The Arizona Wildcats fell to last in the Pac-12 bowl selections and will play the Nevada Wolf Pack in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
The game will be played Dec. 15 in Albuquerque. With an 11 a.m. MT start, the game kicks off a postseason schedule filled with 35 bowl games.
“We didn’t set down a particular bowl at the beginning of the year, but we knew we wanted to be somewhere in the postseason,” first-year Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “And we get a couple more weeks with our seniors and get to enjoy that part.”
Arizona probably would have been in line for the Sun Bowl in El Paso if it had beaten Arizona State in the regular-season finale, but a 41-34 loss dropped the Wildcats to 7-5 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-12. That left Arizona competing for bowl slots against a trio of teams that were 7-5 and 5-4 — USC, Washington and ASU.
The Sun Bowl opted for name-brand USC, the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl went for Washington and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl selected the Sun Devils.
During the week, speculation on Arizona’s postseason destination bounced among the bowls.
“I know we were on the radar screen for all of those games, and I think we were probably the only school that was on the radar screen for all four of those games,” said Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne.
“Each had their strengths and weaknesses as far as why we would be on their radar screen, but it says a lot about the program that all of them were strongly considering us.”
One storyline quickly rises above all others.
The Arizona-Nevada game features the nation’s top two rushers — and two bad rushing defenses — so this could be a riveting competition between the Wildcats’ Ka’Deem Carey and the Pack’s Stefphon Jefferson.
Carey leads the way with 146.4 rushing yards per game. Jefferson is at 141.9.
The Pack, running out of its Pistol offense, is seventh nationally in rushing with 260.0 yards per game. Sophomore quarterback Cody Fajardo, who succeeded Colin Kaepernick at Nevada, is a good one. He has 2,530 passing yards and 981 rushing yards this season.
The Pack lost four of its last five games — including a 27-21 setback to Boise State on Saturday — to finish at 7-5. Nevada was fifth in the Mountain West with a 4-4 league mark.
“They are a very good rushing team. They do a tremendous job,” Rodriguez said. “They force you to be very disciplined on defense with that Pistol offense.”
Arizona had been hoping to avoid the New Mexico Bowl because of its inconvenient timing.
For Rodriguez, playing on Dec. 15 means he misses out on the extra practice time that a later bowl would afford. Rodriguez had wanted to use that time as a spring practice of sorts, especially working with younger players.
For players, they will be in the thick of preparations during finals week. Seniors who are graduating won’t be able to walk in the ceremony at McKale Center on Dec. 15.
“With a later date, you might get six or seven more practices in, but we’ve got two in already,” Rodriguez said.
“The challenging part is getting practice in during finals. We will look at our guys’ schedules and try to get in three or four practices this week. It is a quick turnaround, a little quicker than normal, but we’ll get some work in.”
And for fans, for those inclined to attend games in person, the bowl game coincides with Arizona’s marquee home basketball game against Florida at McKale at 8 p.m. (Not a bad deal for couch potatoes, though).
“We know there are a couple of conflicts that day, but we certainly hope that as many fans as possible get a chance to travel to Albuquerque,” said Byrne, adding that he will be at both games. “It’s not that far a drive for us. …
“It’s important for our program to have as many fans as possible travel for the postseason to have a good reputation for doing that. I know that was something a lot of the bowls were talking to us about.”
Arizona is obligated to sell 5,000 tickets at $30 each for the bowl.