Preview: New Mexico Bowl

Merry Bowlmas and Happy Postseasonukkah. One of the most magical and exciting times of the football season is finally here and fittingly it is kicked off by an exciting matchup involving a Pac-12 team.

The Gildan New Mexico Bowl is the first game on the docket this postseason and features a very intriguing game between two explosive offenses. If you wake up on Saturday and need a jolt, no need for some coffee as this game should open the eyelids and get the blood flowing.

Although a number of folks will label this as a battle between two high-flying teams, that’s a bit misleading as both squads do most of their damage on the ground. Wildcat sophomore and consensus All-American Ka’Deem Carey is the nation’s leading rusher and will hog most of the spotlight on Saturday. But counterpart Stefphon Jefferson of the Wolf Pack isn’t too shabby himself as the nation’s second-leading rusher. Both quarterbacks can move the chains with their arm or their legs, and it seems pretty obvious that the short preparation time was not exactly what the two defensive coordinators had in mind.

Should be quite the game to start the bowl season.

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The Rundown

Who: Nevada (7-5, 4-4 Mountain West) vs. Arizona (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12)
What: Gildan New Mexico Bowl
What Gildan is: “The leading activewear brand in the screen print market in the U.S. and Canada.”
When: Saturday, December 15. 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. PT
Where: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Where to watch: ESPN with Bob Wischusen (play-by-play), Danny Kanell (analyst) and Kaylee Hartung (sideline)
Where to listen: Arizona Radio Network (1290 AM in Tuscon), SiriusXM 84, ESPN Radio

The Series

All-time record: 1-1-1
Last meeting: October 11, 1941 (Arizona 26, Nevada 7 in Tucson)

Stat matchup

Rushing offense
Arizona: 230.4 ypg (15th in NCAA) Nevada: 260 ypg (7th)

Passing offense
Arizona: 291.4 ypg (29th) Nevada: 242.8 ypg (53rd)

Scoring offense
Arizona: 37.3 ppg (17th) Nevada: 37 ppg (20th)

Rushing defense
Arizona: 189.8 ypg (87th) Nevada: 213.17 ypg (111th)

Scoring defense
Arizona: 34.3 (100th) Nevada: 32.5 (94th)

How they got here

Arizona

Rich Rodriguez’s first year in the desert went better than a lot of folks would have guessed on a wild road to New Mexico. Things started off with a thrilling overtime win against a Toledo team that finished 9-3 on the year – it turned out to be a very good win to have on the resume. Arizona then ran away in two games against Oklahoma State and FCS foe South Carolina State to become 3-0. However, the offense turned the ball over way too much in a forgettable game against Oregon (a 49-0 loss) and things couldn’t click on both sides of the ball as three ranked opponents proved a bit too much.

Arizona got back on track with a big win over Washington and had their high point on the season by topping USC, ranked No. 9 at the time, at home. A trip to Los Angeles the next week gave the team its low point of the season, however, as the ‘Cats dropped a 66-10 loss to UCLA. Ka’Deem Carey went crazy to the tune of a league-record 366 yards against Colorado to make the Wildcats bowl eligible. They tacked on their seventh win by outlasting Utah on the road.

The season finale figured to provide a bunch of momentum heading into the postseason, but instead the 41-34 loss to rival Arizona State in the Territorial Cup likely will give the team plenty of motivation to end its 2012 campaign with a win against Nevada. It was a bit of a roller coaster for the Wildcats, but it is pretty clear the team exceeded expectations this season.

Nevada

Chris Ault’s team started the season off by ruining the opening of the renovated Memorial Stadium as they topped Cal, 31-24, in their opener. They dropped a one-point game to South Florida before running off five straight wins. An overtime loss to San Diego State proved to be the beginning of a bad slide to end the year, with losses in three of their final four games.

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Coaching matchup

Two of the best coaches in the country meet in the New Mexico Bowl with identical records this season in two tough leagues. Most folks are well aware of Rich Rodriguez’s rocky tenure at Michigan, but tend to forget that his West Virginia teams were some of the most exciting in the country. He’s imported the offense – seventh in the country – to the Pac-12 and found success with a roster full of players that he didn’t recruit. The defense has been an issue, but that’s to be expected as the Wildcats transition to coordinator Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 alignment.

On the opposing sidelines will be Mr. Nevada Football, Chris Ault. A former quarterback at the school, he’s had three stints as head coach of the Wolf Pack and served for several years as athletic director. Ault has been been involved with the program in some capacity since 1965 and has spent only eight years away from Reno since graduating high school.

Key players

Arizona

Running back Ka’Deem Carey – On just about every All-America team from the well-known to the mundane, Carey has been the breakout star on offense for the Wildcats. He’s likely licking his chops against the 111th rush defense in the country, as he needs 243 yards on Saturday to hit the 2,000 yard mark on the season.

Quarterback Matt Scott – The senior has turned in a terrific season numbers-wise, but a concussion limited him the final few games of the year and contributed to the team’s inconsistent play down the stretch. He still managed to lead the Pac-12 in total offense.

Wide receiver Austin Hill – A Biletnikoff semifinalist, the sophomore is a big play machine and averages 16.5 yards a catch. While defenses have to stop Carey first and foremost, Arizona has quite the weapon to make opponents pay if they load the box too much.

Nevada

Running back Stefphon Jefferson – One of the best backs in the country, there hasn’t been as much buzz about Jefferson as of late. That’s too bad as he’s 29 yards shy of the school record for yardage and already holds the program’s marks in rushing touchdowns and total scores.

Quarterback Cody Fajardo – The last time he played in New Mexico, Fajardo tossed three touchdowns and led the team in rushing. That was one of the highlights in the second productive season for the sophomore signal-caller that saw him rack up 3,511 total yards and 28 scores.

Safety Duke Williams – He’ll be key in stopping the Arizona offense and was a force in the Mountain West after turning in a season that saw him rack up 100 total tackles, 5.5 for a loss, and eight pass breakups.

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Stat pack

- Ka’Deem Carey leads all of FBS with 146.4 rushing yards per game and has more yards on the season by himself than 45 teams do all year. He needs one rushing touchdown to match the school record.

- This is the fourth bowl game in five seasons for the Wildcats and the first time a coach at the school has led his team to a bowl in his first year.

- Neither team has a player from the state of New Mexico on their roster.

- Each squad’s second leading rusher is the starting quarterback.

- Arizona would need to score 54 points to break the school record for points per game.

- Wildcats kicker John Bonano is 73-for-73 on PATs and was named the Pac-12 Football Scholar Athlete of the Year.

- ESPN will be the eighth network Nevada has appeared on this football season, including the season opener on Pac-12 Networks against Cal.

- Stefphon Jefferson needs just nine yards to set a Mountain West record for rushing yards in a season.

- Wolf Pack offensive lineman Chris Barker has started every game of his career, and the bowl game will be his 53rd consecutive start.

- Both schools will start a home-and-home series beginning in Tucson in 2014.

Keys to the game

If you’re going to get a win in a shootout, you have to not only keep pace on the scoreboard, but get key stops on defense. Yes, Arizona will have to contain running back Stefphon Jefferson, but they can’t allow quarterback Cody Fajardo to take advantage of defenders out of place because he’s a dangerous threat in the pistol offense to take off running on a keeper or hit a big pass play. There are plenty of weapons on the Nevada offense and it will be interesting to see if the Wildcats’ 3-3-5 is a good matchup to defend it. The Wolf Pack has been contained, scoring less than 35 seven times this season, so it’s up to Jeff Casteel’s group to get stops on third down and create turnovers to get the ball back in the hands of the offense.

On the flip side, Arizona will have to stay balanced and keep the Nevada defense guessing by mixing in runs by Ka’Deem Carey with Matt Scott making plays with his arm. It’s going to be tough for their opponent to cover both Austin Hill and fellow wideout Dan Buckner given the threat of the run, so there figures to be a few big play opportunities during the game. The key will be the offensive line protecting Scott when he goes back to pass and keeping his jersey clean. He appears to be fully healthy, and that could make all the difference in what figures to be an exciting back-and-forth contest.

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