TUCSON, Ariz. – Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has been to Albuquerque just once – earlier this week while on a recruiting trip – but now will be back for an extended stay after Arizona accepted an invitation to the Gildan New Mexico Bowl on Sunday.
The Wildcats will face Nevada on Dec. 15 in a game will air nationally on ESPN, with game time set for 11 a.m.
Rodriguez’s impression of the city: “The people were extremely friendly, so I don’t know if they knew we were with the U of A,” Rodriguez said smiling. “I’ve heard great things about it, and I know the bowl people will work extremely hard to make our bowl experience a good one.”
The football team might have some problems with following, although UA officials are optimistic fans will show their support. The men’s basketball team faces Florida in a game later that night (8 p.m.), and the school has winter graduation ceremonies earlier in the day. An overzealous and ambitious fan could make both games if planned correctly.
“We certainly hope as many fans as possible will have the chance to travel to Albuquerque,” Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. “It’s not that far to travel for us.”
According to UA officials there are about 2,100 Arizona alums in the area. Arizona is obligated to purchase 5,000 tickets for the bowl. Ticket prices are $30.
The Wildcats (7-5) went into the day thinking there was “a good chance” the New Mexico Bowl would be their destination after talking to officials at the Sun Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Byrne said he spoke to bowl officials a number of times last week.
Byrne called the process “interesting” because UA was on the “radar screen for all four games and the only school to be on the radar for all four games. Each of them had their strengths and weaknesses. It says a lot about our program.”
Ultimately, however, the Wildcats slipped to the Pac-12’s lowest bowl, with fellow 7-5 teams USC, Arizona State and Washington coming off the board first.
Arizona returns to a bowl game for the first time since 2010, when it went to the Alamo Bowl. That UA landed in a bowl game is largely a credit to Rodriguez’s success this season, as the Wildcats won games against Oklahoma State, USC and Washington, all of which are bowl-bound.
“We didn’t set out a particular bowl at the beginning of the year, but we knew where we wanted to be somewhere at the beginning of the season,” Rodriguez said. “We have a couple of more weeks with our seniors, and we get to enjoy that. I’m sure they will enjoy the trip.”
Arizona will take on Nevada, which finished fifth in the Mountain West at 7-5 overall and 4-4 in conference play. In an intriguing matchup, two of the top four rushers in the country — Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey (second with 1,757 yards) and Nevada running back Stepfon Jefferson (fourth with 1,703) — will meet with a chance to win the national rushing crown.
Beyond that, one of the benefits for the program is the extra time to practice leading up to the bowl. In Arizona’s case, the practice time will be condensed inasmuch as the game is less than two weeks away. Arizona already has held two practices, and Rodriguez said he hopes to get at least three practices in this week and a couple in next week. Finals are upcoming and will be a priority.
Rodriguez also said he anticipates having just one practice in Albuquerque.