RENO - The Nevada Wolf Pack's home opener Saturday afternoon at Mackay Stadium was a simple case of give and take.
The Wolf Pack did all the giving and the South Florida Bulls did all the taking.
"We were up pretty much the whole game," Wolf Pack safety Duke Williams said after a stunning 32-31 loss to the Bulls in front of an even more stunned crowd of 22,804. "And they took it from us."
"We had the game in hand," Wolf Pack cornerback Markus Smith said.
The Wolf Pack, coming off an inspiring 31-24 victory at California in its season opener, jumped out to a commanding 21-6 lead over the Big East Conference's Bulls by the end of the first quarter. But the rest of the afternoon, as the Wolf Pack committed mistake after mistake, just had a disaster-waiting-to-happen feel to it.
And disaster struck with 38 seconds to play.
That's when South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels connected with wide receiver Andre Davis down the left sideline for a 56-yard touchdown over Pack safety Bryan Lane to give the Bulls their first lead of the game at 32-31.
It was also the first time all season the Pack found itself trailing in a game.
"It's not like he threw a pinpoint pass," said Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault of Daniels. "He just kind of hung it up there. They shouldn't make that play. But their guy made the play and our guy didn't."
The Wolf Pack has now lost two of its last three games at Mackay Stadium dating back to a 24-20 loss to Louisiana Tech at home last Nov. 19. The Pack, which led 31-20 in the fourth quarter against South Florida, also blew a big (20-3) fourth quarter lead in the loss to Louisiana Tech.
"This game reminded me a lot of last year," said Williams, who led the Pack with 13 tackles against the Bulls. "That's what we need to work on. We need to work on finishing the game."
The Pack felt they should have finished the Bulls off long before those final 38 seconds.
"We came out hot again," said quarterback Cody Fajardo, who completed 27-of-38 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown and also ran for 134 yards and two scores. "Our offensive line was getting a good push and we were moving the ball well."
Fajardo, who has now completed 52-of-70 passes without an interception this season for 501 yards, led the Pack to three touchdowns on their first three possessions.
"We moved the ball," Ault said. "That wasn't the problem."
Tight end Zach Sudfeld fell on a Fajardo fumble in the end zone for the first touchdown and a 7-0 Pack lead. Fajardo carried the ball 26 yards on the play before coughing it up at the 2-yard line for the first of four Pack fumbles on the afternoon. The touchdown was Sudfeld's first in his six-year Pack career.
Fajardo finished the job on the second touchdown, finding the end zone on a 1-yard run for a 14-0 lead. The Pack then went up 21-6 with 2:58 still to play in the first quarter on a 29-yard pass from Fajardo to junior wide receiver Joe Huber. The touchdown and catch were the first of Huber's career.
The afternoon couldn't have started much better for the Wolf Pack with three touchdowns and 228 total yards on the first three drives.
"After that we started to lose momentum," Fajardo said.
And control of the game.
The Pack, which fumbled the ball six times and committed 11 penalties in the victory at Cal, dropped the ball four times (losing three) and was called for nine penalties (seven in the first half) against South Florida.
"We should have had a lot more points on the scoreboard," Ault said.
Ault pinned the loss on two crucial Wolf Pack fumbles.
Stefphon Jefferson, who ran for 135 yards on 30 carries, fumbled the ball away at the South Florida 14-yard line with the Pack leading 21-13 with 6:33 to play in the second quarter. Jefferson, who now has 282 yards on 64 carries in two games, has now fumbled three times this year, though Saturday's fumble was the first that a teammate did not recover.
The second game-changing fumble was by Nick Hale a yard away from the Bulls' end zone with the Wolf Pack clinging to a 21-20 lead with 9:30 to play in the third quarter.
"He's just seemed to muff it," Ault said.
The play would turn out to be the most costly of the Pack's mistakes all afternoon.
"It was a big turning point," Ault said.
Fajardo, though, led the Pack on an 82-yard, nine-play drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown run by the Wolf Pack quarterback on the final play of the third quarter for a 28-20 lead. The key play of the drive was a 19-yard pass from Fajardo to Kendall Brock to the South Florida 31-yard line on a 3rd-and-7 play.
The Wolf Pack also stretched its lead to 31-20 on a 35-yard field goal by Allen Hardison with 8:16 to play. The Pack, it seemed, was on its way to its first back-to-back wins over BCS opponents in school history as well as just its second 2-0 start to a season since 1995.
"This was a real tough loss," Williams said. "But you can't blame any one unit. This was offense and defense, the whole team."
Ault put the game in the hands of his defense, electing to punt the ball away from the 50-yard line on 4th-and-1 with 4:32 to play and the Pack leading 31-20. That was in direct contrast to the first drive of the game when the Pack coach kept his offense on the field twice on fourth down, from his own 34-yard line and the South Florida 42. The Pack picked up the first down both times and took a quick 7-0 lead.
"We felt we had the momentum then," Ault said.
Fajardo just smiled when asked if it was hard for him to leave the field on fourth down with just over four minutes to play.
"At that point in the game field position is very important," Fajardo said. "I probably would have punted in that situation as well."
Ault said he briefly thought about giving Fajardo a chance to pick up the first down.
"We thought about it a little," he said. "But I didn't give it much thought. We felt the defense would hold them."
South Florida took over on their own 20 and promptly marched 80 yards on seven plays to cut the Pack lead to 31-26 on a 52-yard pass from Daniels to Chris Dunkley.
"They got us on three long passes," said Ault of the Bulls' three touchdown passes from 51 and 56 yards out to Davis and 52 yards to Dunkley. "That shouldn't happen."
South Florida, which had just one timeout left, tried an on-side kick after the Daniels-to-Dunkley touchdown but the Pack recovered the ball on their own 49-yard line with just 2:37 to play. Three running plays and another Pack punt gave the ball back to the Bulls with 1:38 to go.
"We felt we could run the ball on them," Ault said. "We just needed to pick up a couple first downs there and the game would have been over."
South Florida, though, had to go 92 yards in those final 98 seconds to win the game.
"They had to go over 90 yards to beat us and we let them do it," Ault said.
It took Daniels and his teammates just six plays and 60 seconds to get in the end zone.
"We were in the right coverage," said Ault of the game-winning Daniels-to-Davis 56-yard touchdown pass. "They just made the play."
Daniels finished his afternoon by completing 22-of-40 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns as the Bulls out-gained the Pack 572-549 for the game.
"That's too much, way too much," said Ault of the Bulls' total offense.
The Pack started its final drive at its own 25-yard line with 38 seconds to play. The game ended as South Florida's Tevin Mims sacked Fajardo for a 9-yard loss and forced the Wolf Pack quarterback to fumble the ball away.
"No excuses," Ault said. "We had our chances."
"There is a whole season ahead of us," Williams said. "There's still a long season in front of us. This loss doesn't define us."