Date: Saturday, Dec. 29
Kickoff Time: 1:15 p.m. ET
Location: Arizona Stadium, Tuscon, AZ
Watch it here: CBS Sports Network
Line: Arkansas St. -1.5, O/U: 55.5
Series: Nevada 3-2. Last game: Arkansas St. 44-28 (1999)
Swan song for Hansen
It’s fitting that the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl will be the site of the brightest Sun Belt star riding into his collegiate sunset.
The high-octane era of now two-time Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Justice Hansen is set to close on Saturday for one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Sun Belt history.
The Red Wolves enter the Arizona Bowl riding a four-game winning streak and Hansen’s production has been one of the main reasons.
While stAte spreads the ball all over the field, his favorite target during the winning streak has been Kirk Merritt, who led the conference in receptions (75) and receiving yards (939). Expect extra attention on Merritt, and as a result, also expect Justin McInnis to get a lot of targets on Saturday.
Arkansas State ranks 23rd in the country in passing offense, also thanks in part to a running game that features two backs capable of big plays in Marcel Murray (793 yards, 7 TDs) and Warren Wand (652 yards, 4 TDs).
If Arkansas State can balance run and pass, look out.
For the Red Wolves to take home the bowl trophy, they will need a big game out of their big playmakers, specifically, Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Ronheem Bingham and All-Sun Belt First Team safety Justin Clifton.
A wolf is to be feared
Many prognosticators seem to be personifying Nevada as a wounded wolf limping into this bowl contest. This has to do with a 34-29 letdown loss against rival UNLV in their last game.
I’m not buying the limp. The Red Wolves struggled to a 27-20 win over UNLV themselves in the early stages of the season.
Senior quarterback Ty Gangi posted solid performances (aside from the UNLV game) as a pocket passer (3,131 yards, 23 TDs, 11 INTs). He distributes the ball around, though McLane Mannix (50 catches, 875 yards, 7 TDs) and Kaleb Fossum (69 catches, 725 yards, 1 TD) qualify as the biggest threats stAte will contend with downfield.
The running game was also solid, led by Mountain West Freshman of the Year Toa Taua (816 yards, 6 TDs), who finished 10th nationally in rushing yards for freshmen.
Defensively, Nevada has a quality edge rusher in two-time All First Team Mountain West Malik Reed to help get the ball out of Hansen’s hands quicker. The Wolfpack will have to go a fourth straight game without aptly-named defensive end Korey Rush, who broke his foot a month ago, and standout safety Nephi Sewell, who announced he is transferring following the end of the regular season.
Both defenders would’ve come in very handy against the stAte passing game. This means a defensive scheme that can help free up Reed to make plays will be essential to victory.
Crank up the “wolf vs. wolf mention-o-meter” during the broadcast this weekend. It may be the only device more active than the scoreboard.
Team mascots aside, these two programs play a similar style of ball.
Defenses for both squads will need to be feisty on first down in order to get the opposing quarterbacks into more difficult scenarios.
Look for William Bradley-King and Forrest Merrill to be impact players on the Arkansas State defensive line. I think their play will be the difference to move the Sun Belt to 4-1 this bowl season.