Coach Rocky Long’s University of New Mexico football teams had flashier victories, against better and higher-profile teams, than the Lobos’ 25-16 win over UNLV on Oct. 12, 2002.
Yet, the argument can be made that none of those meant more to Long’s program than that victory in Vegas.
If there ever was a game that saved a season, thanks largely to a remarkable performance from emergency quarterback Justin Millea, this was it.
Thus, here’s No. 8 on our list of UNM’s most memorable football games.
The situation was this:
The Lobos had gone 6-5, their first winning season in Long’s then four-year tenure, in 2001. But halfway through the 2002 campaign, the outlook had turned bleak.
Entering the UNLV game, the Lobos were 2-4 and reeling from a 49-0 shellacking courtesy of Mike Leach’s Texas Tech Red Raiders on national television.
Even worse: Lobos starting quarterback Casey Kelly suffered a broken left forearm against the Red Raiders in the first half. He was expected to be out for four weeks, maybe longer.
Still worse: The Texas Tech game followed a 24-13 loss to New Mexico State, Long’s third defeat against the Aggies in five years. He would not lose to them again, but of course no one knew that at the time.
On top of all that, UNM had lost running back Quincy Wright in the first quarter of a victory over Baylor on Sept. 14.
Wright, a senior, had carried the ball just 16 times in his first three seasons. In 2002, he appeared destined to back up prize freshman DonTrell Moore. But after Moore injured a knee in the preseason, Wright stepped up and was a revelation – rushing for 475 yards and a 7-yard average per carry in UNM’s first three games. His 265 yards against Weber State established a school record that stood for 10 years.
Then came the torn ACL against Baylor. Season and career over.
It was gloom, then, that pervaded the South Campus as the UNLV trip approached. It wasn’t that the Rebels were so good – they were 2-3 – but that the Lobos had been so awful the past two games. And not only was Kelly unavailable, so was No. 2 quarterback Kole McKamey, who was serving a one-game suspension for drinking alcohol at a party at home in Artesia.
Enter Millea, a senior from Silver City who’d entered the program as a quarterback but had been moved to defense. Long had switched him back to quarterback in the spring, but he’d never taken a snap until the second half of the Texas Tech game after Kelly’s injury.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to play,” Millea told Albuquerque Journal beat writer Greg Archuleta before the UNLV game. “I know last year at this time that (playing quarterback) definitely wasn’t in my thinking. But now I’ve just got to step up and do my part.”
The Rebels’ greatest advantage entering the game, it appeared, was at quarterback. Senior Jason Thomas, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound Southern California transfer who’d drawn comparisons to Minnesota Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper, had amassed more than 300 yards total offense in a victory over Nevada the previous week.
Funny how things work out.
Millea completed only two passes against UNLV that night – but rushed for 148 yards on 14 carries, including a 73-yard touchdown run. So ineffective was Thomas (12-for-30, 188 yards, one costly interception, 19 yards on nine carries) against Long’s marauding defense that he was benched late in the third quarter.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Lobos broke on top. Runs of 26 and 21 yards by Millea and a 22-yarder from Moore fueled a touchdown drive, completed by Moore from 3 yards out.
After a UNLV field goal, the UNM defense got on the board. Linebacker Charles Moss picked off a Thomas pass at the Rebels 31-yard line and lateraled to cornerback Desmar Black, who took it into the end zone from 25 yards out.
A fumbled center snap then set up the Rebels on the UNM 10, and Thomas’ 1-yard plunge made the score 14-10 at halftime.
In the third quarter, Millea’s 73-yard run gave the Lobos a 21-10 lead. Penalties nullified two UNLV scores, a field goal and a touchdown.
So, how did the Lobos get from 21 points to 25?
First, backup UNLV quarterback Kurt Nantkes guided the Rebels to a touchdown. But an attempted two-point conversion turned into two points for UNM when Lobos safety Brandon Ratcliff intercepted a throwback pass intended for Nantkes and took it all the way to the far end zone.
Finally, with 2:17 left in the game, after a Tyler Gaus punt pinned UNLV at its 1-yard line, Lobos defensive end Daniel Kegler tackled Nantkes in the UNLV end zone for a safety.
It was a joyous UNM locker room at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“For as bad as the two weeks we’ve had,” Long said, “it’s unbelievable our kids bounced back and played with the emotion and heart they did today.”
Regarding “Big Play Millea,” as Archuleta labeled him, offensive coordinator Dan Dodd said he’d done “everything and more” of what was expected.
“I’m as proud of him as any kid I’ve coached in 23 years,” Dodd said.
Some of the blush came off the rose the following week, when the Lobos lost a 45-44 shootout in overtime at Utah State. But with Kelly back under center earlier than anticipated, and with Moore displaying the talents that would make him UNM’s all-time leading rusher, UNM won four of its last five.
The Lobos finished 7-6 in the regular season and earned the first of five bowl appearances the Lobos would make in a span of six years.
As for “Big Play Millea,” what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. Two weeks later, he scored the winning touchdown from a yard out in a double-overtime victory over Utah. He continued to play a role in the UNM offense throughout the 2002 season.
It was on Oct. 12 in Vegas, though, that he earned a permanent spot in Lobo football lore.
This continues a series of the 12 greatest (or most significant) games in UNM football history. It runs in conjunction with each weekend the 2020 Lobos were supposed to play before the fall season put off by the coronavirus. The Lobos were supposed to host Massachusetts on Saturday in game 4. The countdown order so far:
12: 1945 Sun Bowl win over Denver