Teams: Nevada (7-5, 4-4 Mountain West Conference) vs. Arizona (7-5, 4-5 Pacific 12 Conference)
Time: Saturday, Dec. 15, 1 ET
Las Vegas Line: Arizona -91/2; Over/Under 76 points
The bowl season concludes on Jan. 7 with the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 defenses squaring off in what should be a knockdown, drag-out collision. The beginning of the bowl season will be nothing like that.
Arizona and Nevada rank 101 and 94 in points allowed. Teams with the defensive inadequacies each of the New Mexico Bowl participants have need potent offenses to offset. And indeed, the Wildcats and Wolf Pack score in buckets.
Rich Rodriguez brought his zone-read spread option to Tucson, but with a twist. Senior quarterback Matt Scott has had a more involved playbook open to him than previous Rodriguez quarterbacks. He runs, sure, but Scott will also pass 30-40 times a game. And while Scott is Arizona’s No. 2 rusher, the run game isn’t overly reliant on him.
That’s because Arizona has the nation’s leading rusher, the first time the program can make that boast since the mid-1950s. Sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey produced over 146 yards per game and 20 touchdowns en route to consensus All-America status.
Arizona’s spread bears similarities to Chris Ault’s signature Pistol offense. The longtime Pack head coach created the formation in 2004, and it’s since spread around the game like wildfire. As the innovator, Ault oversees a particularly efficient version of it.
This season’s Pistol produced 37 points per game, just .25 fewer Arizona’s output. And while again ranking in the top 25 rushing, a feat Nevada has accomplished every season since the system’s introduction, Ault had the nation’s second leading ball carrier.
That’s right; the New Mexico Bowl pits the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 rushers with Nevada running back Stefphon Jefferson going for around 142 yards per. Thus in some sense, the first and last bowl games of the postseason aren’t completely dissimilar — just mostly.
Ka’Deem Carey and Stefphon Jefferson will obviously have tremendous impacts on Saturday’s outcome, but the defense that can force a stop is even more crucial. Nevada’s offensive line has surrendered 72 tackles for loss. With the defense allowing nearly 190 rushing yards per game, Wildcat defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel would likely rather not take his chances trying to contain Jefferson to the first level.
The diverse blitz packages available in Casteel’s 3-3-5 defense should be dialed up early and often. Marquis Flowers and Tra’Mayne Bondurant have each brought effective pressure from the linebacker and rover positions. Snuffing out Jefferson in the backfield is the Wildcat defense’s best option; the UA front has struggled much of the season, so keeping the explosive Wolf Pack back to short gains beyond the hand-off is not a likely proposition.
Linebacker Jake Fischer is effective in rush pursuit, but often lacks support.
The trouble with bringing blitzes too frequently, particularly from rover Bondurant, is that capable passer Cody Fajardo would have receivers in single coverage. Arizona defensive backs are prone to overplaying routes, thus the long ball is a realistic possibility. Big tight ends have also given the Wildcat secondary fits, so expect Fajardo to look Zach Sudfeld‘s way often.
Sudfeld leads the Pack with six touchdown receptions, and his 12.9 yards per catch are the most among Nevada receivers with at least 10 catches.
Nevada’s defensive deficiency is most notable in containing the rush, which doesn’t bode well for the Pack against a Rodriguez-coached offense. Linebacker Albert Rosette has an impressive 128 tackles on the year, and works in the Wolf Pack defense much like Fischer in Arizona’s. After him, the leading tackler is Duke Williams with 100; a defensive coordinator never wants one of the players in his secondary making 100 tackles.
Carey’s strength is garnering extra yards on seemingly broken plays. That 5.1 yards allowed per carry, his ability to do so again Saturday seems likely.
Snow is possible for Saturday, which would benefit Nevada. Coeds are still wearing shorts and frat bros are still rockin’ the Rainbow flip-flops on Arizona’s campus right now, so the cold weather doesn’t really suit the Wildcats. Adverse weather or not, though, this will be high scoring. Loyal readers of SaturdayBlitz.com know gambling advice is rare on this site, but should you venture to the Wolf Pack’s home state before Saturday’s kickoff, safely bet on the over.