(NOTE: Here is one of several New Mexico Bowl stories 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. — Wolf Pack defensive end Lenny Jones grabbed his helmet with both hands and screamed in disbelief.
Center Matt Galas ripped off his jersey and walked off the field as tears welled in his eyes and athletic director Cary Groth tried to console him.
And safety Duke Williams was so disappointed he apologized to his teammates after the game.
In one of the most unpredictable and exciting bowl games in college football history, the ending was all too predictable for the Wolf Pack. For the third time this season, the Nevada pass defense coughed up a double-digit lead late in the fourth quarter.
But Saturday’s 49-48 loss to Arizona was the toughest to swallow.
“I’m not even really sure what happened,” linebacker Albert Rosette said after Arizona scored two touchdowns in the final 46 seconds. “I can’t really believe that happened. They were just throwing the ball, and we couldn’t stop them. I’m still kind of shocked.”
A 25-yard field goal by Allen Hardison with 1 minute, 48 seconds left gave Nevada a 48-35 lead and an almost certain victory. But, just as in heart-breaking losses to South Florida and San Diego State earlier this season, that certain victory turned into an unfathomable loss.
Aided by a questionable pass interference call, Arizona needed just 62 seconds to march 75 yards and pull within 48-42 when quarterback Matt Scott hit Austin Hill with a 2-yard pass. The Wildcats recovered an onside kick with 40 seconds left, a worm-burner that ricocheted off Duke Williams’ facemask and was recovered by Arizona.
“The ball bounced 2 feet away from me and it was coming hot and you’re taught that if the ball’s coming hot, you should let it go through,” said Williams, who also had six tackles and a key interception. “I tried to make a play when it counted, and I couldn’t make the play.”
Arizona had to travel 51 yards with no timeouts and limited time on the clock. Scott completed back-to-back 20-plus yard passes before finding Tyler Slavin for a 2-yard touchdown for the game-winning score with 16 seconds left. After Cody Fajardo was intercepted on the next play, Nevada stood in stunned silence.
The onside kick seemed to shell-shock the Nevada defense, which allowed Scott to complete 13-of-20 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“I definitely made sure to look in their face, and it wasn’t a good one,” Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey said. “I knew that’s when we had to go out there and punch that last one in.”
Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault, who fell to 2-8 in bowl games, said he “felt sick” six times in his 8-minute postgame news conference. Nevada very well could have finished the season with 10 or 11 wins, but instead went 7-6, including losses in five of its final six games.
“You look at that and you feel sick,” Ault said. “I’m just sick for those seniors. There is no question about it, but I’m sick for this whole football team. We had an opportunity to win the game and should have.”
The Wolf Pack was so in control of the game that Arizona’s fans started scampering out of a chilly University Stadium with about 5 minutes remaining. Those who stuck around saw an amazing finish, which capped an unbelievable game. Consider:
• Nevada opened the game with a 21 straight points before Arizona reeled off 21 in a row.
• The Wolf Pack’s 39 first downs, which accounted for 659 yards, were the most in bowl history.
• The 188 total plays were the most in bowl history; the 1,237 combined yards were the second most.
• Both Scott and Fajardo accounted for at least 396 yards and four touchdowns.
• Tight end Zach Sudfeld, who was on an IV earlier in the day because of illness, scored two touchdowns in 14 seconds.
• Two Arizona players were sent home after getting in a fight during the game.
“It was an unbelievable game,” said Sudfeld, who was battling a stomach flu. “The momentum swings back and forth and just the big plays on both sides. It was a crazy, crazy game to play in.”
The matchup had so many plot twists that the main storyline entering the game took a backseat.
The nation’s top two backs, Arizona’s Carey and Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson, faced off with the rushing title on the line. Carey rushed for 172 yards and three touchdowns; Jefferson had 180 yards and two scores. Carey, who finished the year with 1,929 yards, is a near cinch to win the rushing title.
But the star of the show was Scott, who passed for 382 yards and three touchdowns and led the final two scoring drives. On those drives, Scott completed 8-of-9 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
“Those last two drives, you had to be almost flawless with the time we had left,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, whose team finished the season 8-5. “You had to be almost flawless to execute it, and Matt Scott was flawless. Certainly that is why we won the game.”
The Wolf Pack players, especially the seniors, were left to think about the season that might have been. The collapses against South Florida, San Diego State and Arizona followed similar losses to Texas Tech and Louisiana Tech in 2011.
Rosette, who played his final game at Nevada, didn’t know why Nevada was so prone to late-game defensive collapses. But, it’s something that must be fixed if the program is to take a step forward.
“Guys just have to stay focused for four quarters,” Rosette said.
“I don’t know if people think we have the game in the bag or they don’t have to play anymore because it’s almost over, but even when there’s two minutes left, you still have to do the same things you’ve been doing all game if you’re going to win.”