RENO — Nevada Wolf Pack defensive end Lenny Jones will never forget the trip back home to Northern Nevada last season after meeting the Air Force Falcons.
“It was one of those things where you get on the plane and you think to yourself, ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’” the Wolf Pack sophomore said.
What just happened was a 48-31 beating the Falcons handed the Wolf Pack on Oct. 26, 2012, in Colorado Springs. Air Force, which comes to Mackay Stadium on Saturday (5:05 p.m.), gained an even 600 yards, ran off 89 offensive plays, never punted the ball once, picked up 36 first downs, rushed for 461 yards, controlled the football for nearly 13 minutes in the fourth quarter and thoroughly demoralized the Pack.
“We didn’t know they were that good,” Wolf Pack wide receiver Brandon Wimberly said.
The Falcons, which finished 6-7 last year and are 1-3 (0-3 in the Mountain West) this year, aren’t usually that good. Their 36 first downs against the Pack a year ago are the second most they’ve ever had in the seven-year era of head coach Troy Calhoun. The 82 running plays are the most in the Calhoun era and the 89 total plays are the third most.
“I don’t often go back to last year’s games and watch film,” first-year Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian said this week, “but this week I did. I watched it twice and I took away a lot from that game.”
What Polian saw was a Wolf Pack defense that was physically dominated by a smaller and more efficient Air Force team.
“It’s not scheme-based,” said Polian, when asked what he will like to correct about the Wolf Pack defense this year against Air Force. “What I want us to understand is that when you play Air Force, it’s a bar brawl. I’m not sure they understood that last year.”
Polian has a ton of respect for the Air Force Academy.
“This will be physically and mentally the toughest opponent we’ll face all year,” Polian said. “You have to have a lot of respect for a bunch of guys who consider football practice the easiest part of their day. They are tough by education and training. They are professional tough guys. Think of what they are trained to do. They are trained to protect our country. To strap it up against us on a football field is not such a big deal to those guys.”
The Falcons were clearly tougher than the Wolf Pack was a year ago at Falcon Field.
“It wasn’t pretty last year but it was a very good learning experience for us,” Wolf Pack tight end Kolby Arendse said. “Those guys love to go out to practice. Practice is their time to release and have some fun. They can’t wait to get out there.”
Arendse said reviewing last year’s game wasn’t a pleasant experience.
“It’s one of those games you don’t want to think about but you have to do it,” he said.
Jones said the loss to Air Force had a huge affect on the Wolf Pack a year ago. The Pack, which started out 6-1 in 2012, dropped to 6-3 with the loss to the Falcons and finished 7-6 on the year.
“It kind of changed our whole season,” Jones said.
The Falcons, which have run the ball on 222 of their 281 plays (79 percent), are led by quarterback Jaleel Awini this year. Awini, pressed into duty because of an injury to starter Kale Pearson in a season-opening 38-13 win over Colgate, has rushed for 220 yards and passed for 275 this season. However, Awini was suspended by Air Force on Wednesday.
The Wolf Pack is hoping to be healthier this week than they’ve been since the season opener. Starting quarterback Cody Fajardo and former starting running back Don Jackson (he has since lost his starting role to Chris Solomon) could return from injuries this week after missing the last two-plus games. Fajardo injured his knee against UC Davis on Sept. 7 and Jackson injured his ankle a few days before the Davis game.
Whether Fajardo or Jackson return or not this week, Polian is demanding that his team toughen up for the Falcons.