TUCSON—With everything on the line, the Colorado State Rams and Nevada Wolf Pack battled to win the Inaugural NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl on Tuesday night, a contest which was chock full of smash-mouth running, highlighted with a few explosive plays. When it was all said and done, Nevada hung tough and won 28-23.
Colorado State’s first drive of the day was a sign of things to come. Nick Stevens threw two incompletions due to pressure before being sacked and fumbling the ball away. Nevada turned the turnover into a field goal and the early 3-0 lead. After the second drive of the day resulted in a punt, the Rams defense held the Wolf Pack to another field goal and trailed 6-0, early in the second quarter. After the teams exchanged punts, CSU got the ball at their 39; Stevens hit Rashard Higgins for a 38-yard slant and almost touchdown, and Stevens dove in on the next play for the 7-6 Rams lead.
Nevada answered with a 77-yard touchdown run by James Butler, who sliced through the defense with ease on the way to the end zone. Then, an 11-play, 81-yard drive by Colorado State came up short and had to settle for a 20-yard field goal to trail 10-13. Nevada wasted no time in scoring, but they put a touchdown on the board with Elijah Mitchell’s spectacular 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and the 19-10 lead following a missed extra point attempt. CSU put one more field goal on the board before halftime and trailed 13-19 at the break.
In the second half, Nevada marched but were held to another field goal to push their lead to 22-13. But Colorado State answered back with a masterful run-first drive of 12 plays and 75 yards, capped off by Jasen Oden’s untouched 9-yard touchdown. 22-20 Nevada led going into the fourth quarter. After an exchange of punts, Colorado State moved the ball down the field before settling for a 38-yard field goal for the 23-22 lead with 3:40 to play. But the Rams couldn’t hold on, allowing big plays by the Wolf Pack and James Butler capped the last-minute drive with a touchdown and the 28-23 lead. With 59 seconds left, the Rams had to go 88 yards to win. They tried their damndest, making it to the 12 on Jordon Vaden’s catch which he turned up field instead of going out of bounds.
STARS OF THE GAME
James Butler gashed the Rams, not only for the 77-yard touchdown run, but for other solid gains as well. He finished the contest with 24 carries for 189 yards and the two scores. That’s an insane 7.9 yards per carry average. Butler was named the game’s offensive MVP.
For the Rams, Rashard Higgins enjoyed a solid outing, with eight receptions for 123 yards. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the 17th time in his career and his 38-yard catch and run – in which he made three defenders miss – came up six inches short of the goal line.
Ian Seau impacted the from the first whistle through the last. He enjoyed five tackles, three tackles for a loss and the forced fumble. Seau was named the game’s defensive MVP.
PLAY OF THE GAME
The play of the game was Butler’s spinning, diving in touchdown to give Nevada the 28-23 lead. He wouldn’t be, couldn’t be denied and scored the game-winner with style.
The turning point came in the second quarter with Elijah Mitchell took the kickoff 96 yards past every Rams defender for a touchdown and the 19-10 lead. It would’ve been 20-10 but Brent Zuzo banged the extra point off the upright. What made the play even more a turning point was the fact that Colorado State couldn’t score a touchdown after gaining a first down and goal from the 10.
BY THE NUMBERS
Nevada’s 96-yard kick return touchdown was their first such score since 1998, nearly 20 years.
That wasn’t the Wolf Pack’s only massive play; James Butler’s 77-yard touchdown was massive, too.
CSU’s offensive attack was very balanced, with 522 total yards – 222 rushing and 310 passing.
100 receiving yards for #HollywoodHiggins, the 17th 100-yard receiving game of his career.
— CSU Rams Gameday (@CSURamsGameday) December 30, 2015
Rashard Higgins first down. Rashard Higgins a school record as the No.1 #CSURams receiver in history. 3,643 yards in his career.
— Rich Kurtzman (@RichKurtzman) December 30, 2015
This is Colorado State’s second bowl loss in two seasons. It also means the Rams finished the season at 7-6 overall instead of with more wins than losses, like they did end the years in 2013 and 2014.
Next up is the offseason. Colorado State now waits until National Signing Day on Feb. 7, 2016 to announce their 2016 class and until April for Spring Ball.