RENO - It has been almost impossible to separate Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo and Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Brett Smith so far during their young college football careers.
Both were named their conference's Freshman of the Year in 2011 with Smith winning the award in the Mountain West and Fajardo earning it in the Western Athletic Conference. And both have had outstanding starts to their sophomore seasons this fall with Smith seventh in the nation in total offense at 362.3 yards a game and Fajardo ninth at 351.4 yards a game.
The process of separating the two 20-year-old right-handed quarterbacks, though, begins in earnest on this afternoon (4 p.m.) at Mackay Stadium when the two super sophomores meet for the first time on the football field.
"They both do a nice job of managing both systems," Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault said. "They are both different systems (Nevada runs the balanced run-pass pistol offense while Wyoming runs the wide-open pass-happy spread attack) but I can see where Brett does a great job with their system. With Cody, we expected big things in terms of managing our offense this year and he's doing that. He's the pivotal piece in what we're doing."
The similarities between Smith and Fajardo are uncanny and go well beyond their Freshman of the Year awards and their abilities to run and pass the football.
Both are basically the same size with Smith an inch taller at 6-foot-3 and Fajardo 10 pounds heavier at 205. Both were among the best quarterbacks on the west coast in high school their senior years with Fajardo at Servite High in Brea, Calif., in 2009 and Smith at West Salem High in Salem, Ore., the following fall. Both nearly took their talents to San Jose State. Fajardo picked the Pack over San Jose State and Smith actually gave a verbal commitment to the Spartans before changing his mind and signing with Wyoming.
Both are 20-years-old and were born just 71 days apart (Fajardo on March 29 and Smith on June 8) in 1992. Both of their fathers played college football. Smith's dad Kevin played at Oregon and Fajardo's father Tim played at Texas Tech.
And while Saturday will be their first meeting on the field as competitors, the two have met before under friendlier circumstances. The two quarterbacks got to know each other for four days this past July at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La. They were the only sophomores along with Oregon's Bryan Bennett among the 30 quarterbacks invited to the prestigious camp run by Archie Manning and sons Cooper, Eli and Peyton.
"We (Smith and Fajardo) talked a lot and spent a lot of time together because we were from the same conference," Smith said.
Their numbers are also eerily similar despite the fact that they play in different types of offenses. Wyoming is 9-7 in games Smith has played in and Nevada is 9-6 in Fajardo's games. Smith has passed and run for a combined 4,419 yards (276.2 a game) and 39 touchdowns in his career and Fajardo has run and thrown for a combined 4,158 yards (277.2) and 31 touchdowns.
When Fajardo ran for 134 yards against South Florida last month he became the first Mountain West quarterback to rush for 100 or more yards in a game since, you guessed it, Smith ran for 140 against New Mexico last November.
"He (Smith) has the ability to run so he's like Cody," said Ault, whose Wolf Pack is 4-1 overall and 1-0 in the Mountain West this year. "He's got some nice speed and he's not afraid to run the ball. And he does a great job of spreading it around."
The difference between the two quarterbacks on Saturday might be simply that Fajardo has more help. Fajardo has the nation's leading rusher in Stefphon Jefferson (877 yards, 11 touchdowns) in his backfield while the Cowboys leading rusher, Brandon Miller, has a mere 119 yards this year. Wyoming has just four rushing touchdowns all season while Jefferson scored six himself on the ground (and another on a pass) in just one game against Hawaii.
"There's not one thing you can stop with Nevada," Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said. "If you stop one thing, they'll make you pay somewhere else. If you take away the tailback (Jefferson), and I don't even think that is possible, then the quarterback is going to run. If you take away their run game, they can throw the football. Nobody has shut them down. All you try to do is make them work a little bit before they move it down the field on you."
Smith, who led Wyoming in rushing (710 yards) and passing (2,622 yards) last year, is coming off a game in which he passed for 370 yards and five touchdowns in a 40-37 overtime win at Idaho two weeks ago. The Cowboys, now 1-3 and 0-0 in the Mountain West, had a bye week this past week.
"They are one of the better throwing teams in the country," Ault said. "They do as good a job of throwing the ball as any team in the country."
Christensen, who has a record of 19-23 in his four seasons as Wyoming's head coach, spent eight years (2001-08) as an offensive coach at Missouri with its spread offense and developed quarterbacks Brad Smith and Chase Daniel.
"Obviously, we're a stronger throwing team than we are a running team," he said. "I can sit there and be stubborn and say, 'Well, we're going to try to run the ball until we run it.' And then we won't be able to move the ball and we'll get beat."
The Wolf Pack is fourth in the nation in rushing at 308.8 yards a game and Wyoming is 102nd (out of 120 teams) at 120 yards a game. The Pack is fifth in total offense at 557.6 yards a game and Wyoming is 70th at 397.75 a game. Both teams struggle on defense with the Pack at 83rd in the nation (allowing 430.6 yards a game) and Wyoming at 97th (455.75 a game).
"The bottom line is the only thing that matters is scoring offense," said Christensen, whose Cowboys average 27.5 points a game (the Pack averages 42). "Running offense, throwing offense, total offense, those numbers aren't important. The only thing that's important is scoring offense. And we're going to do what we have to do to score points."
And that likely means the Cowboys and Smith will fill the skies over Mackay on Saturday with footballs. Smith will benefit by the return from injury of wide receiver Robert Herron on Saturday. Herron caught five passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-17 loss to Texas in the season opener before missing the past three games. Chris McNeill (19 catches, 322 yards), Dominic Ruffran (10 catches, 210 yards), Jalen Claiborne (14 catches, 153 yards) also will give Smith plenty of targets with which to frustrate a Wolf Pack passing defense that is 96th in the nation, allowing 278.2 yards a game.
"Wyoming is a big passing team," said Wolf Pack defensive Brock Hekking, who leads the team with six sacks. "So getting a good pass rush is going to be a big emphasis in this game."
Smith, who has been labeled "Wyoming's Tim Tebow" for his toughness, competitiveness and leadership skills as well as his ability to run and pass, has played just three games this year. He had to sit out the Cowboys' stunning 24-22 loss to Cal Poly because of a concussion suffered in the previous game against Toledo (a 34-31 loss).
"I've had concussions before but I was never carted off the field and taken to the hospital in an ambulance before," said Smith, who gave a reassuring thumbs-up sign to the Wyoming fans as he was taken from the field on a stretcher in the fourth quarter against Toledo. "It was a scary situation for my family but, to me, it's all just part of the game."
"That young man is a terrific football player," said Toledo coach Matt Campbell after the game. "He's the heartbeat of that football team."
Texas coach Mack Brown also came away impressed with Smith this year despite his Longhorns' easy victory over the Cowboys to open the season in front of 101,142 fans in Austin, Texas.
"I thought he was good but he made more plays against us than I thought he would," Brown said. "We hit him, we blitzed him but he avoided people and he hung in there. He played like a Big 12 quarterback."
While Ault made Fajardo wait four weeks for his first career start last season during his red-shirt freshman season, Christensen didn't hesitate to name Smith, a true freshman, his starter in Week One in 2011.
"He gets better every week," Christensen said. "You wait for him to plateau and he's not done that."
Smith's toughness and grit has made him a fan favorite in Wyoming.
"I just wanted to establish myself as a really hard worker," said Smith of his freshman year. "I wanted them to see my work ethic."
Saturday's game will be Wyoming's first in the Mountain West this season. Wyoming will also represent Nevada's first game this year against a team that was in the Mountain West before this season. The Pack opened its Mountain West season with a 69-24 win at Hawaii, a former WAC foe, two weeks ago.
"It's conference play," Smith said. "We didn't start out (0-3) like we wanted to and we look at this as a new start."
Nevada is hoping to win the Mountain West in its first year in the conference. Wyoming, a member of the Mountain West since its formation in 1999, is also looking for its first Mountain West championship. The Cowboys have never finished higher than third place (last year and 2006) in league play.
"If you want to have a chance to be in the conference race you've got to beat the best teams when they come along," Christensen said. "And we start the season with what may be the best team in the conference."