Red Wolves, Wolf Pack meet out in Tucson
Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson and his staff have done a nice job of getting the Red Wolves to continue to compete and get better as the season has gone along. Arkansas State (8-4) finished the regular season with four straight wins in large part due to a defense that allowed just 13.5 points per game in that stretch. Defensive end Ronheen Bingham (18.5 tackles for a loss, 9.0 sacks) is a big reason why the defense has taken off. Justice Hansen is an experienced quarterback who has positioned himself nicely for a shot at the next level. Hansen completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,172 yards and 27 touchdowns during the regular season and he also can make things happen with his legs.
For Nevada, motivation shouldn’t be a problem following a disappointing 34-29 loss to UNLV to close out the regular season. The Wolf Pack (7-5) are in a bowl game for the first time since 2015, when they beat Colorado State 28-23 in the inaugural Arizona Bowl. Quarterback Ty Gangi struggled in the loss to the Rebels, throwing three interceptions but he's plenty capable of putting up big numbers through the air. Toa Taua has been very consistent running the ball with 816 yard and six touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Head coach Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme are going to have to be balanced in their play calling as the Wolf Pack are 3-1 when they have put up at least 200 rushing yards. On defense, Malik Reed has 72 tackles, 15.5 for a loss, along with eight sacks as he has been a menace to deal with every week. Reed is going to have to dominate in this game against a stout Red Wolves offensive line.
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl: Arkansas State (8-4) vs. Nevada (7-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 29 at 1:15 p.m. ET
Where: Arizona Stadium (Tucson, Ariz.)
Spread: Arkansas State -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Battle to control the line of scrimmage
Arkansas State has an excellent duo at running back as Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Marcel Murray and senior Warren Wand have combined for 1,445 rushing yards. The ability of the Red Wolves to control the line of scrimmage should set up quarterback Justice Hansen to go to work in the passing game. Junior wide receiver Kirk Merritt (75 rec., 939 yds., 9 TDs) was the conference's Newcomer of the Year. If the Arkansas State offensive line can keep Hansen clean in the pocket, the Red Wolves should be able to move the ball at will. On the other side, Nevada needs to take care of business along the line of scrimmage to give Ty Gangi and his pass catchers every opportunity to succeed. The Wolf Pack rank 20th in the nation in passing offense (285.3 ypg). Up front, Sean Krepsz, and Jake Nelson lead an offensive line that has done a nice job protecting the quarterback. Nevada has surrendered just 1.17 sacks per game this season, which is tied for ninth best in the nation.
2. Arkansas State secondary vs. Nevada secondary
These two units figure to play a significant role in deciding this game. For the Red Wolves, they rank 12th against the pass, giving up 175.9 yards per game and have recorded 10 interceptions. Jerry Jacobs leads the team with three followed by Demari Medley, Justin Clifton, and B.J. Edmonds with two apiece. For Nevada, Daniel Brown, Asuani Rufus and Dameon Baber are a trio of defensive backs that have the challenge of keeping the Arkansas State passing game in check. Brown has had a breakout season with 49 tackles, 11 passes defended, and an interception. Rufus and Baber have teamed up for eight passes defended and four interceptions along with 113 combined tackles.
3. Special teams
One thing that can quickly turn a bowl game upside down is special teams mistakes. Arkansas State has been a mixed bag on special teams, including just 12 of 19 on field goal attempts. Punting has been better as Cody Grave is averaging 40.3 yards per kick and the coverage has been excellent as Arkansas State has a net punting average of 40.2 yards per kick. The Wolf Pack have a weapon of their own on special teams in punter Quinton Conaway, who is averaging 43.4 yards per kick. Conaway's season long is 74 yards and he should be able to take advantage of the elevation in Tucson in this game. The ability of both punters to swing field position and force long drives for their opponent is going to be an underrated key to victory for both teams.
This game should be one of the most competitive games of the day on College Football Playoff Semifinal Saturday. Turnovers are going to be key as both offenses should be able to move the football at will. Look for Nevada to do a better job of taking the care of the football and make enough explosive plays on offense to sneak out a one-score win to give head coach Jay Norvell and his Wolf Pack some extra momentum heading into the 2019 season.
Prediction: Nevada 34, Arkansas State 27
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.