Battle of top runners in New Mexico Bowl
For the Nevada Appeal
Stefphon Jefferson admits he has heard of Arizona Wildcats running back Ka’Deem Carey.
But that’s about all he’ll admit.
“I really don’t know that much about him,” the Nevada Wolf Pack running back said.
Don’t let Jefferson fool you. He knows almost as much about Carey as he does himself. Carey, after all, is all he’s heard about ever since the Wolf Pack found out it was going to meet the Wildcats in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday (10 a.m., ESPN) at the University of New Mexico’s University Stadium.
“I do know we’re similar,” Jefferson said. “We have similar size, similar numbers.”
“They are very similar,” Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault said. “They are about the same size and they have similar running styles.”
“They are guys that are physical between the tackles,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “And they’re about the same size. So there are some similarities.”
The similarities far out-number the differences.
Both of them will wear No. 25 on Saturday. Both have scored 20 or more touchdowns this year and both have rushed for over 1,700 yards. Both have already won numerous All-American honors in the last week or so. Both have nine 100-yard games on their resume this year. Both rushed for just over 400 yards last year and both are in their first seasons as a starter this year. And both of their teams have 7-5 records.
About the only thing that separates them, if you can believe the rosters, is that Jefferson is an inch taller at 5-foot-11 and 13 pounds heaver at 210 pounds.
“I’d say that Ka’Deem is a little bit faster,” Ault said. “Not quicker, but just a little bit faster.”
“I don’t know about that,” Jefferson said. “I’m pretty fast.”
See, he does know a little bit about the Arizona running back.
And Carey knows a thing or two about Jefferson.
“Obviously, he’s a good back,” Carey told goazcats.com recently. “I’m excited to see him. It’s going to be showtime between me and him.”
About the only thing that separates the two backs is their current standing in the NCAA rushing statistics. Carey is the top rusher in the nation at 146.42 yards a game (1,757 total yards) and Jefferson is No. 2 at 141.92 yards (1,703 total yards).
The Jefferson-Carey showdown is the first in NCAA bowl history since 1970 (statistics before 1970 are unavailable) that matches the top two rushers in the nation. And while there is no guarantee that Carey and Jefferson will each finish in the top two — seven other runners are within a reasonable striking distance of the top spot — there is no doubt that the New Mexico Bowl features one of the top running back duels in college football bowl history.
“There’s the game and then there’s me versus him,” Carey told goazcats.com.
Jefferson, though, doesn’t want to hear that he needs to out-rush Carey by at least 55 yards to have a shot at winning the nation’s rushing title.
“I don’t look at stats,” he said. “I’m not too worried about stats. I’m worried about getting the win.”
Jefferson, who scored a NCAA-recors seven touchdowns against Hawaii this season, will likely own all of the top single-season rushing statistics in the Wolf Pack record book by the time the New Mexico Bowl comes to a close. He has already established the single-season records for touchdowns scored (23) and rushing touchdowns (22). And he is also just 30 yards away from breaking Chance Kretschmer’s 2001 record of 1,732 yards.
And, oh yeah, he’d like nothing better than to finish the season as the top runner in the nation, the first Pack back to do so since Kretschmer 11 years ago.
“I remember when I was in high school, I was among the top runners in the state of California,” said Jefferson, who ran for 2,862 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior at El Diamante High in Visalia, Calif, in 2008. “And that was just the state of California. This is the whole nation. That would be an amazing accomplishment.”
Jefferson has surpassed even his own expectations this year.
“It’s all very humbling,” the 21-year-old (Carey is 20) said. “It’s even more amazing to think where I was last year at this time.”
Last year at bowl time Jefferson was the Pack back in waiting. Lampford Mark was the No. 1 back and he ran for a Wolf Pack bowl-record 183 yards in a 24-17 loss to Southern Mississippi in the Hawaii Bowl.
“I was not the favorite last year,” Jefferson said.
A year ago Jefferson wondered if he’d ever get a chance to become the Pack’s top back.
“Last year that was kind of my thought process,” he said. “But in the off-season I just worked hard and wanted to prove people wrong and prove that I was a good back.”
Jefferson is hoping to become the fifth Pack player in history to run for 100 or more yards in a bowl after Mark, B.J. Mitchell (178 yards against Central Florida in 2005), Robert Hubbard (126 against Central Florida) and Vai Taua (101 against Maryland in 2008).
“I always knew that hard work pays off and that’s what has happened this year,” Jefferson said.
Carey erupted late in the year to take over the nation’s top rushing spot. The Tucson native has rushed for 759 yards and seven touchdowns in his last three games against Colorado, Utah and Arizona State. Against Colorado he set a Pac-12 rushing record with 366 yards and also scored five touchdowns.
“I’ve got to run angry,” he said. “You’ve got to turn into a creature out there. I feel like I just turn into The Hulk or something. I drink a little 5-Hour Energy and it’s just ‘Aaah.’ The team just waits for that in the locker room and that brings some energy before we go out there.”
Despite all the Jefferson-Carey hype, the New Mexico Bowl is more than just a match-up of the top two backs in the nation. It’s also a contest between two of the best offenses in the country. It is just one of four bowls this year that pit two teams ranked in the top 20 in the nation in scoring. Arizona is 17th in the country at 37.3 points a game and the Pack is 20th at 37.0.
The Wolf Pack is seventh in the country in rushing at 260 yards a game and Arizona is 15th at 230.4. Both teams can also throw the ball well with Arizona at 29th in the nation at 291.4 yards a game and the Pack 53rd at 242.8 yards a game.
“If you stack the box to stop the run they’ll just spread you out and throw it,” Pack linebacker Albert Rosette said. “They have one of the more dynamic offense in the country.”
Arizona quarterback Matt Scott has passed for 3,238 yards and 24 touchdowns. His favorite targets are Austin Hill (73 catches, 1,189 yards, nine touchdowns) and Dan Buckner (59, 741, 5). The Wildcats are seventh overall in the nation in total offense at 521.8 yards a game and the Pack is 11th at 502.8.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” Rosette said. “But it’s a chance for our defense to stand up and show what we can do.”
Defense has been a concern for both the Wildcats and Wolf Pack this year. Arizona is 116th (out of 120 teams) in the nation, allowing 485.7 yards a game and the Wolf Pack is 87th after allowing 431.2 yards a game. Both teams struggle against the run with Arizona giving up 190 yards a game (88th in the nation) and the Pack allowing 213 yards a game (111th).
“After the Boise game (a 27-21 loss on Dec. 1) we just want to go out with a win,” Rosette said. “You never want to go out with a loss.”
The last time the Wolf Pack played in the New Mexico Bowl — a 23-0 loss to New Mexico in 2007 — it failed to score a point for the first time in 27 seasons and 330 games.
Sudfeld is the only current member of the Wolf Pack who was also a member of the program in 2007.
“That was my first bowl game,” said Sudfeld, who red-shirted in 2007 but dressed for the bowl. “I had a lot of fun until the game started.”
Sudfeld said the Arizona game is important for him to erase some painful memories for the Boise game just two weeks ago. His fumble in the end zone in the second half might have cost the Pack the victory.
“I’m just happy I’m getting another chance,” Sudfeld said. “That was a tough time for me. It was devastating. I couldn’t believe it happened. I felt awful.”
Over the last 23 seasons, starting with 1990, the Wolf Pack has only sent its seniors out with a victory four times (1996, 2001, 2005 and 2010).
“We just want to go out and give our seniors a memory,” Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “I want to send our seniors out with a win and that will make my season.”
This is the fourth time in the last five years that the Wolf Pack will play a 7-5 team in its bowl game. The other 7-5 opponents were Maryland in the 2008 Humanitarian Bowl, SMU in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl, and Boston College in the 2010 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. The Pack beat Boston College and lost to Maryland and SMU.
Both Arizona and the Wolf Pack, which haven’t met since 1941, have struggled in bowl games. The Pack is 4-8 in bowl games and Arizona is 6-9-1. Arizona is the first Pac-12 opponent for the Pack in a bowl game.
“We’re excited,” Sudfeld said. “The energy level is real high.”
The Wolf Pack, which beat California 31-24 to open the season, is hoping to beat two Pac-12 teams in one season for the first time in school history. They beat Oregon and Arizona State in 1947 but Arizona State didn’t join the Pacific Coast Conference until 1978. This is also just the seventh time in Wolf Pack history, and the first time since 2003, that the Pack has played at least two Pac-12 teams in the same season.
“We want to end our season the same way we started our season, with a win over a Pac-12 team,” Jefferson said