RENO — Brian Polian summed up the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 28-23 season-ending loss to the BYU Cougars on Saturday afternoon at Mackay Stadium in one succinct sentence.
“We’re just not good enough,” the Wolf Pack head coach said.
Polian could have been describing the entire season with the same harsh sentence. The loss to BYU in front of 21,540 fans left the Wolf Pack at 4-8 and without a trip to a bowl game for the first time since 2004. It is also the first season the Wolf Pack has failed to win at least five games since 2001.
“We lost this game not because we didn’t care or because we didn’t work our tails off,” Polian said. “We’re just not good enough. It’s my job to make sure we become good enough.”
The Wolf Pack, though, was nearly good enough to beat the Cougars. BYU, now 8-4 and headed to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, scored all 28 of its points in the second half to turn back the Pack.
“I thought we should have been up 10- or 17-0 at the half,” Wolf Pack offensive tackle Joel Bitonio said. “We were a little frustrated at the half. But we also knew we could play better.”
“We were up 7-0 at the half, and it could have easily been 21-0,” Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said.
The Wolf Pack, which honored its 17 seniors before the game, marched 81 yards in eight efficient plays to take a quick 7-0 lead on the game’s opening drive. Fajardo completed a 27-yard pass to wide receiver Brandon Wimberly on the drive and Kendall Brock ran the ball four times for 39 yards, including the 2-yard touchdown.
“The opening drive was fantastic,” Polian said. “We moved the ball pretty darn well in the first half.”
The Wolf Pack played arguably its best half of football this season in the first 30 minutes.
The Wolf Pack defense held BYU to just five first downs and 150 total yards in the opening half and also stopped the Cougars on 6-of-7 third-down plays. Pack linebacker Jordan Dobrich had a sack and linebacker Matthew Lyons also stopped BYU quarterback Taysom Hill for no gain on two plays.
“We were doing the little things right,” Pack defensive tackle Jack Reynoso said. “In the second half, that got away from us a little bit.”
“We had a great pass rush in the first half,” Pack linebacker Jonathan McNeal said. “I don’t think they were ready for that.”
The Wolf Pack, though, wasn’t totally satisfied with the first half. The Pack failed to take advantage of a BYU turnover in the first quarter as the Cougars’ Cody Hoffman fumbled away a punt at his own 29-yard line. The ensuing Pack drive ended when BYU’s Logan Taele blocked a 38-yard field goal attempt by the Wolf Pack’s Brent Zuzo.
“When you get a field goal blocked, that’s not winning football,” Polian said. “We have to be better than that. When you get a turnover on a punt like that, you have to take advantage of that.”
Fajardo also had a pass intercepted in the end zone in the second quarter. The junior quarterback tossed the ball on a second-and-goal play from the BYU 3-yard line toward Wimberly in the right corner of the end zone but ended up throwing it right to BYU’s Robertson Daniel.
“The fault for that is on me,” Fajardo said.
“It’s easy to say he shouldn’t have thrown it,” Polian said. “But that’s a play that we have had a lot of success with this year. I wish he would have put a little more air under it, but we’ve scored six or seven touchdowns on that play this year and I’m not going to be a hypocrite now and say he shouldn’t have thrown it.”
“They double-covered me,” said Wimberly, who finished the day with 10 catches for 117 yards. “I was bugging Cody to throw me the fade the whole game and I guess I just brainwashed him into throwing it to me. I had the corner beat but the safety came over.”
The first half was also an eye-opener for BYU. In addition to their offensive struggles, the Cougars were called for 10 penalties in the first half (and 14 for the game).
“At halftime I was maybe as mad as I’ve been as a coach at BYU,” Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I didn’t like the way we were just expecting it to happen for us. Nobody gives you anything in this life.”
When asked to describe the halftime mood, BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy answered, “It wasn’t pretty. I can’t describe what happened in the first half but it was unacceptable and we came out and changed it.”
It took BYU all of two plays to start changing the game in the second half as running back Jamaal Williams went 66 yards on the second play of the second half to tie the game at 7-7.
“The first half wasn’t what we planned,” said Williams, who ended up with 219 yards on just 15 carries. “It was a reality check. We came out motivated in the second half. We needed someone to get it started.”
Williams did the honors without much resistance from the Pack.
“I wasn’t close to being touched on that (touchdown run),” William said. “It was wonderful to run through a hole like that and it set the tone.”
Hill also tossed a pair of touchdown passes – 10 yards to Kaneakua Friel and three yards to J.D. Falslev – as BYU took a 21-14 lead early in the fourth quarter. Fajardo had earlier scored on a 3-yard run to give the Pack a brief 14-7 lead in the third quarter.
Zuzo added a 24-yard field goal as the Pack cut BYU’s lead to 21-17 with nine minutes to go. But Hill, who had 154 yards rushing and 98 passing, answered right back with a 35-yard touchdown run with 6:40 left.
“We talked all week about how we had to contain him,” Reynoso said of Hill. “But he’s just a great player. He sees a flaw in your defense and he takes it.”
Polian went back to his theory about the Pack just not being good enough.
“We were there, we just couldn’t make the play,” Polian said. “At halftime I was concerned about how we would hold up physically in the second half and we showed we could not.
“They were running right through our tackles and knocking us backward. Physically in the second half we got worn out a little.”
Fajardo, though, led the Wolf Pack on a 67-yard, 11-play drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. He found Wimberly from four yards out for the touchdown to cut BYU’s lead to 28-23 with 2:42 to go. Fajardo’s two-point conversion pass, though, was intercepted by Van Noy in the end zone. Van Noy, a 2009 McQueen High graduate, finished with three tackles and also had two personal foul penalties called on him.
“It was a good win,” Van Noy said. “It was awesome playing in front of my family and friends and an experience I’ll never forget. I’ll remember it forever.”
BYU controlled the ball for the final 2:41. Hill ran for 18 yards on one play and Williams added a 31-yard run on the game’s final play.
The Pack defense started the final drive with two timeouts and did not call either one.
“I could have called both of those timeouts and BYU still would have run the clock out because they got two first downs,” Polian explained. “The bottom line is you still have to get off the field and we didn’t do that.”
The Wolf Pack will remember the game as a microcosm of their frustrating season.
“There are no moral victories,” Polian said. “But I was proud of the way our team competed. That’s a good team and we took them down to the final drive. I want to go back to work immediately.
“The 2014 season starts (Sunday) at 1 o’clock when I meet with the players. We have a long way to go but we have some good building blocks here. We showed the competitive nature you need to become a champion.”