RENO - The Nevada Wolf Pack football team's focus this week wasn't exactly on the Northwestern State Demons.
"It doesn't matter who we play," said head coach Chris Ault, whose Wolf Pack will host the Demons of Natchitoches. La., today (4:05 p.m.) at Mackay Stadium. "The most important thing this week is us. That's where our focus is right now."
The past week, since a stunning 32-31 loss to the South Florida Bulls last Saturday at home, has been a back-to-basics week for the Pack. The Wolf Pack (1-1) goes into today's game against the Demons (also 1-1) having committed an alarming 20 penalties to go along with 10 fumbles combined in the first two games of the season.
"We've been a fundamentally poor football team the first two weeks," Ault said. "We've been making too many mistakes. Now, with a young football team like we have, you expect some mistakes. Those things are going to happen early in the season. But they've been happening much too consistently."
The Wolf Pack wasted a 31-20 lead in the final 2:37 against South Florida and have now lost two of its last three games at home dating back to last November.
"When mistakes keep happening over and over, then you have to look at the coaching," Ault said. "We're not a good enough football team to continue to do those things."
The Wolf Pack lost three of its four fumbles against South Florida, one week after fortunately losing just one of six fumbles in a 31-24 victory at California. One of the fumbles against South Florida was just a yard away from a touchdown.
"It was like watching a horror movie when you knew the ending," said Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo after watching the game films from Saturday's loss.
Three members of the Pack offensive line -center Matt Galas, guards Chris Barker and Alex Pinto - were called for holding and Galas also had a false start penalty.
"And they were flagrant holding penalties," Ault said. "Everybody could see them. I couldn't even say anything to the officials."
The game against the Football Championship Subdivision (the former Division I-AA) Demons seemingly couldn't have come at a better time for the Pack. Ault said he will use the game as an opportunity to hopefully build some roster depth.
"This is very important for us because it gives us a chance to play some of our kids," Ault said. "We have to regroup and find out exactly what we have before we get into (Mountain West Conference) games (starting next Saturday at Hawaii)."
The Wolf Pack's bench is basically made up of freshman and sophomores with little Division I-A experience.
"We have depth but the question is whether or not it is quality depth," Ault said. "And, right now, it's not."
That lack of depth, Ault added, is a reason why none of the starters' jobs is in serious jeopardy, despite all of the mistakes in the first two games.
"Not right now," he said. "Nobody has stepped up yet and is competing. Nobody is pushing anybody right now."
The Pack will get a boost from the return of safety Tyler Thompson and tight end Randy Horton this week, two players who missed almost all of summer practices because of injuries. Horton, a sophomore, has never played in a game and Thompson, a senior, made 16 tackles last year in a reserve role. Thompson's return helps make up for the loss of senior safety Marlon Johnson, who is expected to miss the game because of a hamstring injury suffered against South Florida.
"We need depth badly," Ault said. "We'll take a hard look at some of these guys to see if they can really help us."
The Wolf Pack hasn't played the Demons since 1991, a 45-14 Pack win at Mackay Stadium when Fred Gatlin tossed three touchdown passes and Chris Vargas had two. The Pack also won the only other meeting between the two schools, 35-26 in 1988, also at Mackay Stadium.
"I wish we could play Northwestern State right now just to get the bad taste out of our mouths," Fajardo said less about 48 hours after the loss to South Florida. "If we reduce the number of penalties and fumbles we'll be all right."
Since joining Division I-A in 1992, the Wolf Pack has gone 12-3 against FCS teams. All three losses, though, took place in the Pack's first three seasons in FBS (1992-94) and were against former Big Sky Conference opponents (twice to Weber State and once to Boise State, which didn't join the FBS until 1996).
Since 1994, though, the Pack is 7-0 against FCS teams.
"Anytime a Division I-AA school plays a I-A school, they are looking to get a big win," Fajardo said. "They have nothing to lose so we have to be ready."
"We remember how big it is for a I-AA team to play a 1-A team because we did it," said Ault, whose I-AA Wolf Pack teams played I-A schools UNLV and Fresno State. "This is a big opportunity for them but we're not going to overlook anybody."
Northwestern State, which has actually been called for more penalties (22) than the Pack this year, lost to Texas Tech 44-6 in its season opener two weeks ago and had just 84 total yards of offense. The Demons then beat Arkansas-Monticello 31-24 last week on a 25-yard touchdown run by Daniel Taylor in the fourth quarter. The Demons also returned two interceptions (by Cortez Paige and Imoan Claiborne) for touchdowns to beat Monticello.
"Turnovers cause victories," Claiborne said after the win. "The more we get, the more victories we get."
"It was a great win for this football program," Demons coach Bradley Dale Peveto said. "Anytime you win a college football game it's a great win."
Peveto, a former SMU defensive back and LSU defensive coordinator, is 11-24 in his four-year career as the Demons head coach and just 6-15 in the Southland Conference. Peveto also coaches the Demons linebackers and, on offense, the Demons attempt to run the Wolf Pack's pistol attack.
"Whenever you go up against the pistol offense, you know it can be explosive," Pack linebacker Albert Rosette said.
Demons quarterback Brad Henderson has completed 20-of-38 passes without an interception or touchdown for 188 yards this year. Henderson has also picked up just 22 yards on the ground on 22 carries.
Sidney Riley leads the Demons with 106 yards rushing. The Demons, though, average just 2.4 yards a carry on the ground, have already allowed eight sacks and have been successful on just 7-of-29 (24 %) third down plays.
"We just have to focus on us," Rosette said. "So far this season we've been shooting ourselves in the foot and we have to correct that."