TUCSON, Ariz. -- The inaugural Arizona Bowl was ridiculed for having two teams from the same conference, both with mediocre records. The stands had vast empty spaces. Many TV viewers were unsure where to find the game.
It ended up being quite a show, particularly the closing flourish.
James Butler scored on a 4-yard run with 1:06 left and Nevada benefited from a late gaffe by Colorado State's Jordon Vaden to beat the Rams 28-23 in the Arizona Bowl Tuesday night.
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"There was a lot of snarkiness that we ended up with two conference opponents playing each other. Obviously, that's not ideal," Nevada's Brian Polian said after his first bowl win as a head coach. "But look, I thought it was a really fun football game. There were plays made on both sides."
Especially at the end.
Colorado State (7-6) trailed most of the game before taking the lead on Wyatt Bryan's 38-yard field goal with just under 4 minutes left.
The Wolf Pack (7-6) responded quickly, marching 72 yards in eight plays to set up Butler's tackle-breaking touchdown run.
Nick Stevens orchestrated a quick-hitting drive in the final minute with no timeouts, but Vaden was unable to get out of bounds at Nevada's 12-yard line and time ran out on the Rams.
"Guys are in the moment and that will be a learning experience," Colorado State coach Mike Bobo said. "We had plays where we could go for the jugular and we weren't able to do that, and put ourselves in that situation."
Butler ran for 189 yards and Elijah Mitchell scored on a 96-yard kickoff return in the bowl battle between Mountain West Conference teams.
Stevens threw for 310 yards and a touchdown for the Rams.
Colorado State earned a trip to a bowl game in its first season under coach Bobo, overcoming a 2-4 start by winning its final four games.
Nevada clinched its bowl berth with a win over San Jose State on Nov. 14, but closed the season with consecutive losses.
The reward for both teams was what amounted to an extra conference game in the first non-playoff bowl game between teams from the same conference since the 1979 Orange Bowl.
Mountain West officials pleaded with anyone they could to prevent an all-MWC bowl game and Commissioner Craig Thompson issued a lengthy statement once the bowl slots were announced.
The Rams and Wolf Pack didn't really care who they faced. This was a bowl game, a chance to end the season with a win.
The Rams got it off to a rough start, losing the ball on their opening drive when Stevens was hit as he was about to throw and fumbled.
Colorado State later reached Nevada's 4-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs when Izzy Matthews was stopped on fourth-and-inches.
The Rams finally got going on their next drive, reaching the 1-yard line after Rashard Higgins turned a slant into a 38-yard reception with a string of broken tackles. Colorado State punched it in this time, with Steven scoring on a 1-yard sneak the next play.
The Rams kept racking up yards, though had to settle for two field goals by Bryan, including a 29 yarder just before halftime. Colorado State had a 302-169 advantage in total yards, yet trailed 19-13 at halftime thanks to missed opportunities, including a dropped TD pass by Higgins.
"When I dropped that pass, I don't know what I was thinking," said Higgins, who had nine catches for 129 yards. "I guess I was frustrated."
Nevada had to settle for a pair of field goals early before its explosive running game finally showed up in the second quarter, when Butler burst up the middle for a 77-yard touchdown.
The next big play came on special teams: Mitchell took a kickoff up the middle, made a juke and was gone for a 96-yard touchdown, Nevada's first kickoff return for a score since 1998.
The Rams kept rolling to open the second half, setting up Jasen Oden for a 9-yard touchdown run through a mammoth hole on the right side.
Both teams struggled offensively the rest of the half until the late fireworks in what was supposed to be a dud of a bowl.