The El Toro Bowl features a pair of teams that each came within a couple wins of winning their respective conferences on the final week of the season.
Instead of featuring the Northeast Football Conference and Western States Football League champs, No. 12 Arizona Western and No. 6 Nassau (N.Y.) will face off looking for redemption.
Kickoff for the game, sponsored by Alexander Automotive, starts at 1 p.m.
“The similarities are we are both second in our conference and both one or two plays away from being the leaders of the conference,” Nassau coach Curtis Guilliam said. “Now, you know what, we're going to be okay. We're both going to compete, we're both highly ranked programs, both known across the country and we're going to be okay. I know they're going to give all they got, we're going to give all we got, and we're going to duke it out.”
The Lions (9-1 overall, 5-1 NFC) lost 30-29 to ASA, blowing a nine-point lead with four minutes left and losing on a field goal with six seconds left. The Matadors (7-2, 6-2 WSFL) committed four turnovers in a loss to Snow, ending its run of three straight WSFL titles.
“Our biggest problem this year has been holding on to the football,” Matador coach Tom Minnick said. “The biggest war in a football game is always the turnover war. If we can control the turnover battle, we'll be all right.”
Two of the AWC turnovers against Snow were interceptions by Tanner McEvoy, who had thrown just four picks entering the game. At a press conference Thursday sitting across the dais from McEvoy, Nassau linebacker Amara Kamara said disrupting the Matadors' freshman quarterback is a big key.
“We're just going to make sure their quarterback has a bad day,” Kamara said, looking down the table at McEvoy as laughter came from the audience and the AWC quarterback shot a thumbs up back to his opponent. “Nothing against him, but it's our job to do that.”
Kamara is the Lions' leading tackler, while Marc Mauro has five interceptions, two for touchdowns. They'll have their hands full with McEvoy, who has thrown for 1,943 yards and 25 touchdowns, plus was the team's second-leading rusher and scored six times on the ground.
DeSean Martin has emerged as the Matadors' top rusher, finishing with 600 yards and two touchdowns after starting the year at fullback. Yuma High grad J.C. Baker has battle injuries all year but tied McEvoy with a team-high six rushing touchdowns.
Markeith Ambles has been McEvoy's top target, catching 40 passes for 724 yards and six touchdowns. Andre O'Neil had nine touchdown receptions to lead the team.
“It's going to be one hell of a game Saturday afternoon,” Minnick said. “You guys are doing one heck of a job there, and keep it up because this is what junior college football is all about.”
The Lions have a much more potent ground attack, with two backs at around 900 yards – Louis Johnson (925, 10 TDs) and Travis Lock (895, 13). Troy Jones threw for 1,191 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. Three receivers were between 23 and 27 catches.
The Matador secondary should be more quipped to handle the passing attack, with Jonas Clark returning from injury. At linebacker, D'Vante Henry returns from an injury as well.
Minnick said that eight opening day defensive starters have missed time at one point or another – most notably Randy Gregory, who played one game this year. While he didn't blame injuries for the teams two losses – the Matadors lost its seventh game this year to Glendale – he did say they've taken their toll.
But now they're at least some of the way back to 100 percent. That should provide some help for Sam Wren, who had 13 1/2 sacks this year.
“If we play as a team and follow the game plan we'll be all right,” Wren said.
The game is the second of NFC-WSFL bowl games – conference champions Snow and ASA play in the Carrier Bowl Dome in Syracuse.
“We were one field goal away from possibly being in the national championship, so the biggest thing is just finishing,” Guilliam said. “That's why I keep saying ‘Do your job.' I think we're well prepared, I think they're very well prepared, and I think we'll be ready to go.”
It's not the first meeting between the two schools. In 1998, AWC lost the Empire State Bowl near Nassau's Long Island home 30-6. Twenty-eight years earlier, the Lions traveled to Yuma, losing 36-18 to AWC at Kofa in the El Toro Bowl.
Nassau hasn't reached a bowl since the middle of the last decade. This will be the fourth straight bowl appearance for the Matadors, all under Minnick. They lost the first three, including 55-47 in the El Toro Bowl last year to East Mississippi, costing the Matadors a national championship.
In all three bowl games, the Matadors have mounted furious, late comebacks but have come up short each time.
“Hopefully we'll start fast compared to earlier bowl games,” Minnick said. “If we can start fast and hold them off, hopefully we can do that.”