It’s near the halfway point in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference football season, and New Mexico Highlands University — picked to finish sixth in preseason poll — is holding on to a share of first place in the league standings.
It’s a heady place to be for a team about to host a homecoming game in front of a few thousand people at Perkins Stadium, particularly considering opponent Western State won last year’s meeting 15-14 in Gunnison, Colo.
But this bunch has had better luck than the 2011 team in terms of injuries, especially at the quarterback position. And second-year head coach Eric Young and his staff not only have had considerably more time to install their program, they’ve also pumped it up with a busy offseason, bringing in some talented players across the lineup.
So far, the only blemish on the Cowboys’ record isn’t much of one — a 45-23 loss at Southern Utah, which competes in the Big Sky as a member of the NCAA’s Division I Football Championship Subdivision, a step below the big boys of Division I and BCS.
Highlands opened its season with an always-coveted win over intrastate rival Eastern New Mexico (42-14), and a blowout of RMAC foe Fort Lewis (50-0) in Durango, Colo. After the non-conference detour to Southern Utah, the Cowboys resumed their league schedule — and their winning ways.
The last two games have not been easy.
NMHU led Colorado School of Mines 35-17 only to see the Orediggers — then ranked 18th in the nation — pull within a possession of victory. But a critical Emmanuel Lewis-to-Kevon Williams touchdown pass in the fourth quarter gave the Cowboys enough breathing room in a 42-37 win.
Last week, it was Highlands doing the rallying. Colorado Mesa, playing at home in Grand Junction, Colo., held a 36-20 lead early in the second half. Then the Cowboys fought back with 20 unanswered points, including two Lewis-to-Darius Davis touchdown passes and two field goals by Zach Tapia. Final: NMHU 40, Mesa 36.
The air attack has been huge for Highlands, producing an average of 370 yards per game and helping the Cowboys average 48 percent efficiency in converting on third down. Lewis is completing 62 percent of his passes, and he’s thrown for 12 TDs with only three interceptions. Five Cowboys have reached double digit receptions through this point in the season. Davis leads the receiver corps with 27 grabs for 473 yards and four TDs. Returning playmaker Kevon Williams has 25 for 408 yards and three scores. De’joshua Johnson (20-248, three TDs), Keondric Reynolds (16-121) and John Webster (15-185, three TDs) are other top targets. Trent Hicks has caught three scores as well.
Stability has been as big as ability on an improved offensive line.
While the ground game has been more by committee, Highlands has averaged 123.2 yards rushing per game, the same amount they’ve allowed foes.
The defense is stocked with playmakers. Highlands’ leading tackler is DiAmaal Holmes (42 stops, including 29 solo tackles). Jared Koster (34 total tackles), Abdul Kanneh, Jordan Campbell and Eric Sykes have all averaged at least a half-dozen stops per game.
In addition to his 33 tackles, Kanneh leads the team in interceptions, with five picks for 155 yards, and he also leads in pass breakups with four.
Campbell, an All-American middle linebacker with a D-I pedigree, has been a menace to opposing QBs. He leads the Cowboys in sacks with five and in tackles for loss with eight and a half. He’s also forced two fumbles and recovered one, as has Sykes.
As well as the Cowboys have played, major challenges remain on the schedule — particularly Oct. 20 when Chadron State comes to town, and Nov. 3, when the ‘Pokes visit preseason RMAC favorite Colorado State-Pueblo. Both are also 3-0 in league play.
First, though, is homecoming and the upset-minded Mountaineers. WSCU has had slow starts but has outscored foes in the fourth quarter. Germaine Daniels is averaging nearly 69 yards rushing per contest.