(NOTE: Here is a New Mexico Bowl game preview from the Reno Gazette-Journal, one of our Gannett partners. For more coverage of the bowl from the Nevada side of things, go to the Wolf Pack section of RGJ.com.)
By Chris Murray
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Wolf Pack football team would like to close the season the way it opened it: with a win over a Pac-12 team despite being a prohibitive underdog.
Nevada kick-started its 2012 campaign with a surprise victory at Cal, which was favored by 10.5 points. Now, it faces a potent Arizona team in today’s New Mexico Bowl as a 9.5-point underdog.
The Wolf Pack coaching staff, looking to channel some good vibes, showed its players film of the win over Cal in the lead up to today’s 10 a.m. kickoff, which is the first of 35 bowls this season.
“It’s definitely a statement game,” said linebacker Albert Rosette on the eve of his final game at Nevada.
After the win over Cal, the Wolf Pack’s season didn’t follow a fairy tale script. Nevada began the year 6-1, but dropped three straight Mountain West games to be eliminated from conference title contention. The Wolf Pack (7-5, 4-4 MWC) has lost four of its past five.
But a win over Arizona (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12), which spent a portion of the season in the national rankings, would cap the season in a positive way. It also would give Nevada its first win against an above-.500 team since the 2010 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl victory over Boston College.
“It’s been a tough year,” senior offensive tackle Jeff Nady said. “There’s no doubt about it. I’ll do a lot of dwelling on that in my life, but right now I’m looking forward on this bowl game. I want to leave this program with a win, and that’s what my mind’s set on.”
The expectation in this game is points will be plentiful. The over/under betting line of 78 points second highest in any bowl this year, only the Holiday Bowl matchup between UCLA and Baylor is more (80).
The teams feature the top two rushers in the nation in Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson. Both teams showed great offensive balance, with each averaging more than 240 passing yards and 230 rushing yards per game (Texas A&M was the only other FBS team to accomplish that).
“Arizona’s offense is very dynamic,” Rosette said. “Obviously, Ka’Deem Carey is the leading rusher in the nation, but they can also air the ball out. (Quarterback) Matt Scott can run, he can throw the ball. You don’t have to worry about just stopping Ka’Deem. You have to worry about stopping a whole offense.”
Arizona’s run-first spread-scheme is built on speed and deception and is loaded with playmakers, including wide receivers Austin Hill and Dan Buckner, who combined for 132 catches for 1,930 yards and 14 touchdowns. Wildcats linebacker Jake Fischer said Nevada’s run-first Pistol offense was fairly simple.
“They don’t try to trick anybody,” Fischer said. “They just try and run the ball down your throat.”
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, previously the head coach at West Virginia and Michigan, said his first thought when he heard the Wildcats were playing Nevada was this: “I wished it wasn’t them.”
“I’d rather be playing somebody who isn’t as good,” Rodriguez said. “But when you play in a bowl game, you’re going to play against a good team and a good staff. Certainly that’s what we’ll see with Nevada.”
Arizona has faced plenty of good teams this season, scoring wins over then-ranked teams Southern Cal and Oklahoma State, with narrow losses to Stanford and Oregon State. Four of the Wildcats’ five losses came against teams that finished the year in the Top 25 of the BCS standings.
“I’m excited with the competition level,” Nady said. “In a bowl game, everybody is a winning team, but to play a team with such a high-powered offense and with Pac-12 speed, it’s awesome for the university and it’s great for the seniors to go out with a great opponent. It’s going to be a really good game.”
The Wolf Pack has not fared well against good teams or in bowl games lately. Nevada has lost its past seven games against winning teams and has dropped five of its past six bowl contests. Eight of Nevada’s past 10 bowl games have been decided by a touchdown or less, including five by three points or fewer.
The Wolf Pack’s players, especially the seniors, have embraced the challenge of facing Arizona.
“We get to play Arizona, a Pac-12 team, a high-powered offense, everything kind of stacked against us,” Rosette said. “It’s a great challenge for our team, and especially our defense, to stand up and show what we can do on national TV.”
Quarterback Cody Fajardo, who was knocked out of last year’s Hawaii Bowl loss to Southern Miss with an injury, said he wants to accomplish just one thing this afternoon: “We want to go out there and send these seniors out with a special memory.”