Arizona concludes its season this Saturday as it travels to Albuquerque to face Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl. A 7-5 team from Mountain West Conference, the Wolf Pack may not play in a conference quite as tough as the Pac-12, but their offense surely presents enough firepower to give them a legitimate chance in this affair.
Nevada finished the regular season ranked 20th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 37 points per game. The Wolf Pack offense moves the ball quickly and piles up the yards. They do so mostly on the ground where they average 260 yards per game as a team, good for seventh in the nation this season.
The pistol offense is what the Arizona defense is up against and it’s a system that can allow both the quarterback and running back to pick up big chunks of yardage on the ground.
Sophomore quarterback Cody Fajardo leads the Wolf Pack charge and he is able to a lot of damage with his feet. Fajardo is second on the team in rushing yards with 981 and rushing touchdowns with 11. His effectiveness on the ground has taken the pressure off the rest of the offense and allowed other players to have big seasons.
The team’s leading rusher, Stefphon Jefferson, is also ranked second in the country in rushing yards behind Arizona’s own Ka’Deem Carey. Jefferson is a deadly weapon who has averaged five yards per carry on his way to 1,703 rushing yards for the season. His 22 touchdowns on the ground rank him behind only Louisiana Tech freshman running back Kenneth Dixon.
Nevada’s running game generally opens the field for Fajardo to throw the ball around. While the Wolf Pack ranked just 53rd nationally in passing yards per game, Fajardo has been very efficient throwing the football. He has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 2,530 yards and 17 touchdowns. He has thrown just seven interceptions in 336 attempts, as he has done an admirable job of taking care of the ball.
Fajardo will utilize several weapons in the passing game, with the team’s top target being wide receiver Brandon Wimberly. The 6-foot-3 senior has caught 63 passes this season for 788 yards and four touchdowns. His large frame provides Fajardo with a big target to utilize all over the field and Wimberly has shown the ability to be a play maker at times this season.
5-foot-11 sophomore Ricky Turner has had a solid second year with 54 receptions for 656 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He’s a bit more compact than Wimberly, but he can make just as big of an impact.
Senior tight end Zach Sudfeld is a player that Arizona must keep track of. At 6-foot-7, 255-pounds, he is a physical mismatch for just about anyone in UA’s linebacking corps and secondary.
He has caught 43 passes for 553 yards and leads the team with six touchdown receptions. Sudfeld has served as both a safety net and a playmaker for the Nevada offense and will likely be targeted often on Saturday.
Aaron Bradley, a sophomore wideout, should also see plenty of the field on Saturday. He is fourth on the team with 42 catches and has racked up 433 yards and four touchdown receptions. It’s quite evident that even though the Wolf Pack prefer to run, they are more than capable of passing the ball with consistent effectiveness.
The offensive line has been solid and consistent throughout 2012 for Nevada. The unit has been a big part of the running game, paving the way for a 5.2 yards-per-carry rushing average. It has also done a strong job of protecting the backfield, surrendering just 18 sacks in 12 games in a fast-paced attack.
In many ways, Nevada is going to attempt to match UA on offense and it could very well find success doing so given how much the Wildcats have struggled on defense. This game could come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes while holding possession of the ball and the Wolf Pack have played disciplined football on offense for the majority of the season.
Players to watch
#17 – QB, Cody Fajardo: The dual-threat quarterback has all the tools necessary to give Arizona’s defense fits. He can be effective as both a runner and passer and could be a thorn in the side of the Wildcats all game Saturday.
#25 – RB, Stefphon Jefferson: The nation’s second leading rusher will see the ball frequently against a unit that finished the 2012 campaign 89th in rushing defense. UA has allowed 200 yards or more to teams six times this year, so Jefferson will likely be the primary weapon used by Nevada.
#44 – TE, Zach Sudfeld: The big-framed tight end leads his team in touchdown receptions for a reason. Arizona is undersized over the middle of the field and Sudfeld is the type of tight end that can consistently succeed against UA’s defense if he can get in a groove.
#4 – WR, Brandon Wimberly: The Wolf Pack’s leading receiver has been effective in spurts this season and UA’s secondary has been very generous this season. If Nevada can establish the running game and draw Arizona’s defense in, Wimberly has the capability of beating the Wildcats downfield.
Five keys to victory
1. Contain the run: Nevada’s run game is entirely too potent to simply stop, but preventing the Wolf Pack from running rampant for 60 minutes will go a long way in outlasting Nevada. If the Wildcats contain the run, they contain the Wolf Pack offense.
2. Force turnovers:Moving the ball won’t be a problem for Nevada and while Fajardo doesn’t throw too many interceptions, Nevada has been known to put the ball on the ground. The Wolf Pack have fumbled the ball 22 times, losing 10 of them. Takeaways would stop Nevada’s offense dead in its tracks.
3. Pressure the backfield: Given that Fajardo and Jefferson are the two best weapons Nevada possesses, making them uncomfortable early would do wonders for the Wildcats’ defense. Arizona has struggled bringing pressure, but if it can overcome those previous shortcomings, it could make the Wolf Pack backfield to work that much harder.
4. Don’t lose sight of Sudfeld: The big tight end will be targeted often when Fajardo throws the ball, especially in the red zone. If the Wildcats don’t keep him covered, he’s the type of tight end that could have a field day with the secondary and linebackers.
5. Wrap up: The biggest key to stopping the run is simple: tackling. The Wildcats must limit extra yardage after contact by wrapping up the ball carrier on the first opportunity. Missed tackles could lead to a big day on the ground by the Wolf Pack.