The first function of the 2012 Gildan New Mexico Bowl was part luncheon, part pep rally.
The rhetoric Wednesday at Four Hills Country Club was long on superlatives, especially related to two teams that finished a modest 7-5. Those are the Arizona Wildcats and Nevada Wolf Pack, who meet Dec. 15 at University Stadium in the seventh edition of this bowl game.
“People will watch this game,” Jeff Siembieda, the bowl’s executive director, said to the gathering of about 200.
The selling points: These are exciting teams (read, effective, top-11 offenses); and the game features the nation’s top two rushers in Arizona’s aptly surnamed Ka’Deem Carey (1,757 yards) and Nevada’s Stephon Jefferson (1,703).
That alone could keep the two defensive coordinators up for many nights, except there just aren’t many nights to give it. Kickoff is a mere nine days away, at the ESPN-mandated crisp 11 a.m. hour.
Defense was barely mentioned Wednesday anyway, since these are statistically two of the nation’s poorest. But Nevada coach Chris Ault suggested the defenses will be the key.
“They have to keep things in front of them,” Ault said.
Much of the introductory talk between bites of New Mexican food and chocolate cake was playful banter between the two sides.
“You really should be cheering for the University of Arizona,” said first-year Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez. “Chris is already in the Hall of Fame. I need some help.”
Nevada’s counter was that Lobo fans should cheer for the Pack. Both are wolves, after all.
Arizona, again: “We’re wearing red helmets,” said Greg Byrne, athletic director, pandering to those UNM fans who see life through cherry-tinted glasses.
Nevada: “This is how much of their helmet is red,” said Ault, pointing to the red stripe dissecting an otherwise navy blue shell.
Byrne has legacy ties to UNM. His father, Bill, who recently retired as AD at Texas A&M, was once executive director of the Lobo Club.
That was from 1976-79, in Greg Byrne’s childhood. He remembers being a proud graduate of Comanche Elementary, but not where he lived.
“There was a little issue at the time with the basketball program,” he said, eliciting uneasy laughter.
The reference was to the Lobogate basketball scandal.
Arizona’s presence as a Pac-12 Conference representative is a big coup for the event. The New Mexico Bowl struck a deal with the Pac-12 after it added Colorado and Utah, and before the 2011 season. But the league couldn’t fill its bowl slots last year, leading to an invitation to Temple University.
This year, the Pac-12 had eight eligible teams for seven slots and got two of their teams (Oregon, Stanford) in Bowl Championship Series bowls again.
“This is a chance to play a Pac-12 team. That’s exciting,” said Ault, who has his team in a bowl in its first season as a Mountain West Conference school.
Nevada was a Western Athletic Conference school when it appeared in the second New Mexico Bowl, a 23-0 loss to UNM.
Meanwhile, the WAC has played its last game as a football league.
“We love the Mountain West. We feel it’s a really, really good football conference,” Ault said.