Coming off the heels of a seven-win regular season, the Nevada Wolf Pack earned their first bowl berth since 2015. Nevada will square off against the Arkansas State Red Wolves in the Arizona Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 29, in Tucson, Arizona. This is the first bowl appearance for the Pack under second-year head coach Jay Norvell.
The Wolf Pack and the Red Wolves seem evenly matched on paper. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Nevada comes in as the 85th team in the nation, while Arkansas State ranks at 87. The opening spreads have the game being decided by a field goal at most with Nevada opening as a two-point underdog
Arkansas State and Nevada are built in much the same way, however, the similarities between the two teams become eerie when you compare their passing games. The Pack has the 20th ranked passing attack in the nation and the Red Wolves have the 23rd. Despite the higher ranking, the Pack trail the Red Wolves in one key passing category, interceptions.
Justice Hansen — starting quarterback for Arkansas State — has only thrown six interceptions all season. Even more impressively, Hansen has only thrown one interception in the second half of games all year. Nevada’s defense has forced eight interceptions coming into the Arizona bowl. For the Pack to compete, they will have to force a Hansen turnover.
Outside of the interceptions, Hansen has pieced together a very respectable senior season, passing for nearly 3,200 yards and throwing 27 touchdowns. This has translated to an eight-win season for Hansen and the Red Wolves.
Nevada quarterback Ty Gangi has put together an impressive season in his own right, passing for over 3,000 yards, placing him at 17th in the nation in terms passing yards. Gangi has thrived in offensive coordinator Matt Mumme’s air raid offense, throwing for 23 touchdowns.
One interesting stat arises when comparing the seasons of these two quarterbacks — one excels in the second half of games, while the other lags behind. Out of Hansen’s 27 touchdowns, 13 have come in the second half, 12 of which came in the third quarter. Gangi has struggled in the second half of games, only scoring five touchdowns in the second half — all five were scored in the third quarter. Gangi has been unable to find the end zone in the fourth quarter all season long. Five of Gangi’s 11 interceptions also came in the fourth quarter.
In addition to a stellar passing attack, the Red Wolves are no slouch in the run game either. Arkansas has two running backs averaging over 5 yards per carry on at least 100 attempts. Freshman Marcell Murray leads the team with 793 yards, while senior Warren Wand has 652 yards on the year. Nevada shouldn’t just focus on the running backs though, as Hansen has proven dangerous out of the pocket amassing nearly 400 yards on the ground.
The biggest struggle that the Red Wolves have had on offense is keeping Hansen upright. Hansen has taken 20 sacks on the season — Gangi has only taken nine.
Unfortunately for the Wolf Pack offense, they will be without sophomore wide receiver McLane Mannix. Mannix announced suddenly on Dec. 2 that he would be leaving the program to return home to Texas. Mannix accounted for a large chunk of Nevada’s passing game, leading the team in receiving yardage, second on the team with 50 catches and led all wideouts with seven receiving touchdowns this season. The silver and blue will undoubtedly look for a mix of wide receivers Kaleb Fossum and Romeo Doubs to help fill the void left by Mannix.
With the departure of Mannix and the fact that Arkansas State is giving up over 200 yards rushing per game, a greater emphasis may be put on the running game of Nevada. The task of carrying this greater workload will fall on the shoulders of the Mountain West Freshman of the Year, running back Toa Taua. Taua finished the regular season with just over 800 yards rushing, averaging 5.2 yards a carry.
Defensively, Nevada and Arkansas State seem to be polar opposites, the Red Wolves being ranked 12th in the country in pass defense, but they struggle to stop the run. On the other end, Nevada gives up around 130 yards on the ground each game, but struggle to stop opponents through the air.
Injuries to defensive linemen Korey Rush and Adam Lopez have hurt the Nevada front seven, but thanks to outstanding play from Malik Reed, the Pack have managed to keep opposing running backs at bay.
At one point in these teams’ history, Nevada and Arkansas State were in the same conference. The Pack and the Red Wolves were both members of the Big Sky Conference. The last time these two schools played in 1999, the Red Wolves won the game 44 to 28. Nevada leads the series all-time, 3-2.
Ryan Freeberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.