RENO - The Nevada Wolf Pack football team is running out of answers.
"It's so frustrating," quarterback Colin Kaepernick said after the Wolf Pack lost to the Missouri Tigers, 31-21, Friday night in the home opener at Mackay Stadium to fall to 0-3 on the season.
"We're close. We always talk about getting to the fourth quarter and we were right there. But then things fell apart."
The Wolf Pack, 0-3 for just the second time in Chris Ault's head coaching career, found themselves trailing the 21st-ranked (USA Today Coaches' Poll) Tigers just 21-13 two plays into the fourth quarter and just four yards from the end zone.
Senior running back Luke Lippincott, pressed into full-time duty in the backfield because of a first-quarter injury (dislocated elbow) to Vai Taua, then fumbled the ball away on the 3-yard line.
"It's just a fumble," said an obviously upset Lippincott after the game. "I don't know what happened."
To make matters worse for Lippincott and the Pack, Missouri went 97 yards for a game-changing touchdown (4-yard pass from Blaine Gabbert to Jared Perry) to take a commanding 28-13 lead with 10:07 to play.
"That was the difference in the game right there," said Ault who remains stuck on 198 career victories. "That 14-point turnaround put us in a real difficult situation."
Missouri, now 4-0, has now outscored the Pack 100-38 in the only two meetings between the two schools. The Tigers beat the Pack 69-17 last season in Columbia, Mo. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is now 5-0 against the Pack with three of the victories coming while he coached Toledo (in 1995 and 1997).
"We played better," said Ault, who is now 21-4 in home openers as Pack head coach. "This is the best that we've played this season. But the turnovers, you just can't have that, especially against a good team like Missouri."
Nobody was blaming Lippincott for the loss after the game.
"There's not a player out there that wants to fumble," Ault said. "We don't expect him to fumble. He doesn't expect to fumble. And this one was caused by a good hit. That's going to happen."
"I would go to war with Luke Lippincott anyday," Kaepernick said. "If you ask him he'd tell you, 'I was trying to get in the end zone for you.' I have nothing bad to say about a player who gives his all like Luke Lippincott."
The Wolf Pack fumbled the ball away twice and has now turned the ball over 10 times this season. In addition to Lippincott's fumble, Taua botched a punt return a minute into the game, injured his elbow and is questionable for this Saturday's game against UNLV at Mackay Stadium.
"No player wants to make mistakes," said Kaepernick, who did not throw
interception after getting picked off four times combined in the first two games. "We just have to focus on it more and correct it."
The Wolf Pack did accomplish a couple of important firsts in the loss to Missouri. A 2-yard touchdown run by Courtney Randall with 4:57 to play in the first quarter gave the Pack its first points in the first half this season and also its first lead of the year (7-3).
The Pack also earned its first second-half lead of the year at 13-12 on an 11-yard run by Kaepernick with 11:07 to play in the third quarter. Kaepernick finished with 146 yards passing (17-of-28) and 59 yards rushing.
"That was the real Colin Kaepernick you saw," Ault said. "He was poised, he handled their blitz, he threw the ball well."
"From last week to this week we improved greatly," Kaepernick said. "We cut out a lot of our stupid mistakes. If we keep improving, we'll get to where we need to be."
Missouri, which has now won 17 non-conference regular season games in a row, got a 26-yard field goal by Grant Ressell (his fourth of the game) for a 31-13 lead with five minutes to play. The Tigers outgained the Wolf Pack 492-364, giving them 1,143 total yards combined in its two games against Nevada..
"I had a great feeling about this game," Pack linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "We played a decent game but things happened. But we keep taking steps forward. We're 0-3 and nobody likes to lose. But if we keep going forward we'll be all right."
Kaepernick hooked up with Brandon Wimblerly on a 6-yard TD pass for a consolation touchdown with 2:32 to go. Kaepernick's only other TD pass this year was also a consolation score (also to Wimblerly) to close out the 35-20 loss at Colorado State.
"The final score doesn't matter," Kaepernick said. "A loss is a loss, whether it's by 50 or by one."
Ault is confident the offense took great strides. "They were in their comfort zone," Ault said. "Absolutely. You could feel it. We have to build on that."
The improvement the Pack showed from last week to this week in other areas, however, came in baby steps. The Pack, after all, was still flagged for nine penalties after getting whistled for 11 last week at Colorado State. The two turnovers against Missouri leaves them at minus-9 (10-1) in turnovers this year.
"The bottom line is to win," Ault said. "We're not out there to have a good showing or to get a moral victory. We showed improvement but we're still a ways away."