Nevada (7-5) vs. Arizona (7-5)
Saturday, December 15, 1 p.m. (et)
From The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: Featuring two of the top offensive teams in the nation, the seventh annual New Mexico Bowl kicks off several weeks of postseason college football action, as the Nevada Wolf Pack tangles with the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday afternoon.
Head coach Chris Ault has been a fixture at Nevada for close to three full decades, with some time off here and there from the rigors of being on the sidelines. Ault is currently tied with Mack Brown of Texas for the second-most wins among active coaches with 233, but given the start that his team posted to the 2012 campaign, it should be higher than that.
Nevada rattled off six wins through the first seven games, the team's first as a member of the Mountain West Conference, but following a 42-37 victory over in-state rival UNLV in Las Vegas in the middle of October, the squad proceeded to drop four of the last five games. The Pack closed with a narrow 27-21 setback versus nationally-ranked Boise State on Dec. 1.
As for the Wildcats, they are under the direction of first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez who took over for Mike Stoops. Following stints at Salem University and Glenville State, Rodriguez became a regular in the postseason while at West Virginia, but wasn't nearly as successful during his turn at Michigan where he lasted just three years.
This season, Rodriguez came out of the gate with three straight wins, one of those against nationally-ranked Oklahoma State, but the team then dropped three in a row against ranked squads. On Nov. 10, the Wildcats recorded a 56-31 win over Pac-12 foe Colorado in order to become bowl eligible, but six days later closed the regular season with a 41-34 setback versus bitter rival Arizona State to fall to 7-5 overall and 4-5 in league action.
"I'm excited for our seniors," coach Rodriguez said of the bowl invitation. "This is exciting for our team and fans and the Gildan New Mexico Bowl is a great one to be at. We are thrilled to be playing in Albuquerque."
Nevada's postseason resume' dates back to a 13-6 win over North Texas in the 1948 Salad Bowl, but with the squad's 24-17 setback to Southern Miss in the 2011 edition of the Hawaii Bowl, the Pack is now only 4-7 in such outings. The program was involved in the New Mexico Bowl previously against hometown favorite New Mexico back in 2007, and was blanked by the Lobos in a 23-0 final.
While Arizona has never been involved in this particular postseason event, the team is appearing in a bowl for the 17th time, including the fourth in the last five seasons. However, the Wildcats have lost two straight postseason tests and are now 6-9-1 all-time following the conclusion of the regular season. The most recent of those bowl outings took place on Dec. 29, 2010 with the team bowing to 14th-ranked Oklahoma State, 36-10, in the Alamo Bowl.
As far as the all-time series between these two teams is concerned, each has won once and tied in a third meeting. The most recent matchup took place about two months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, as Arizona captured a 26-7 victory at home. The other two meetings were held back in the 1920s.
The schools are set to play a home-and-home series beginning in 2014 in Arizona and concluding the following season in Nevada.
What makes the Nevada offense so dangerous is that the group can attack in so many different ways. In fact, the Pack is the only team in the country that is averaging more than 240 yards per game both on the ground and through the air, and most of the credit goes to quarterback Cody Fajardo who has carried on the tradition of being a willing participant in Ault's Pistol Offense.
Fajardo is listed as being the 11th-most productive player in the FBS with his 319.2 ypg. The signal-caller has completed two-thirds of his pass attempts this season, en route to 17 touchdowns and just seven interceptions on 336 throws. He did miss some time during the campaign, but still the offense ran effectively in his absence.
With 981 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, Fajardo is second only to Stefphon Jefferson in that department. Jefferson, second in the country in rushing with 141.9 ypg, has scored at least one TD in six straight games and earlier in the campaign ran for 170 yards and a staggering six TDs versus Hawaii on the road in what turned out to be a 45-point win. Jefferson now owns the single-season TD mark at Nevada with 23, all but one of which was registered on the ground.
When not handing the ball off to Jefferson, Fajardo has a slew of receivers that he has called upon, four of whom have caught at least 42 passes this season and combined for 16 aerial scores. Zach Sudfeld has a team-best six TDs, but it is Brandon Wimberly (63 catches, 788 yards, four TDs) who is generally the first option.
On the defensive side of the ball, Albert Rosette is the leading tackler with 128 stops, but the performer with even more of an impact is Brock Hekking who leads the way with 9.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
Ranked 101st in the country in sacks with just 1.3 per game, the Wildcats haven't been able to get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks and that explains why the team is giving up a hefty 485.7 ypg in total defense (116th in the nation). Jake Fischer paces the group with his 106 total stops, adding three forced fumbles and three recoveries, while Marquis Flowers was second on the overall tackles list (90) and tops with 12 TFL and 5.5 sacks, as he too had three forced fumbles while logging a pair of interceptions.
But just like the Wolf Pack, Arizona's success is predicated on the offense, more specifically, tailback Ka'Deem Carey who ended up leading the nation with an average of 146.4 ypg. A consensus All-America selection by the AP, Carey had a total of 54 plays of at least 10 yards and 20 plays which were extended to 20 yards or more. Carey has scored at least one TD in all but one game this season, the meeting against Oregon when he was held to 79 yards on 21 attempts in a 49-0 blowout loss.
Carey's coming out party took place last month when he raced for a staggering 366 yards and five touchdowns, adding two catches for another 34 yards, in the win over Colorado. But just to be fair, the Buffaloes were one of the weakest defenses in the country this year as they won only one game by a single point.
Matt Scott is set to handle the quarterback responsibilities for the Wildcats after completing 60.4 percent of his attempts for close to 300 ypg and 24 touchdowns, but he was also picked off 12 times which demonstrates a gambler's mentality by Scott and his head coach at times. The signal-caller is coming off a disappointing showing in the regular-season finale as he tossed three picks versus ASU.
"We're very familiar with Scott," says coach Ault. "Really a good quarterback, he manages that offense very, very well."
Averaging close to 100 yards per game receiving, Austin Hill has turned his 73 catches this season into 1,189 yards and nine touchdowns, while Dan Buckner also put up strong numbers for Arizona with 59 grabs for 741 yards and five scores.
"What a great matchup to kickoff college football's post season," says Jeff Siembieda, the Executive Director of the New Mexico Bowl. "Two of the top offenses in America, the top two running backs in the country, two of college football's top quarterbacks and playmakers all over the field. I think we've got the potential for a great, exciting football game."
Knowing that these two teams are geared to score points, it will be the play of the defenses that will most likely decide the outcome. Arizona tends to be a bit more lenient in that respect, so giving the edge to the Pack is not too much of a stretch.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Nevada 41, Arizona 35
12/12 11:36:08 ET