War of the Wolves: Pack set for Arizona Bowl | NevadaAppeal.com

War of the Wolves: Pack set for Arizona Bowl

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

The Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl between the Nevada Wolf Pack and Arkansas State Red Wolves on Saturday has a new, unofficial name this year.

"This is the Wolf Bowl," said Nevada coach Jay Norvell with a smile.

"This is the year we have the War of the Wolves," Arizona Bowl chairman Ali Farhang said. "Who is going to be the leader of the pack?"

The bowl game's Twitter page calls it the Dances With Wolves Bowl. Whatever you want to call it, the Wolf Pack and Red Wolves (Arkansas State was nicknamed the Indians until 2008) will meet in the fourth annual Arizona Bowl in Tucson at 10:15 a.m. The game will be televised by CBS Sports Network.

The Wolf Pack, 7-5 after a regular-season ending 34-29 loss to UNLV in Las Vegas on Nov. 24, is just happy to still be playing at this time of year. This will be the Wolf Pack's first bowl game since it beat fellow Mountain West member Colorado State in the inaugural Arizona Bowl after the 2015 season, 28-23, on a 4-yard touchdown run by James Butler with 66 seconds to play.

Arkansas State, 8-4 and riding a four-game winning streak out of the Sun Belt Conference, has been in a bowl every year since 2011.

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"Nevada is a good football team," said Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, an assistant coach on the Southern Mississippi team that beat the Pack 24-17 in the 2011 Hawaii Bowl. "They play good ball. Their losses came against good people so it we'll be a good challenge for us."

Anderson's Red Wolves, which beat UNLV 27-20 in September, started 4-4 but closed with victories over South Alabama (38-14), Coastal Carolina (44-16), Louisiana Monroe (31-17) and Texas State (33-7). One of their early losses was 57-7 to Alabama in front of 100,495 fans.

"Arkansas State has tremendous athletes," Norvell said. "They are dynamic offensively."

Norvell is very familiar with the source of the Red Wolves' offense. Arkansas State senior quarterback Justice Hansen was a true freshman for Oklahoma in 2014 when Norvell was the Sooners' offensive coordinator. The two of them both left Oklahoma after the 2014 season. Hansen, who was going to compete with Baker Mayfield and others for playing time at Oklahoma in 2015, instead went on to play at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas that season. Norvell was relieved of his duties at Oklahoma after the 2014 season and wound up at Texas.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Hansen, who will turn 24 years old on Jan. 7, has passed for 3,172 yards and 27 touchdowns this season and has now thrown for 9,858 yards and 79 touchdowns in three seasons at Arkansas State.

Norvell was excited to recruit Hansen out of Edmond (Okla.) Santa Fe High for Oklahoma in 2014, saying on the letter of intent signing day that year, "Our quarterback is a big, strong guy." Another quarterback Norvell tried to recruit that same year was David Cornwell, out of Norman (Okla.) North High. Cornwell would sign with Alabama but Norvell later recruited him to Nevada before the 2017 season, though Cornwell would quit the team just four games into the season.

"They have a good quarterback who likes to air it out," Wolf Pack linebacker Malik Reed said of Hansen.

Hansen passed for 423 yards and six touchdowns this season against Southeast Missouri and 332 yards and three scores against South Alabama. He has passed for three or more touchdowns in game six times, including against UNLV.

His favorite targets are 6-foot, 215-pound junior Kirk Merritt (75 catches, 939 yards, seven touchdowns), 6-6, 206-pound senior Justin McInnis (56-694-5) and 6-3, 207-pound junior Omar Bayless (32-437-2).

The Red Wolves, who average 283 yards a game through the air and 183 on the ground, can also run the ball. Marcel Murray, a 5-11, 200-pound freshman, has run for 793 yards and seven scores while 5-5 senior Warren Wand has 652 yards and four scores. Hansen can also take off with the ball (396 rushing yards, six touchdowns).

"To go against a passing attack like that and try to shut it down is definitely a great challenge," said Reed, who has 22 career sacks and 38.5 tackles for a loss and will be playing his final game in a Wolf Pack uniform.

Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi has similar numbers as Hansen this season. The senior has passed for 3,131 yards and 23 touchdowns this year and has passed for 7,178 yards and 56 touchdowns in his career despite starting just 25 games.

The Pack is just 5-10 in bowl games while Arkansas State is 3-5.

Gangi is hoping to join Stan Heath (1947 Salad Bowl), John Dutton (1996 Las Vegas Bowl), Jeff Rowe (2005 Hawaii Bowl), Colin Kaepernick (2010 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl) and Tyler Stewart (2015 Arizona Bowl) as the only Pack quarterbacks in school history to start and win a bowl game.

Gangi could also join just Dutton and Stewart as the only Pack quarterbacks to start and win a bowl and never lose one. Heath lost the Harbor Bowl after the 1948 season, Rowe lost the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl while Kaepernick lost the 2007 New Mexico Bowl, the 2008 Humanitarian Bowl and the 2009 Hawaii Bowl.

Gangi, however, will be without one of his favorite targets against Arkansas State. Wide receiver McLane Mannix, who caught 50 passes for a team-high 875 yards and seven touchdowns, left the team earlier this month.

"It was tough (to lose Mannix)," Gangi said. "McLane has been a great receiver for me. But we have plenty of talent without him. I'm confident in the guys we have."

The Pack does have plenty of targets remaining for Gangi with Kaleb Fossum (69 catches, 725 yards, one score), Romeo Doubs (43-562-2), Elijah Cooks (22-348-6) and Brendan O'Leary-Orange (14-214-4).

"This (playing in a bowl) is really a dream come true for me." Gangi said. "It's a cool honor for us."

A victory will give the Wolf Pack's its first season with eight or more victories since the 2010 team finished 13-1 in the Western Athletic Conference.

"We want to get to eight wins," Gangi said, "and be the first team in the Mountain West at Nevada to get to eight wins."

The Wolf Pack and Arkansas State were members of the Big West Conference at the same time for four seasons, from 1993-95 and again in 1999. Arkansas State left the conference from 1996-98 and played as an independent before rejoining the league in 1999.

The Pack, which owns a 4-2 edge in the 78-year-old rivalry, was 1-2 against Arkansas State in Big West games. The Pack won in 1994 in Reno and lost at Arkansas State in 1993 and 1999. The two teams also met in 1996 (a 66-14 Pack win Reno) when Arkansas State was an independent.

The four victories over Arkansas State is the most victories the Wolf Pack has ever had against a bowl opponent going into the bowl game. The previous high was three against SMU, the Pack's opponent in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl (a 45-10 Pack loss).

"We want to finish on a high note and win our eighth game," said Norvell, who is 10-14 as Pack head coach. "It's exciting to be playing football this time of year. It's what we all work for."

The work, Norvell said, is the key to the bowl game. Norvell will put his Wolf Pack through 18 practices in preparation for the Arizona Bowl.

"I love bowl prep," Norvell said. "For a guy who loves practice it is the greatest thing in the world to get 18 extra practices. I just look at it as an opportunity for us to get better. A lot of teams in our conference are not bowl eligible and they are not practicing. But we're getting better. It's a month to sharpen our sword and get better."

The Wolf Pack will have 19 players in Tucson that were also a part of the program (11 were redshirts that season) the last time the Pack was in the Arizona Bowl in 2015. Six (Dameon Baber, Asauni Rufus, Wes Farnsworth, Kalei Meyer, Korey Rush and Reed) of those players played against Colorado State three years ago.

"Our seniors want to go out with a bang," Norvell said.