Arizona vs. Nevada, 2012 New Mexico Bowl preview: The running backs duel

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

If both Arizona and Nevada bring their A-game to Albuquerque, this could be a really, really fun game to kick off the bowl season, with two of the country's best running backs on the field. Below: predictions, players to watch, reasons to watch and key factors.

5 Players To Watch

Tra'Mayne Bondurant (SPUR, Arizona, So.). When Rich Rodriguez took the Arizona job, there were plenty of reasons for excitement. First of all, the Rich Rod offense tends to be pretty fun (and it definitely has been in 2012). But Rodriguez added more intrigue by reuniting with Jeff Casteel, his defensive coordinator at West Virginia and one of the gurus of the funky, exciting 3-3-5 defense. As might be expected, the transition to the 3-3-5 has been far from seamless in 2012 -- Arizona ranks just 63rd in Def. F/+ and gives up a few too many big plays on passing downs. But players like Bondurant and strongside linebacker Marquis Flowers have thrived at times in this system. They have combined for 23.5 tackles for loss (5.5 sacks, all from Flowers), four interceptions, five forced fumbles and 10 passes broken up. If they don't make a play, it is unclear who will, but they give Arizona a solid dose of speed on the edge … something that is required if you want to even think about slowing down Nevada's Pistol offense.

Ka'Deem Carey (RB, Arizona, So.). Wisconsin running back Montee Ball won this year's Doak Walker Award thanks to a late surge (702 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in his final four games). But honestly, he shouldn't have even been a finalist. At the time the finalists were named, Ball had been significantly outplayed by Carey, who rushed for at least 125 yards seven times in 2012, broke off 366 yards and five touchdowns versus Colorado, and finished the regular season averaging 146.4 rushing yards per game, most in the country. He has taken to Rodriguez's offense like the proverbial pig in slop. He makes sure that Arizona quarterback Matt Scott doesn't face too many passing downs, and then Scott, either via his arm or his feet, makes the most of the passing downs he does face. Arizona averaged 46 points per game in their wins this session and scored at least 34 points in three of their losses. This is a really fun offense, and Carey is perhaps the primary reason why.

Cody Fajardo (QB, Nevada, So.). Through his second year at Nevada, Cody Fajardo has passed for 4,237 yards, rushed for 1,675 yards, and either thrown or rushed for 45 touchdowns. It is not quite a Kaepernickian pace -- through two years, Nevada great Colin Kapernick had 5,024 passing yards, 1,723 rushing yards, and 64 touchdowns -- but it is pretty close. And he would probably have scored more touchdowns on his own if he didn't have the next guy on the list on his side.

Stefphon Jefferson (RB, Nevada, Jr.). If Ka'Deem Carey didn't have the best should-have-been-a-Doak Walker-finalist-over-Ball case in the country, Jefferson did. Jefferson finished with 1,703 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns; he rushed for at least 90 yards in 11 of 12 games and rushed for at least 125 in eight. He scored seven touchdowns versus Hawaii and put up 139 yards against a strong Boise State defense in the regular season finale. Fajardo isn't quite Kaepernick, but Jefferson trumps Vai Taua, Luke Lippincott and the rest of Kaepernick's running back complements. There are going to be a lot of rushing yards in this game, though it does bear mentioning that both teams actually throw a lot on passing downs.

Matt Scott (QB, Arizona, Sr.). Arizona is favored in this game, primarily because, while Nevada's offense has an advantage over Arizona's defense, Arizona's defense has a significant advantage over Nevada's defense. The Wolf Pack rank 112th in the country in Def. F/+ and are 121st on passing downs. I wanted to place a Nevada defender on this list -- strong safety Duke Williams (5.5 tackles for loss, eight passes broken up), perhaps, or end Brock Hekking (eight sacks) -- but I just couldn't because I'm not convinced this defense will be able to stop Arizona more than a couple of times. That's because, even if the Wolf Pack can slow down Carey, they still have to do something about Matt Scott. Arizona caught justifiable flack in late-October for its handling of Scott's concussion, but signs point to him being fine now. That's a good thing, as he is one of the more interesting, exciting, and potentially underrated players in college football. Scott threw for 3,238 yards and 24 touchdowns (yes, with 12 interceptions) in 2012 and rushed for another 485 in his first year with Rich Rod. His ability to make plays on passing downs, usually with either his legs or passes to Dan Buckner and Austin Hill (combined: 77 targets, 46 catches, 794 yards on passing downs), is the reason Arizona had a bowl despite a shaky defense.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. You like offense, right?

2. Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez all but invented the version of the run-first spread that so many teams across the country now utilize. He developed it as head coach at Glenville State in the 1990s, tweaked it as Tommy Bowden's offensive coordinator at Tulane (you're welcome, Shaun King) and Clemson (you're welcome, Woody Dantzler), and perfected it at West Virginia with quarterback Pat White. Rodriguez's career took a hit with his failed three years at Michigan (his offense was fun and successful, but without Casteel, he somehow decided that Greg Robinson was a good enough defensive coordinator to bring him aboard; it was his undoing), but at Arizona he has reminded us that Rich Rod Ball is pretty fun.

3. Rodriguez might not even be the most innovative offensive mind in this game. You know how seemingly half the country is incorporating the Pistol into their offensive schemes? Thank Nevada head coach Chris Ault for that. He invented it, and with Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson in the backfield, he has had quite a bit of fun with it this season. (Well, I'm not sure Chris Ault actually has fun with anything -- he wears a perpetual Chris Cooper-from-American Beauty, Clint Eastwood-from-Gran Torino frown on his face on the sideline, which is actually fun to watch in its own way.) Arizona likely has the personnel advantage in this one, but both offenses are tactically exciting.

4. Bonus football.

3 Key Factors

1. Can Nevada end drives? If you stop Ka'Deem Carey, your reward is facing passing downs magician Matt Scott on second- or third-and-long. Nevada has one of the worst passing downs defenses in the country. Quite simply, the Wolf Pack's offense might not have a chance to make a difference if the defense can't make any stops.

2. Fumbleitis. Both of these teams struggled with fumbles at times, ranking in the country's lower half in the category. (That is often the case when you run a lot of zone read and other option plays.) Meanwhile, both teams were among the nation's Top 20 in forcing fumbles. Nevada might not be able to force many punts, but if they can force (and recover) two or three fumbles, they could pretty easily end up with the upper hand in this contest.

3. Nevada vs. the bowl break. Chris Ault has led Nevada to a bowl for eight consecutive seasons; he was a Hall of Fame coach before he came out of retirement to introduce the world to both the Pistol and Colin Kaepernick. He is the Nevada football program, and he deserves all the credit in the world for its competence. But wow, do the Wolf Pack often stink in bowls. They lost to an uninterested Southern Miss team in the Hawaii Bowl last year. In 2010, with their best team ever, they barely beat Boston College in the Fight Hunger Bowl. In 2009, they were blown out by SMU in Hawaii. In 2007, they were shut out by New Mexico in this very bowl. Since a thrilling, 49-48 bowl win over Central Florida in 2005, Nevada has lost five of its last six bowl games (and, again, didn't look very good in its lone win). If both Arizona and Nevada bring their A-game to Albuquerque, this could be a really, really fun game to kick off the bowl season. But if Nevada lays another egg, Arizona could lay a whipping on the Wolf Pack.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Arizona by 16.7.

Bill's Pick: Arizona by 20. I just don't trust Nevada. Prove me wrong, Wolf Pack.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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