The first football bowl game of the college season started out like a prize fight and ended like a horse race.
As the University of Arizona Wildcats and Nevada Wolfpack squared off this afternoon in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, the first half looked like a boxing match, with Nevada appearing to deliver a knock-out punch early and Arizona picking itself back up off the canvas to get back in the fight – and, like Rocky Balboa, go on to win.
If this were a boxing match, it would have been similar to a heavyweight taking on a middleweight, as the Wolfpack were a touchdown underdog in this one. Nevada is coming off its first year in the Mountain West Conference and had to lace ’em up against a Pac-12 opponent.
Instead of a boxing ring in Las Vegas, these two combatants played in frigid temperatures under overcast skies in the open air of University Stadium on the campus of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The large number of empty seats were indicative of not only the cold temperatures, but also the fact that this was a lower-tier bowl that featured a couple of 7-5 teams.
And since it’s the first bowl game on the long road to the national championship game on Jan. 7, football fans haven’t fully tuned in yet. The Cats wound up in the New Mexico Bowl as consolation prize after a season-ending loss to rival Arizona State, which will be playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 29.
But the fans that did show up got their money’s worth, and a national audience that watched on ESPN hopefully stayed until the final whistle.
In the final 90 seconds of the game, the high-octane, hurry-up offense of Rich Rodriguez enabled Arizona to gobble up 126 yards of offense and score twice to pull out a come-from-behind 49-48 win in Rodriguez’s first year as the Cats’ head coach.
Nevada dominated most of the last two quarters of play and looked like it was going to wrap up the upset when the Pack tacked on a field goal to give them a 13-point lead with just 1:48 left on the clock.
They had opened the game with three scores before Arizona could even get their chin straps adjusted, beginning with a 75-yard march that took just eight plays to go up 7-0. Stephon Jefferson capped off the drive by just running through the middle of the Cats’ line and waltzing in for a 10-yard score – his 23rd of the year.
The game had been billed as a meeting of the top two running backs in the country, since Jefferson came in ranked second with 141.9 yards per game, just behind Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey who was leading the nation with 146.4 ypg.
Jefferson won the honors today, finishing with 180 yards to 172 for Carey. However, Jefferson fumbled twice and Arizona covered one of those drops.
Arizona kept shooting itself in the foot in the early going, as false-start penalties helped stall drives on their first two series, and then a fumble on the following kick-off made it appear this would be a long afternoon.
Nevada ran the score to 14-0 on their third series and then turned the kick-off fumble into a quick score by Nevada to make it 21-0 as the Wolfpack scored on back-to-back plays from scrimmage.
Carey got the Cats back in the game by carrying the next Arizona drive to put seven points on the board, and then an interception by Shaquille Richardson gave the ball back to the Cats just before the quarter ended.
By the time the half ended, the two teams had combined for 59 points and Nevada took a three-point lead into the locker room, 31-28. They combined for 428 rushing yards in the first quarter alone.
Chris Ault, the Nevada head coach, told a sideline reporter after the first half that his staff would make some adjustments in the middle at halftime – which meant his team needed to slow down Carey, who ran at will through the Nevada offensive line for 145 yards in the first half.
He lived up to his promise. The Wolfpack bottled up the speedy sophomore throughout most of the second half, holding Carey to just 27 yards in the second half.
But the youngster from Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson finished the season with 1,929 yards.
It would be fair to say the Wolfpack outplayed Arizona most of the game. They picked up their 38th first down of the game early in the fourth quarter, which set a new college bowl record, and ran 104 plays to monopolize time of possession.
But it was the final 90 seconds that made the difference.
After the Nevada field goal to push the score to 48-35 at the 1:48 mark, Arizona was able to capitalize on a pair of pass-interference penalties to be able to complete an 80-yard drive, finishing on a two-yard pass reception by Austin Hill to make it 48-42.
With just 42 ticks left on the game clock, the Cats pulled off a successful on-side kick that was covered by Marquis Flowers. They turned that gift into the winning score when the fifth-year senior quarterback, Matt Scott, completed a pass to Tyler Slavin with 19 seconds left.
Scott was picked twice, but finished with 382 yards passing.
He was named the bowl’s offensive MVP for his effort, and Flowers was named the defensive MVP.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)