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Arizona-Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl: Five things to watch

Matt Scott

Will Arizona senior quarterback Matt Scott go out a winner? Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

ALBUQUERQUE — College football’s bowl season stretches across 23 days, and it all begins when Arizona and Nevada kick off shortly after 11 a.m. Saturday in the New Mexico Bowl.

This is just a little postseason appetizer — the chips and salsa? — between teams that finished 7-5 and had dreams of bigger things at some point of the season. But when you’re playing in a low-level bowl game, chances are you’re dealing with some amount of disappointment.

That’s not to say this shouldn’t be fun.

Let’s go to five things to watch …

1. Ka’Deem Carey vs. Stefphon Jefferson

We’ve written this to death (here, here and here to pick a few), but that doesn’t stop making it cool that the top two rushers in the nation are playing against each other in a bowl game.

The rushing title is more than a statistical bauble, it would be something each school would loudly and proudly tout (assuming whoever emerges after this game keeps his lead following the conclusion of the other 34 bowls).

One more time for the record:

Carey has 1,757 yards, an average of 146.4 per game (numbers I have typed so often, I no longer have to look them up). Jefferson is at 1,703 yards and 141.9 per game.

No matter what the coaches might say, I have to believe that if the circumstances are right to pad stats in the fourth quarter, they’ll do it. I remember Arizona’s Mike Thomas coming back into 2008 Las Vegas Bowl on the final play to catch a short pass and become the Pac-10′s career leading receiver.

Bottom line: If one of these running backs needs fed in the fourth quarter, they are going to chow down.

Jefferson, a junior, doesn’t have Carey’s moves, but he has exceptional straight-line speed. Nevada’s run-based offense does tend to produce star college running backs.

“It’s been a success story for us,” Nevada coach Chris Ault said. “Stefphon has been one those guys who has benefited from it and gotten better. His work ethic during practice is as good as we’ve ever had.”

Carey and Jefferson met early this week for the first time. As for their discussions about the game …

“We just said good luck, and we’re going to leave it out on the field,” Carey said. “Let the best man win.”

2. Motivation

Always a huge deal in a bowl game. Nevada lost four of its final five games. Arizona collapsed in the fourth quarter of its regular-season finale against rival Arizona State.

Who’s up for this game?

In any case, the teams are largely going to have to be responsible for their own energy. Nevada sold only about 1,000 tickets from its allotment. Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said Friday that the Cats had sold a little more than 1,000 and had distributed about 2,400 tickets from its total of 5,000.

The locals don’t seem particularly thrilled either, and there is a possibility for a record-low attendance for the seventh-year bowl. The bottom was 24,735 in 2008 for a game between Fresno State and Colorado State.

Both teams are putting on happy faces as best they can, but we won’t really know the answer to the motivation question until the teams start popping shoulder pads. I’ll give Arizona the benefit of the doubt because I believe in Rich Rodriguez’s ability to motivate.

The senior leadership on this team has been good, too, another point in UA’s favor.

“I’m going to miss these guys so much,” said senior center Kyle Quinn. “So I want to go out and get a W.”

Cody Fajardo

Cody Fajardo leads a Nevada offense that is averaging 502.8 yards per game. Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

3. Defending the Pistol

Nevada’s offense — scheme, execution and personnel — is very good.

I asked Arizona junior linebacker Jake Fischer if the Cats could take anything from playing against UCLA in 2009 and 2010, when then-coach Rick Neuheisel tried to run a version of the Pistol, which features the quarterback in a short shotgun snap and read-option elements.

Fischer chuckled.

“Nevada runs it a little better than UCLA did,” he said.

“Their coach knows what he’s doing. Honestly, they run it better than anybody.”

With a pair of All-Mountain West players up front — guard Chris Barker and tackle Jeff Nady — Nevada could choose to run downhill at a suspect Arizona defensive front until the Cats show they can stop it. Or Nevada could test Arizona’s discipline with option plays to the outside. Or the Wolf Pack could take aim deeper behind the arm of quarterback Cody Fajardo.

He has thrown for 2,530 yards and 17 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. Fajardo, a sophomore who inherited the job from Colin Kapernick, also has 981 rushing yards.

“They have so many different options off of every play,” Fischer said. “Everyone has to do their job on every play, and if we don’t do that very well, it’s not going to be pretty.”

Arizona fans might want to get used to seeing Fajardo. He will be a senior when the teams meet in the regular season in 2014.

4. Another talented tight end

Arizona just can’t catch a break. After having little luck defending big, talented tight ends —
Stanford’s Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins and UCLA’s Joseph Fauria to name a quartet — here comes another one.

Nevada senior tight end Zach Sudfeld has caught 43 passes for 553 yards and six touchdowns.

That last name might be familiar. He is the older brother of quarterback Nathan Sudfeld, who was committed to Arizona last year before the coaching change. The pass-throwing Sudfeld ended up at Indiana, following former UA coordinator Seth Littrell in becoming a Hoosier.

5. The fourth quarter

Do you trust either defense to hold a lead?

Arizona gave up a late 75-yard drive to Oregon State, who scored with 1:09 left for a 38-35 win. The Cats coughed up two touchdowns in the final 6:34 of regulation, then lost at Stanford in overtime. And they allowed 24 fourth-quarter points in the 41-34 loss to ASU.

As for Nevada …

The Pack gave up a 56-yard touchdown pass with 38 seconds left to lose 32-31 to South Florida. They gave up 17 fourth-quarter points to San Diego State and fell in overtime when the Aztecs passed for a two-point conversion.

The season just might come down to the final play. That would be fun.

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