Given the strong history of football at Nevada, you might figure the Wolf Pack has a lot of bowl trophies.
It does not.
In fact, Nevada has a relatively poor record in bowl games, going 5-10 in such contests, including a 4-9 mark in its FBS era (since 1992). Many of those have come in heart-breaking fashion. Just ask former Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault, who has lost three bowl games by one point and another in overtime. Nevada looks to change that luck when it plays Arkansas State in the Arizona Bowl on Saturday morning in a game that will help define its season after losing to UNLV in the regular-season finale.
“I think it has big implications on our season and I think capping it off and getting a ring and doing that will be something that this team can remember forever,” senior center Sean Krepsz said. “Since I’ve been here (at Nevada), we haven’t done that (won a bowl), so it’d be something to build for in the future.”
Here are three keys to Nevada's game against Arkansas State, which kicks off at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Arizona Stadium on CBS Sports Network.
1. 100 percent motivation
“Many times the hungriest team wins the bowl game,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said. And he’s not wrong. Just look at the Wolf Pack’s history. Nevada was a double-digit favorite against SMU in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl but lost 45-10. In 2007 in a coin-flip New Mexico bowl, Nevada was shut out by New Mexico, 23-0, snapping its streak of 330 consecutive games without being shut out (a streak that dated to 1980). It’s an open question how motivated Nevada will be after losing to UNLV in disastrous fashion in its last game and then having two of its best players transfer this month rather than finish the year with the team. The Wolf Pack seniors will be responsible for making sure this team is truly motivated and engaged. On the other side, Arkansas State will be playing in its eighth straight bowl game, so it might not be as into it as Nevada, which hasn’t played in a bowl since 2015. But the Red Wolves also could be motivated by the fact their head coach’s wife, Wendy Anderson, is battling a return of cancer after she had previously been diagnosed with the disease. We’ll see which team comes out the hungrier of the two.
2. Don’t turn the ball over
It’s skimmed under the radar, but Nevada has turned the ball over a lot this season. How much? The Wolf Pack’s 26 giveaways were bested by only four teams in the regular season. Each of those four teams – Arkansas, UConn, UTEP and Rutgers – went 1-11. You can credit the Wolf Pack defense and Nevada’s big plays on offense for helping the team overcome those 26 turnovers (15 interceptions, 11 fumbles lost). In what is essentially an even matchup, the Wolf Pack can’t afford those kinds of mistakes against Arkansas State, which had only 13 turnovers (13th best in the FBS) in the regular season. Arkansas State’s defense created 18 turnovers (71st in the nation), but that wasn’t a bad number given how few passing attempts the Red Wolves saw. Arkansas State picked off a pass every 30.4 passing attempts; Nevada picked off a pass every 50.4 passing attempts. The Red Wolves are an excellent pass-rushing team, so Ty Gangi, who had three interceptions in Nevada’s last contest, must be strong with the ball. Nevada is 6-12 when Gangi throws an interception (0-6 when he throws multiple picks in a game) compared to 6-2 when he doesn’t throw an interception.
3. Rush for 200-plus yards
Arkansas State plays in the run-first Sun Belt – all 10 teams in the conference ran the ball more than it threw it this season – so the Red Wolves’ defensive rushing statistics might be skewed a little. That being said, this was not a good run defense. Arkansas State gave up 200.5 rushing yards per game, five yards per carry and 20 rushing touchdowns. None of those stats are all that impressive. The Wolf Pack is 3-1 when rushing for at least 200 yards this season (it did so once in each month of the year). Nevada will surely take its shots down the field in the passing game, but the roadmap to victory against Arkansas State comes on the ground behind Toa Taua, Kelton Moore and the Union. The Wolf Pack's run game has been inconsistent. It has oscillated between good rushing games and bad ones in each of the last six games. It’s coming off a good rushing game against UNLV (it averaged 6.3 yards per carry in the loss) and has to establish and stick with the run game to expose the most vulnerable part of Arkansas State’s defense.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @MurrayNSN.