Gonzales, Lobos gear up for bright lights of Tiger Stadium

TIGERS STALKING:  LSU tries to become more consistent, and avoid a letdown, tonight against New Mexico in Tiger Stadium. 

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE — New Mexico head coach Danny Gonzales and defensive coordinator Rocky Long go way, way back.

Both men played their college ball at New Mexico, Long as a quarterback and Gonzales as a punter and safety. When Long was the Lobos’ head coach in 1999, he brought Gonzales on as a graduate assistant and video coordinator before Long brought Gonzales to San Diego State as his defensive coordinator.

Now, with the roles reversed, the Lobos boast one of the nation’s better defenses. For LSU head coach Brian Kelly, it won’t be a new challenge, though: Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett is also from the Long coaching tree, having played linebacker at New Mexico under Long, before being brought on as a graduate assistant under Long at San Diego State.

Kelly got a good look at Arnett’s 3-3-5 defense last week, which was heavily inspired by his coaching mentor.

“It’s going to be a very familiar defense,” Kelly said. “Rocky Long, Danny Gonzales, they both are from this similar defensive structure, and both of them are great defensive coaches. We’ve got a great challenge with New Mexico, they keep the points down and they do a really good job with a ball control offense.”

The Lobos are 2-1 and they’ll undoubtedly face their most difficult opponent of the season this evening, when they square off against LSU (2-1) in Tiger Stadium at 6:30. They’re fresh off of a seven-turnover performance against UTEP, which catapulted them into the upper echelon of the NCAA defensive rankings, including a fourth-place ranking in turnovers with 10.

The Lobos have struggled to get after the quarterback, registering just eight sacks in three games, among the bottom in the nation, and the struggles don’t stop there: UNM quarterback Miles Kendrick, a Kansas transfer, is averaging just 126.6 yards passing per game this season, with a 56 percent completion rate. The running game has been lacking as well, with Sherrod White and Nate Jones averaging 81.2 yards per game.

The Tigers, meanwhile, are coming off their brightest performance yet after a 31-16 win against Mississippi State. Wide receiver Kayshon Boutte will be absent due to the birth of his child, but the Tigers expect to be near full force on the offensive side of the ball, while the defense expects to see a big boost from Sevyn Banks, who is expected to get significant snaps in the secondary.

It’s the final tuneup for LSU before they dig into the heart of the SEC schedule, and Kelly knows it may be the best opportunity left for his team to show the consistency that’s alluded them at different points this season.

“It’s another challenge for our guys in terms of consistency,” Kelly said. “That’s really been the message this week in terms of preparation, their mindset, how we want to execute on Saturday. So, that’s really about us more than anything else, and how we can become a really good program is going to be based upon putting together consecutive performances and we’ll look to do that this week.”

For Gonzales, the chance to compete against SEC competition will be an important indicator of his team’s preparedness as the season wears on.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Gonzales said. “You can go down with cliches, you can say they put on their pads just like we do, one leg at a time with their pants, you can say all of those things. It doesn’t really matter. You’re either going to go in there and compete or you’re not. I thought last year against Texas A&M, the stage was too big. I thought we were scared. I thought our football team wasn’t prepared, I thought the moment was too much, and we played like it.”

It was a 31-0 loss against the Aggies that gave Gonzales his first taste against the SEC, but he knows the atmosphere of Tiger Stadium will be different. The crowd’s louder, the lights a little brighter, the moment maybe a little bigger.

He hopes his team soaks it all in.

“I kind of want them to enjoy the moment,” Gonzales said. “They had 98,000 against Mississippi State, they said they’re expecting 85,000 to 90,000 for our game. It’ll be 95 degrees during the day, there’s going to be some humidity. Not crazy humidity but it’ll be more humid than here. As you grow up as a kid, those are the kind of things you see on TV. You see the SEC afternoon game, you see the crowds, the excitement. I want them to enjoy it. I want them to have that ‘Ah ha’ moment, and once that whistle blows, it’s just a football game.”

Contact Ryne at rgberthelot@gmail.com

Photo by CHAD KEITH, Journal Sports