RENO — Brian Polian didn’t ask much of his Nevada Wolf Pack football team going into its season-opening game at UCLA last Saturday night.
“I told the team we want to play smart, fast and physical,” the Wolf Pack head coach said.
And how did the Wolf Pack fare in its disappointing 58-20 loss at the Rose Bowl?
“We didn’t do any of those three things,” said Polian, who will make his Mackay Stadium coaching debut Saturday night (6:05 p.m.) against the UC Davis Aggies. In a pre-game ceremony, the field will be named after former coach Chris Ault.
The beginning of the Polian era certainly didn’t live up to the hype, hoopla and hope of the past seven-plus months, ever since the former Texas A&M assistant was named to replace Ault last January. The Wolf Pack was outscored 41-7 in the second half and gave up 647 total yards to the No. 21-ranked Bruins.
“Would we prefer to open the season as a new staff on the road against a team like that?” Polian said. “No. But there’s nothing we can do about it. It is what it is.”
The Wolf Pack, which has now lost six of its last seven games dating back to the middle of last season, insists that none of the off-season promise and excitement has vanished.
“We’re still very excited for the season,” quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “It’s a long season. It was just Game One. It’s not like we lost the Super Bowl.”
The Wolf Pack, which has now lost 16 of its 22 season openers since making the move to the Football Bowl Sub-division (formerly Division I-A) in 1992, trailed UCLA just 17-13 at halftime.
“We felt pretty confident going into halftime,” senior offensive tackle Joel Bitonio said.
That confident feeling didn’t last long as UCLA scored three touchdowns in the first 11 minutes of the third quarter to take a dominating 37-13 lead. The second touchdown of the second half came off a blocked Wolf Pack punt.
“I just felt that after the blocked punt, all the wind came out of our sails,” said Polian, who made his mark as a special teams coach the past 16 years at such schools as Texas A&M, Stanford and Notre Dame.
“Anytime a big play like that goes against you, it kind of shuts you down,” Bitonio said.
The glaring special teams error was just one of Polian’s concerns after the game. The defense, which never forced UCLA to punt, is now the biggest worry for the rookie head coach just as it was for the veteran Ault in recent years.
“It’s hard to look at anybody on the defense and say they played great,” Polian said. “Clearly we have to do a better job on defense.”
Polian said the UCLA game, if nothing else, gave the Wolf Pack an honest assessment of where they are as a program. “We have to improve significantly in all three phases of the game,” he said. “You have to be honest with yourselves if you are going to get better. You can’t sugarcoat it.”
UC Davis, of the Football Championship Sub-division’s (formerly Division I-AA) Big Sky Conference, would appear to be exactly what the Wolf Pack needs as it attempts to heal after the Rose Bowl rout. The Wolf Pack was a three-touchdown underdog against UCLA and is now a three-touchdown favorite.
“We got embarrassed (at UCLA),” said Fajardo, who has an 11-10 record as the Wolf Pack’s starting quarterback. “We want to take out some of our anger on somebody.”
Davis is coming off a season-opening loss (10-7) at South Dakota, a team that finished 1-10 in 2012. Davis, (4-7 last season) is coached by rookie head coach Ron Gould. Gould spent the past 16 years as an assistant at Cal and also spent four seasons as an assistant at Boise State (1993-96). He was on head coach Jeff Tedford’s staff at Cal when the Wolf Pack beat the Golden Bears in 2010 and 2012.
“We’re kind of in the same situation,” Polian said. “We’re both in our first year and we’re both coming off losses in our first game and are looking for our first victory.”
The Wolf Pack’s rivalry with Davis goes back to 1915, a 14-10 Aggies victory. The two schools met eight times in the 1920s and nine times in the 1930s. Davis was also the Wolf Pack’s first opponent when Nevada brought football back as a non-scholarship sport in 1952 after a one-year hiatus. The long-time rivals, though, haven’t met since Sept. 16, 1989 at Mackay Stadium when Davis, then a Division II program, stunned Ault and the Pack 24-17.
The Wolf Pack, which will honor Ault before the game by naming the field at Mackay Stadium after him, is 13-3 against FCS teams since it moved to the FBS in 1992. The Pack’s last loss to a FCS team was in 1994 to Boise State (37-27), two years before Boise also made the jump to I-A and joined the Pack in the Big West Conference. Gould was part of that Boise state coaching staff.
“We’re not looking past this weekend,” said Polian, whose Wolf Pack has a date at Florida State on Sept. 14. “We’re clearly not in a position to do that.”
The last time the Pack played a FCS team, it beat Eastern Washington 49-24 in the first game of the 2010 season. Eastern Washington went on to win the FCS national title that year. Davis is picked to finish in the bottom third of the 13-team Big Sky.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, whether it’s a FCS team or a Division I (FBS) team,” Fajardo said. “We’re going to play hard. You see FCS teams winning upsets (over FBS schools) almost every week.”
Davis features running back Gabe Manzanares, a walk-on from San Francisco City College. Starting quarterback Randy Wright, who split the snaps last week at South Dakota with sophomore Jimmy Laughrea, has thrown for 7,152 yards and 44 touchdowns in his career.
Polian, however, is more concerned about his own team right now.
“I want to see more passion and more energy,” Polian said.
Polian reminded his team this week that FCS upsets over FBS teams isn’t all that rare. Eastern Washington beat Oregon State (49-46) and Eastern Illinois stunned San Diego State (40-19) just last weekend.
“If we need a reminder of what can happen if we’re not focused and prepared, all we need to do is look back to last weekend,” Polian said. “We have to be wise and learn from other people’s lessons.”