Arizona Bowl features conference showdown between Nevada, Colorado State
The Arizona Bowl will certainly have a special feeling to it, as it will be the only bowl game this season featuring two teams from the same conference. The last time Nevada and Colorado State met was last season, when Garrett Grayson led the Rams to a 31-24 victory over the Wolf Pack.
In this game strength will meet strength when Colorado State has the ball and its offensive line goes up against the pass rushers of Nevada. The Rams offensive line allowed nine sacks, 17 hits and 26 hurries all season. The 52 total pressures they gave up on 385 passing plays was good for the second-best pass blocking efficiency in the Mountain West Conference. On the other hand, the Nevada defense recorded 23 sacks, 27 hits and 97 hurries and also batted down 11 passes. Defensive linemen Rykeem Yates, Ian Seau, Lenny Jones and Malik Reed all finished the season with pass rush grades above +6.0 and the four combined for 104 total pressures.
Players to watch
Nevada’s James Butler
Despite playing only 400 snaps, Butler has been one of the best running backs outside the Power-5 conferences. He is very difficult to tackle, highlighted by the fact that he averages 4.4 yards after the contact, which is the most in college football this season. Unlike some other running backs, Butler has not been a liability in pass protection either. He surrendered two total pressures on 61 pass block snaps and had the best pass blocking efficiency among running backs in the Mountain West Conference.
Nevada’s Lenny Jones
Jones is one of the truly versatile 4-3 defensive ends in college football. While his 25 run stops and 8.1 run stop percentage are second-best in the Mountain West Conference, he is even more impressive as a pass rusher. The 32 total pressures he recorded – all from the left side – are tied for most in the conference. In addition, his five batted passes are tied for fifth in the nation meaning that he can have an impact on the play even when he cannot get to the quarterback.
Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins
Higgins was our second-highest graded wide receiver in 2014 behind only Tyler Lockett and ahead of Amari Cooper, which is not a bad company at all. Although, he has taken a step back with a new quarterback this season, he still remained in the top 15 at his position. Nevada probably does not need to read this to know that Higgins is a player to watch: he caught 10 of his 11 targets for 194 yards and two touchdowns the last time these two teams met. His stats meant that his quarterback had a perfect (NFL) passer rating of 158.3 when targeting him in that game.
Colorado State’s Cory James
James has been the best player on the Colorado State defense this year and he can help his team in multiple ways as he spent almost as many snaps in coverage as the number of times he rushed the passer. Over the 116 snaps he spent in coverage he was targeted only nine times and did not allow a single touchdown. What is even more impressive is his pass rush grade of +14.1 and the 23 quarterback hurries he recorded both lead all Mountain West linebackers. Furthermore, James has been solid against the run as well as he missed only three tackles all season.
Although James Butler and the Nevada pass rush can both take over a game, I expect the Colorado State offensive line to provide sufficient time for quarterback Nick Stevens to connect with Higgins for enough big plays to win this game.
Colorado State 28, Nevada 24