Neither Colorado State nor Nevada expected to be playing an in-conference opponent in the postseason. The Rams and Wolf Pack will be a part of the 14th bowl matchup between conference foes in bowl history when they take the field at Arizona Stadium Tuesday night in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl.
The teams are somewhat of a mirror of the other, with both relying heavily on a powerful run game. Both defenses have been stingy at times, but have also struggled.
Here’s how the Rams and Wolf Pack match up by position ahead of Tuesday night’s tilt.
CSU’s Nick Stevens has had his share of success this year, but also has endured his share of struggles as well. Against some of the better defenses in the Mountain West (including Boise State and San Diego State), Stevens struggled with turnovers and confidence. Some of that could be attributed to worrying about being replaced by freshman Coleman Key, but some of it also falls on his inaccuracy. Regardless, when Mike Bobo took some of the pressure off of him by relying more heavily on the run game. The result has been a dramatic decrease in turnovers, and the Rams have also won four straight.
For Nevada, Tyler Stewart has been the go-to-guy at quarterback all season, and he has done well managing the game while relying on 1,000-yard rushers Don Jackson and James Butler. Stewart has thrown just 15 touchdowns this season, but has also only thrown seven interceptions. He and Stevens play a similar role in their respective offenses, and while neither has been particularly spectacular, they’ve managed to get their teams to this point.
The Wolf Pack have thrown for more than 210 yards in just two games this season, and have been held under 100 yards passing twice. I’ll give the slight edge to Stevens.
Edge: Colorado State
Having two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season in a non-option offense is relatively unheard of, and as Nevada head coach Bill Polian said Monday, if either Don Jackson or James Butler received “feature back carries,” they’d be among the top rushers in the Mountain West.
CSU’s run game is no slouch, though, with the trio of Jasen Oden Jr., Dalyn Dawkins and Izzy Matthews. They have combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards this season, and each brings a slightly different element to the offense.
Expect to see a heavy dose of the run game Tuesday, with both teams trying to establish the line of scrimmage, but the edge goes to Nevada here because of Butler and Jackson’s big-play ability.
Wide receivers and tight ends
Despite the fact that the Wolf Pack are known as a run-heavy offense, their receivers have been surprisingly effective this season, with Jerico Richardson and Hassan Henderson leading the way with 114 combined receptions. However, only four Wolf Pack players have caught more than seven passes this season, and they have lacked big-play passing ability.
Colorado State’s group is headlined by first-team All-Mountain West wideout Rashard Higgins, whose 2015 campaign has been a stark contrast to last season, when he led the nation in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. His ability to change the game is still there though, and he’s backed up by a very deep receiving corps. Seven CSU pass-catchers have hauled in at least 12 passes this season, and the Rams have the best tight end combination in the league in Steven Walker and Kivon Cartwright. If Nick Stevens has time and can get the ball to his playmakers, the Rams could have a big day in the passing game.
Edge: Colorado State
Both of these groups have been impressive this year, paving the way for two of the top rushing offenses in the Mountain West. The Rams seem to finally be healthy, and it has showed over the final four games of the season.
Nevada”s offensive line has been a bit of a patchwork group, but they’ve been dominant in the run game, blocking for both Jackson and Butler.
Both groups have been solid in pass protection, allowing just under two sacks per game, so this one is about even.
If there’s an area where the Wolf Pack have a decided advantage, it’s on the defensive line. Ian Seau, the nephew of NFL Hall of Fame linebacker, and Lenny Jones have combined for 83 tackles and 15 sacks, as well as 27 tackles for loss. Seau was named first-team All Mountain West, while Jones received second-team honors.
CSU’s pass rush has been up and down this season, recording 23 total sacks and 91 tackles for loss. A lot of CSU’s pressure has come from its linebackers, with 1o of the team’s 23 sacks coming from that group.
If either group can generate consistent pressure on the quarterback, they’ll be able to put two relatively inexperienced quarterbacks in some uncomfortable positions.
The Wolf Pack are led here by middle linebacker Jordan Dobrich, who needs 15 tackles in Tuesday’s game to climb into the top-10 all-time on Nevada’s career tackles list. He’s flanked by Bryan Lane Jr. and Matthew Lyons, who have combined for 125 tackles between them this season, while also totaling 8.5 tackles for loss.
However, the edge here goes to CSU because of their depth and versatility. Kevin Davis has been a monster this season, notching 95 tackles, 14 for loss, as well as three sacks and an interception. But the big surprise has been Deonte Clyburn, who moved into the middle linebacker spot for the Air Force game, and hasn’t relinquished his spot while racking up 69 tackles. Pass-rushing specialists Kiel Robinson and Cory James are versatile enough to play on either side, and have six sacks and five quarterback hurries between them.
Both of these unites relish the opportunity to play against a physical run game, and both will be tested early and often.
Edge: Colorado State
The loss of senior Trent Matthews hurts CSU a lot, despite the experience of Jake Schlager and Nick Januska, who will replace him. Matthews was the heart and soul of that defense, and his leadership and presence will be missed dearly. The Rams, though, have been substantially better this year than in year’s past. Fellow safety Kevin Pierre-Louis will likely be up near the line of scrimmage a lot to contain the run, so it will be on CSU’s corners to stick with Nevada’s wideouts in man-to-man coverage if they’re going to stop this Nevada offense.
Like Pierre-Louis, Nevada Asauni Rufus will be huge for the Wolf Pack stopping the run. Rufus is Nevada’s leading tackler this year, and fellow safety Dameon Babers isn’t far behind with 58 tackles of his own.
The key for both these groups will be limiting big plays in the passing game, and whoever is able to do that likely comes out on top.
In the place-kicking game, it’s really not even close. Nevada’s Brent Zuzo has been one of the best kickers in the Mountain West this year, hitting 14 of his 16 field goal attempts, while being named second-team All-Mountain West.
After struggling early in the year, CSU’s Wyatt Bryan hit on seven consecutive field goals until he missed a 36-yarder against New Mexico. The Rams kicking game has been up and down all season, and CSU has yet to find a reliable kicker outside of 40 yards.
The punting game swings back in CSU’s favor in a major way, though. Hayden Hunt, arguably the best punter in the country outside of Utah’s Tom Hackett, was the runner-up for the Ray Guy Award, and might be CSU’s MVP this year. In a game likely to be dominated by possession, a few boomers from Hunt could be huge for CSU.
And finally to the return game. Though the loss of kick returner Deionte Gaines (academic reasons) will hurt, the Rams have two explosive kick returners in Kevin Nutt Jr. and Jordon Vaden. Both have returned kicks for touchdowns this season, although Vaden actually dropped the ball at the one-yard line instead of carrying it all the way to the end zone.
But lest we forget about punt returner Joe Hansley, who returned two punts for touchdowns against Fresno State in the Rams’ season finale. The Wolf Pack has allowed nearly 25 yards per kick return, and they average just 39 net yards per punt.
The edge here goes to the Rams.
Edge: Colorado State
The skinny: These two teams are fairly evenly matched, despite Nevada’s two bad losses to UNLV and Wyoming earlier this year. Neither team is likely to completely shut down the other’s running game, but whichever defense can limit the big plays will have the advantage. At the end of the day, there’s too much Rashard Higgins for the Wolf Pack to handle, and the Rams prevail in this one and get to eight wins.
Final score: Colorado State 38, Nevada 21.
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.