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December 15, 2012
Rushing title at stake in New Mexico Bowl
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- After a few nights of fun and games off the field, Arizona and Nevada each have the weapons to light up the scoreboard Saturday when the college football bowl season kicks off on the University of New Mexico campus.
Led by the nation's top two rushers, the Wildcats and Wolfpack will bring a pair of high-octane offenses into the seventh annual Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Kickoff at University Stadium is scheduled for 11 a.m. MST.
The talk all week leading up to game has centered around both running backs and the similarities in Arizona's spread and Nevada's pistol schemes.
All-American running back Ka'Deem Carey averages an FBS-leading 146.4 yards per game for Arizona (7-5), which is back in a bowl game after winning just four games last season. The sophomore broke the school's single-game and single-season rushing records this year, and his 20 rushing touchdowns is just two shy of breaking Art Luppino's total set in 1954.
Sitting at 1,757 total yards, Carey said he also has his sights set on reaching 2,000.
"I saw that I was close and I want to go get it," said Carey, who has collected first-team honors from the Associated Press, The Sporting News and Walter Camp.
Under the guidance of first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Wildcats have collected 521.8 yards per game to rank seventh in the country.
But Rodriguez, an offensive mastermind, deflected all of the success to his players - yet, added that his team could have produced more than its 37.3 points per game. This season, the 'Cats have scored 35 or more points seven times, including a pair of wins over top-25 programs Oklahoma State and USC.
"Those guys make it happen," Rodriguez said.
"I know we had some pretty good moments; I wish we would have scored more points. But for the first year, the thing that I've been pleased with is that some of the base principles that we wanted to install the first year, our guys bought in pretty quickly with it."
On the other sideline will be junior Stefphon Jefferson, who will bring an average of 141.9 rushing yards per game into the contest for Nevada (7-5). The Wolfpack stumbled to the finish line after opening the season 6-1, but Jefferson has rarely had trouble finishing off drives.
Jefferson's 22 scores on the ground is tied for second in the nation.
But UA safety Jared Tevis said that going up against the No. 1 rusher each day in practice has been a "big advantage" while preparing for Jefferson.
"On game day it's a big confidence builder to know you're going out there probably facing - actually, for sure facing - someone who's not as good as who you've been going against," Tevis said.
Do not expect Rodriguez to keep track of the math on sidelines or alter his game plan, however, if Jefferson pulls ahead of Carey.
"No, I wouldn't pay attention to it," Rodriguez said. "Is it important for Ka'Deem to be the leading rusher in the country? Yeah, because it helps us win. But that's not going to be one thought whatsoever as far as what we do and what plays we call."
While Carey and Jefferson will command plenty of attention, both defenses have been quick to point out that the quarterbacks share their own similarities and can do just as much damage.
Through the first eight games this year, Wildcats fifth-year senior Matt Scott was as productive and accurate as any signal caller in college football. A concussion and nagging ankle and hip injuries slowed him down a bit, but Scott still finished with 3,238 passing yards and 24 touchdowns.
When Scott's dual-threat abilities have become a factor, that's when the 'Cats have been most dangerous. He has collected 484 yards and five rushing touchdowns this season.
"They can also air the ball out," said Nevada senior linebacker Albert Rosette, who is tied for ninth in the country with 128 tackles. "Matt Scott, he can run, he can throw the ball."
Meanwhile, Wolfpack sophomore Cody Fajardo leads the team with 319 yards of total offense per game. He needs just 19 more rushing yards to become both a 2,500-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher.
Arizona junior linebacker Marquis Flowers said the defense cannot lose track of Fajardo.
"[Fajardo] can move, too, so that's another threat," Flowers said. "We can't just go ahead and worry about the running back because then the quarterback will have a career game. So it's going to be a balanced attack."
The defenses resemble one another, too - just not for the same positive reasons.
Nevada, ranked 87th out of 120 FBS schools in total defense, has surrendered 431.2 yards per game and 50 touchdowns. Arizona will counter with the country's fifth-worst average of 485.7 yards and 54 touchdowns.
Wolfpack head coach Chris Ault instead chose to look at the opportunistic plays that the Wildcats have made - particularly, in a 39-36 win over USC on Oct. 27.
"They present you with multiple problems, multiple defensive looks that you've got to be accounting for," Ault said. "You don't beat people like SC if you don't have a defense that can play some football at the right time."