Lenny Jones wasn’t all that excited to learn that his Nevada Wolf Pack was headed to the inaugural Arizona Bowl to play fellow Mountain West member Colorado State.
“I was happy we got a bowl game,” the Wolf Pack senior defensive end said, ‘but the Arizona Bowl against Colorado State? I didn’t like it at all, to be honest.”
The Rams-Wolf Pack match up of Mountain West teams today (4:30 p.m., Channel 21) is the first bowl game since the 1979 Orange Bowl (Nebraska and Oklahoma of the Big Eight) that will pit two teams from the same conference in a non-national championship game. Alabama and LSU, of the SEC, met in the BCS title game after the 2011 season.
“We do feel it is a little disrespectful,” Jones said. “I was disappointed.”
Jones, who played in the Wolf Pack’s 49-48 loss to Arizona in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl and the 16-3 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in last year’s New Orleans Bowl, says he will find some added motivation against Colorado State.
“We definitely have a little chip on our shoulder,” Jones said. “Colorado State is going to get a little extra from me.”
The Wolf Pack (6-6) has a 4-10 record in bowl games and has lost three in a row. The Wolf Pack’s last bowl victory (20-13 over Boston College) came in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco after the 2010 season. The Rams (7-5) haven’t fared much better in bowls, going 6-8. They lost to Utah 45-10 in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl after beating Washington State 48-45 in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl.
“I’m excited to get to play another game,” Colorado State coach Mike Bobo said. “I really don’t care who the opponent is.”
Bobo, whose Rams did not play the Wolf Pack this season and also won’t play the Pack next year in the regular season, is grateful for the unique match up of conference opponents. “I haven’t played Nevada so I’m excited about it,“ the former Georgia offensive coordinator said. “We just want to have a great bowl experience. And the way you have a great bowl experience is by winning the bowl game.”
Bobo’s Rams have not lost a game since Halloween (41-17 to San Diego State) and will take a four-game winning streak into the Arizona Bowl. The Rams returned two punts and a kickoff for touchdowns in their last victory, 34-31 over Fresno State on Nov. 28. The Wolf Pack lost its final two regular season games (31-27 at Utah State and 31-14 at San Diego State) and has not won since beating San Jose State 37-34 in overtime at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 14.
“It was not the season we wanted,” Jones said. “But it’s my last game. I want to go out on top.”
A victory over the Rams will give the Pack its fourth 7-6 season in the last five years and fifth in the last eight. “A winning season is very important to me personally,” said Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian, who will bring a 17-20 career record at Nevada into Tucson. “I want our players to take pride in that. It’s not easy to win games, no matter what some people think.”
Despite the initial disappointment of playing a conference opponent in a bowl, the Wolf Pack is saying all the right things for the most part.
“It was surprising,” said Pack senior defensive back Bryan Lane, referring to the strange bowl match up of league foes. “I didn’t even think it was possible at first. But I’m grateful we got a bowl game. Any game that is presented to you, you just want to go out and compete and try to get the seventh win.”
Pack running back Don Jackson, who rushed for 1,028 yards and eight touchdowns this season, is taking a different approach to the match up. “You get what you earn,” Jackson said. “We earned it. If you mope about it, you are not going to have a good experience. This is the most important game of my life. It’s the most important game of the (12 Wolf Pack) seniors’ life. We want to go out winners. And it’s been a while since we’ve won a bowl game here at Nevada.”
Colorado State, which has won 11-of-13 games against the Pack, took a 31-24 victory at Mackay Stadium on Oct. 11, 2014 the last time the two teams met. Rams’ wide receiver Rashard Higgins, then just a sophomore, caught 10 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns.
“Everybody knows how talented he is,” said Polian of the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Higgins. “It might be a good thing this year if we cover him instead of letting him run buck naked down the sideline like we did last year.”
Higgins, who is expected to leave the Rams a year early for the NFL draft this spring, has caught 66 passes for 933 yards and eight touchdowns this year and has a school-record 230 catches and 31 touchdowns for his career. He is also second in receiving yards in Rams’ history at 3,520. Higgins scored on touchdown passes of 42 and 51 yards last year against the Pack as the Rams built an early 31-3 lead.
“Looking at film (of the Wolf Pack this year), I still remember some of the cornerbacks and some of the guys I went against,” Higgins said. “I know they’ll be coming at me because of what I did to them last year. So it’ll be fun.”
Higgins might be in for a surprise. All four of the Wolf Pack secondary starters last year (Charles Garrett, Evan Favors, Duran Workman and Nigel Haikins) are no longer with the program. The only familiar faces Higgins will see on Tuesday are Kendall Johnson, Randy Uzoma, Jaden Sawyer, Tere Calloway and Elijah Mitchell, who were all backups a year ago. The Pack secondary this year features two freshman starters (Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus) and freshman backups Elijah Moody and Ahki Muhammad. Johnson and Mitchell are also starters this year.
“We obviously have a plan to get him the ball and move him around and put him in different spots,” said Bobo of Higgins. “He’s always a primary focus for us.”
Rams’ quarterback Nick Stevens, a 6-3, 205-pound sophomore, has thrown for 2,369 yards and 21 touchdowns. In addition to Higgins, Stevens also looks to 5-10, 180-pound senior wide receiver Joe Hansley. Hansley has caught 26 passes for 384 yards and six touchdowns this year and returned two punts for touchdowns against Fresno State.
“They take big shots downfield with talented receivers,” Polian said. “They also use a fullback and a tight end and use play action. I can see the SEC influence on their offense under (former Georgia assistant) Coach Bobo.”
Colorado State also features a group of productive running backs with Dalyn Dawkins (805 yards, two touchdowns), Jasen Oden (695 yards, five scores) and Izzy Matthews (503 yards, five scores). Dawkins, a 5-9, 175-pound sophomore, spent his freshman year in 2013 at Purdue, running the ball 32 times for 115 yards. Oden, a defensive back his first two seasons at Colorado State, is a 5-11, 220-pound senior from Buffalo and Matthews, who had 140 yards against Fresno State, is a 6-foot, 215-pound freshman from Redding, Calif.
“This is going to be a competitive football game,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack will be without offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, who was named the new head coach at Hawaii earlier this month. Colorado State will be without defensive coordinator Tyson Summers, who was named the head coach at Georgia Southern.
Jim Hofher, who came to Nevada in 2013 with Polian, will call the Pack plays on offense. Hofher has been a head coach (from 1990-97 at Cornell and 2001-05 at Buffalo), offensive coordinator (2009-12 at Delaware) as well as a long-time quarterbacks coach (1981-82 at Miami of Ohio, 1989 at Tennessee, 1998-99 at North Carolina, 2000 at Syracuse, 2008 at Bowling Green) in his 37-year career.
“Jim Hofher will call plays from the press box,” Polian said. “That decision (to name Hofher the interim offensive coordinator) did not take much thought. He worked closely (with Rolovich) and was very influential in our offensive game planning.”
The Pack will be led on offense by Jackson and James Butler (1,028 yards) on the ground. “That’s what we do at Nevada,” Jackson said. “We run the football.”
The Pack also throws the ball well at times. Tyler Stewart, who is hoping to join Colin Kaepernick, Stan Heath, John Dutton and Jeff Rowe as winning starting quarterbacks in a bowl game at Nevada, has passed for 2,065 yards and 15 touchdowns.
“We’ve earned the right to be in a bowl,” Polian said. “If some people don’t like that, I’m sorry. The rule is you win six games, you get in.”
Polian, like Bobo, stayed away from criticizing the match up of two teams from the same conference playing in the same bowl. “The bottom line is we cannot get upset or annoyed by things we cannot control,” Polian said. “This family (the 2015 Wolf Pack team) will never be together again after this year. We’re excited to be together for one more game.”
“This is our last ride,” Jones said. “Some guys will never play this sport again. It could be my last game. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”