There has been a lot of — what would you call it? — about there being too many bowl games.
“Snarkiness,” Nevada head coach Brian Polian said, shaking his head after his team’s 28-23 victory against Colorado State in the inaugural NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl.
Snarkiness, too, because Colorado State and Nevada both play in the Mountain West yet faced each other in a bowl. Tuesday night’s game marked the 14th time teams from the same conference faced each other in a bowl and the first since 1979.
Those circumstances were a little different — Big Eight rivals Oklahoma and Nebraska played for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. But this game was no less meaningful to the participants.
“Well, that was fun. It was a really fun football game,” Polian said after his first bowl win in three seasons at Nevada. “It want to say publicly that this was a great experience. This was a great bowl.”
It certainly was entertaining. Nevada took a 28-23 lead with 1:06 remaining on James Butler’s second touchdown run of the game. Colorado State still almost pulled it out, driving to Nevada’s 12-yard line as time ran out. Both teams finished with winning records (7-6).
It certainly was not the game purists feared. The bowl was supposed to feature two teams from the Mountain West, Conference USA or the Sun Belt. But there weren’t enough bowl-eligible teams from Conference USA or the Sun Belt, so the NCAA turned to three 5-7 teams to fill out the 80-team bowl lineup. That forced the Mountain West into what conference commissioner Craig Thompson called a “travesty.”
“When a 5-7 Power 5 team gets placed ahead of a Group of 5 team with a better record,” Polian said, “I have a problem with that.”
But he had no problem playing a conference rival in the Arizona Bowl. It didn’t matter to the teams either. “It took us about a day” to get over the surprise, said Colorado State tight end Kivon Cartwright.
Besides, they last met on Oct. 11, 2014 — Colorado State won, 31-24, in Reno.
“I think it would have been different if it was a team we had faced this season,” Polian said on Monday. “They are very new to us.”
The game offered a little bit of everything. There was a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Elijah Mitchell, the first for the Wolf Pack since 1997. Nevada defensive end Ian Seau, the nephew of Hall of Famer Junior Seau, added a sack to his school-record total. Colorado State’s All-American receiver Rashard Higgins caught nine passes for 129 yards to become the school’s career leader. There were four lead changes and a fourth-down defensive stand by Nevada in the first half.
For Butler, the offensive MVP, it was personal. The sophomore from Chicago rushed for 1,000 yards this season and became the starter over senior Don Jackson, who also rushed for 1,000 yards. On Monday, Polian praised Jackson’s selflessness in mentoring Butler as “one of the great things about college football.”
Butler spoke about how Jackson had become “like a brother, like family” and how he wanted to send the senior out with a win. Butler did it, rushing for 189 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown in the second quarter to give the Wolf Pack a 13-7 lead. In the fourth quarter he broke a tackle on third-and-goal to score the game-winning touchdown on a 4-yard run.
“I’m glad we were able to send them out on the right foot,” Butler said of Jackson and the Wolf Pack’s seniors. “We really thought we made history.”
They did — first Arizona Bowl champions.
“The emotion was crazy,” said senior defensive end Lenny Jones. “I didn’t know whether to cry or jump around. So I just laid on the ground.”
That was the payoff in a bowl game that offered no payout to the participating teams. The schools kept the proceeds from the 22,000 tickets sold. And when time expired, players and fans poured onto the field to celebrate Nevada’s first bowl victory since beating Boston College 20-13 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Jan. 9, 2011.
“This win meant a lot,” Polian said. “I will remember these guys forever.”