RENO — Don’t tell Brian Polian that his Nevada Wolf Pack was lucky Saturday night.
“I don’t want to hear anyone say, ‘You were lucky, you were this, you were that,” the Wolf Pack head coach said. “Well, sometimes you need luck.”
The Wolf Pack definitely needed a heavy dose of good fortune to beat the Air Force Falcons 45-42 in front of 24,545 fans at Mackay Stadium. Leading 42-37 and facing a 3rd-and-1 play with less than six minutes to play, Air Force was called for back-to-back illegal substitution penalties. Now facing a 3rd-and-11 at their own 24, wide receiver Sam Gagliano then dropped a pass that would have given Air Force a first down at about the Wolf Pack 45-yard line.
“They dropped a pass,” Polian said. “I understand that. They had two 12 men on the field penalties. But sometimes you have to be lucky and the good part of it was that we found a way to take advantage of it.”
The Wolf Pack, now 3-2 overall and 2-0 in the Mountain West, found itself down 42-30 after Gagliano caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Karson Roberts with 7:44 to play.
“We knew that the defense only needed one stop, and we’d get the ball back and score and win the game,” Pack offensive tackle Joel Bitonio said. “And that’s what we did.”
They did it with a little help from the alert officials and Gagliano’s crucial drop.
“Give a lot of credit to the officials,” Polian said. “It takes a lot of guts to make those calls at that time in the game. But both times it was the right call.”
The illegal substitution calls came at a crucial time for the Falcons. All they needed was a yard on third down for a key first down. The Wolf Pack, after all, had not stopped the Falcons in the second half at that point, allowing three touchdowns on three Air Force drives.
“They (Air Force) were doing that all night,” said Wolf Pack wide receiver Brandon Wimberly of the 12-men-on-the-field infractions. “They were breaking the huddle with 12 people a lot more times than they (the officials) called it.”
“They were the right calls,” said Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, whose Falcons fell to 1-4 overall and 0-4 in the Mountain West. “We had a guy on the field that could not be on the field. The official was dead on.”
Down 42-37, the Wolf Pack took over the ball at the 50-yard line with 3:50 to play.
“I’m proud of our offense,” said Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo, who returned to the field after missing the last two games with a sprained knee. “We never panicked.”
Fajardo seemed to keep everyone calm.
“He’s the man,” Bitonio said. “He takes charge on the field and he just knows how to win football games. Just seeing Number 17 out there, the whole team kind of lifts up from that.”
Fajardo connected with wide receiver Aaron Bradley for 20 yards down to the Air Force 30-yard line on the game-winning drive. He then carried the ball himself for a 9-yard gain to the 21. Running back Kendall Brock picked up six more yards and a first down at the 15-yard line. Fajardo then completed passes to tight end Kolby Arendse (four yards) and Wimberly (nine) as the Pack moved to the 2-yard line. Fajardo completed the comeback over the final two yards with his second touchdown run of the game.
“One of the things I heard when I got here is that (Fajardo) is talented but he’s not that tough,” Polian said. “Well, tonight he showed how tough he is. He played out of his mind. He played his tail off.”
Fajardo set his career high for attempts (54), completions (38) and passing yards (389) in the game and tied his career high with three touchdown passes. And he did it all while wearing a knee brace that stretched from his right knee to his ankle.
“My goal is to get the brace off during the bye week (after the Oct. 4 game at San Diego State),” Fajardo said. “To be a dual-threat quarterback in our offense wearing a big, old knee brace might be kind of tough.”
Wimberly caught 15 of Fajardo’s 38 completions for 134 yards.
Fajardo tossed touchdown passes to Wimberly (five yards), Richy Turner (18) and Bradley (9). The Wimberly score gave the Pack a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. Turner’s score cut Air Force’s lead to 21-17 late in the second quarter and Bradley’s touchdown started the Pack’s comeback, cutting the deficit to 42-37 with 5:56 to go.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been around a game when the last five minutes were as wild as that,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack, which allowed 453 total yards to the Falcons, had a right to be nervous.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Polian said. “But it was a character win. This team found a way. Sometimes you play games where it’s ugly and you just have to find a way to win.”
Air Force was without starting quarterback Jaleel Awini, who was suspended late in the week. Roberts, who began the year as the Falcons’ third-string quarterback, played almost as well as Fajardo. The sophomore, making his first career start, rushed for 161 yards and two touchdowns and completed 5-of-10 passes for 55 yards and another score.
“We knew that they were playing their third quarterback but we also knew that their offense wasn’t going to change much,” Polian said.
It changed just enough from a year ago when Air Force had 89 offensive plays and 600 total yards in a 48-31 win over the Wolf Pack in Colorado Springs. The Wolf Pack offense was just as efficient Saturday night, running 100 plays and gaining 599 total yards.
“We had 100 plays,” Polian said. “That’s mind-blowing. But we knew about halfway through this game that the offense was going to have to pick up our defense. We knew our offense had to stay on the field.”
The Pack defense, though, did make a play when it counted the most on the Falcons’ final drive. Charles Garrett picked off a Roberts pass with 1:31 to play. Roberts actually tossed two passes on the play. The first one was batted right back to him by Wolf Pack defensive end Lenny Jones and a startled Roberts then tossed an illegal second pass that Garrett grabbed.
“I saw Johnny Manziel do it,” said Roberts of his second illegal forward pass. “I thought he tipped it to himself and threw it against Alabama. I was just reacting.”
“It wasn’t our best effort,” said Jones of the defense. “But the defense showed up in the fourth quarter when we had to. Give the offense credit for continuing to score even when we (the defense) weren’t very good.”
The Pack proved once again Saturday that it is better to be lucky than good.
“I will never apologize for a win,” Polian said.