RENO - Duke Williams summed up the Nevada Wolf Pack football team's season perfectly.
"You don't want to leave the field thinking what could have happened," the Wolf Pack senior safety said. "But that's kind of the feeling I have."
The Wolf Pack played yet another what-might-have-been game on Saturday, falling behind 24-7 to the Boise State Broncos only to lose 27-21 in front of a sold-out crowd of 30,017 at Mackay Stadium.
"There were a lot of plays we left on the field," Williams said. "And you never want to do that."
The biggest play the Wolf Pack left on the Mackay turf took place early in the third quarter when tight end Zach Sudfeld fumbled away what looked to be a sure touchdown at the Boise State 2-yard line.
"That was a mistake by me," said Sudfeld, who hauled in a pass from quarterback Cody Fajardo and fumbled the ball into the end zone where it was recovered by Bronco linebacker J.C. Percy.
"Cody put the ball right on me and I turned up field trying to make a play," Sudfeld added. "But instead of tucking the ball away like they teach us, I tried to stretch it out and it was a mistake."
Sudfeld blamed himself for the loss which left the Wolf Pack with a 7-5 record and in fifth place in the Mountain West at 4-4 to finish the regular season. Boise, which earned a share of the conference title with San Diego State and Fresno State, finishes its regular season at 10-2, 7-1.
"It's pretty devastating," said Sudfeld, who was honored along with the Pack's other 15 seniors before the game. "I let my teammates down. That play hurt. We lost by six points and that was six points right there."
Two Broncos converged on Sudfeld at about the 2-yard line and the Pack tight end simply dropped the ball as he tried to leap into the end zone.
"A play like that let's the air right out of you," said Pack coach Chris Ault, who now must get his team ready to play in the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque on Dec. 15 against a to-be-announced Pac-12 team.
"It was a big momentum changer," said Percy of his critical fumble recovery.
The Wolf Pack, though, nearly pulled off its second miraculous comeback against Boise State in two years at Mackay Stadium. The Pack also fell behind 24-7 to the Broncos on Nov. 26, 2010 (the Pack's last sell out before Saturday) and rallied to pull out a 34-31 overtime win.
"We knew the score was the same," Fajardo said. "We got some energy behind us from that."
Boise took a 17-0 halftime lead on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Joe Southwick to Chris Potter, a 2-yard touchdown run by D.J. Harper and a 20-yard field goal by Michael Frisina. The Wolf Pack had just 90 yards and seven first downs and allowed Fajardo to be sacked three times in the opening half.
"Cody was not sharp," Ault said. "We had things open and Cody didn't hit them."
"It was always one play that hurt us," Wolf Pack offensive tackle Jeff Nady said. "And we just had too many negative plays. With our offense, we need to be second and medium, not second and 10-plus."
The last time the Wolf Pack was shut out in the first half was Oct. 1, 2011 at Boise in a 30-10 loss to the Broncos.
"Cody played much, much better in the second half," Ault said.
Boise State coach Chris Petersen praised his defense.
"I am not really sure how we slowed those guys down like we did," Petersen said. "But even though we did we knew they would come back in the second half. They are just too good on offense and we just hung on long enough."
The game followed a familiar Nevada-Boise script. The Broncos jump out to a big first-half lead and the Pack comes back. The formula has led to 12 Boise victories in its last 13 games against Nevada.
But the five Boise wins starting in 2007 have not been easy.
"We knew that this game would come down to a couple of points," Petersen said. "We could see it on tape. We know how Nevada is going to play us. They are a darn good team."
Fajardo led the Pack on an efficient nine-play, 86-yard drive to open the second half to cut the Broncos lead to 17-7. The sophomore quarterback found tight end Kolby Arendse on a 32-yard pass down to the Boise 40 and also scrambled himself for a 20-yard gain to the 20 on the drive. Stefphon Jefferson, who finished with 139 rushing yards and two touchdowns, also had a 15-yard gain on the drive and scored the 1-yard touchdown.
"We knew as an offense we had to come together in the second half," said Fajardo, who was 14-of-20 for 203 yards through the air (no touchdowns or interceptions) and also rushed for 81 yards on 15 carries in his first career appearance against Boise. "But Boise's defense is so sound. They have 11 players playing together and doing their job and it's hard to execute against that."
The Broncos' offense didn't have any problems executing against the Wolf Pack after Jefferson's touchdown. It took them exactly 16 seconds including the kickoff to up their lead back to 17 at 24-7.
Shane Williams-Rhodes returned the Pack kickoff 41 yards to the Boise 48-yard line and on the very first play on the drive Southwick connected with a wide open Matt Miller for a stunning 52-yard touchdown.
"That was just a lack of communication again," Williams said. "I take full responsibility for it. It was blown coverage. But we still had our chance to win the game."
Jefferson ran eight yards untouched into the end zone thanks to blocks from Sudfeld and Chris Barker to cut the Boise lead to 24-14 with 8:26 to play in the fourth quarter. The Pack back also went for 28 yards on a third down run from the Boise 36 to set up his own touchdown.
Jefferson's two scores gave him the Wolf Pack single-season records for total touchdowns in a year with 23 (Vai Taua had 22 in 2010) as well as rushing touchdowns with 22 (Colin Kaepernick had 20 in 2010).
The Pack was somehow right back in the game.
"We obviously thought we had a chance," Fajardo said. "We all believed."
Frisina kicked a 31-yard field goal as Boise took a 27-14 lead with 3:25 to go. The Pack defense, though, kept the game in reach by keeping the Broncos out of the end zone.
"The whole time we felt like we were in the game," said Pack linebacker Albert Rosette, who had 15 tackles and made a key third down stop on the Boise field goal drive. "We just felt like we just needed one big play all game long to swing the momentum but we never got it."
The Wolf Pack pulled to within 27-21 on a 6-yard touchdown run by Fajardo with 2:27 to play. It took the Pack just 52 seconds to travel the 74 yards on the drive thanks to a 47-yard catch down the middle by Sudfeld, who pulled the ball in after it was tipped by Boise's Tommy Smith.
The Pack then tried an on-sides kick but the ball was caught and secured by Boise running back D.J. Harper despite a hard tackle by the Pack's Nick Hale. Boise took over the ball on the Nevada 46 and eventually punted it away with 17 seconds to play. The Pack's final drive, which began at their own 20-yard line, lasted just four plays and ended at the Wolf Pack 42-yard line.
"It was a tough loss," Fajardo said. "But we didn't give up. The offense just started clicking a little too late."
The Wolf Pack finished with more first downs (23-22) than Boise and just four fewer yards (434-430). Boise, though, owned a five-minute advantage (32:44 - 27:16) in time of possession. The Broncos also were 9-of-15 on third down.
"Defensively we just couldn't get off the field," said Ault, who is now 7-18 in his career against Boise State as the Pack head coach. "Third and 10, third and nine, third and seven, we just couldn't get off the field. And with a team like that, that just wants to control the ball, it cost us. It cost us offensive possessions. There were just too many crucial third down plays when we couldn't stop them."
"A lot of it was poor tackling," said Rosette, who leads the Mountain West with 128 tackles. "We had guys wrapped up but they would get out of it and get the first down."
The Wolf Pack might have to live with the loss to Boise for a while. Boise, which owns a commanding 26-13 edge in the rivalry, is supposed to leave the Mountain West after this season for the Big East Conference.
"There are a lot of good football rivalries," Petersen said. "And with Nevada you always know you are going to get a good hard-fought game out of it. I think everyone enjoys playing this game."
One team enjoyed it a bit more on Saturday.
"It's a signature game," Ault said. "And you have to win it."