ending interception for New Mexico. However, officials ruled that it was a “dual possession,” giving Godfrey the catch — and one last chance with a fourth-and-3 just inside Lobo territory.

In what will almost certainly be second-guessed — fairly or unfairly — the Utes called a quarterback draw for Ratliff. But the middle was pretty well clogged, and Ratliff managed just two yards, the Lobos began celebrating, Rocky Long was showered with Gatorade, and the dish ran away with the spoon.

Despite the loss, the Utes looked sharp during the game’s early going, as it looked like they would once again quickly erase a previous loss from their minds. Darryl Poston took advantage of an added commitment to the running game, scoring two touchdowns in the first half, while Ratliff effectively manned the offense, finishing the night with 234 yards through the air on 18-of-31 passing and a pair of touchdowns.

But Porterie, starting just the second game of his young career, didn’t let the Lobos wilt. Taking full advantage of a leaky Ute pass defense, he repeatedly found his receivers — particularly Smith and fellow starter Travis Brown — on crossing patterns, exploiting the middle of the field. Smith scored two touchdowns on crosses from 40 and 42 yards to close the deficit. Late in the third quarter, Brown scored his first touchdown of the season, catching a 5-yard slant in the back of the end zone to give UNM a 27-24 advantage.

“They were playing a lot of man-to-man,” Smith said. “They were giving us the inside. So we just used our inside routes, and we were able to beat them.”

The Associated Press