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Tale of the tape: Nevada and Arkansas State battle in the Arizona Bowl

Ty Gangi
Ty Gangi and the Wolf Pack will play in the Arizona Bowl. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

When the Nevada football team plays Arkansas State in the Arizona Bowl, it will battle a near mirror-image of itself. The teams are so close in caliber the game was installed by bookmakers as a pick’em. At last check, Nevada has moved to a slight underdog (plus-one), but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bowl game as evenly matched as this one, which kicks off Dec. 29 in Tucson, Ariz. Here is a tale of the tape between the Wolf Pack and Red Wolves (even the mascot names are nearly the same!).

Offense

In short: Nevada averages 32.3 points per game to Arkansas State’s 31.8 ppg, so the final results are pretty similar. Red Wolves QB Justice Hansen is a transfer from Oklahoma who has put up big numbers. He’s super accurate (67 percent) and has passed for 3,172 yards and 27 touchdowns against just six picks. Still, Arkansas State runs the ball more often than it passes it, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Nevada also averages 4.8 yards per carry, but is a little more pass-oriented. The biggest difference is turnovers. Nevada has given the ball away 26 times; Arkansas State has done so only 13 times. Edge: Arkansas State

Defense

In short: Nevada allows 28.1 ppg to Arkansas State’s 26.4 ppg, but the Wolf Pack’s number is inflated because of those offensive turnovers giving the opponent a short field. (Nevada is 33 spots higher than Arkansas State in ESPN’s defensive efficiency ratings). Both teams have 32 sacks, so they can get the quarterback. They’re almost identical in yards allowed, too. Nevada gives up 378.3; Arkansas State 376.6. They do it differently, though. Nevada is the better run defense, holding teams to 3.50 yards per carry to Arkansas State’s 4.98. As a result, the Red Wolves have faced the seventh-fewest passing attempts in the FBS. The teams are similar in turnovers created. Nevada is at 19; Arkansas State 18. Edge: Nevada

Experience

In short: Nevada’s roster is largely young, but it has a ton of experience among the key players. Nevada starters 11 seniors (among the 24 starting positions, including kicker and punter), with 19 starters being upperclassmen. Arkansas State starts nine seniors and 15 upperclassmen. Nevada starts two freshmen to Arkansas State’s five. The Wolf Pack, however, doesn’t have a ton of bowl experience. Thirteen of the team’s players have been on bowl rosters; Arkansas State has been to eight straight bowls, so the Red Wolves players are used to the postseason even if Nevada’s key players are a little more experienced. Edge: Nevada

Schedule

In short: Nevada is 5-1 against non-bowl teams and 2-4 against bowl teams. Arkansas State is 8-0 against non-bowl teams and 0-4 against bowl teams. Obviously, the Red Wolves are playing a bowl team in the Arizona Bowl, so it will have to do something it hasn’t done this year to beat Nevada. They do have one similar opponent – UNLV – which Arkansas State beat and Nevada lost to. Arkansas State played the best opponent of these teams (Alabama), but Nevada’s overall strength of schedule, per the Sagarin ratings, was 91 compared to Arkansas State's 126 . The Wolf Pack has been more battle-tested. Edge: Nevada

Coaching

In short: Blake Anderson is in his fifth season at Arkansas State, each being winning campaigns that ended with bowl appearances. The former North Carolina offensive coordinator inherited a nice situation as predecessors Bryan Harsin, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze each spent one season at Arkansas State before leaving for bigger jobs. Anderson has stuck around, posting a 39-24 overall record and 31-9 league mark with two conference titles and a 1-3 bowl record. Nevada’s Jay Norvell did not join a springboard program, inheriting a roster that went 5-7 the year prior to his arrival. He’s returned Nevada to a bowl for the first time since 2015. Edge: Arkansas State

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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