RENO — The 2013 season for the Nevada Wolf Pack football team is all about taking baby steps.
“I don’t want to say that any game is more important than another because they are all important,” Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian said. “But we need to continue the process and take another step forward. We certainly took steps forward against Hawaii (a 31-9 victory on Sept. 21) and Air Force (a 45-42 win last Saturday). The next step is can we go beat a quality opponent on the road in a conference game? That is the next test for us.”
That test will come tonight (6 p.m., ESPN) against the San Diego State Aztecs at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. The Aztecs, 1-3 overall, will be playing their first Mountain West game of the year against the 3-2, 2-0 Wolf Pack.
“This is the most athletic team we’ve faced so far in the Mountain West,” Polian said. “Their record does not reflect how good a team they are.”
But it does reflect their disappointment.
The Aztecs were stunned 40-19 by Division I-AA Eastern Illinois at home in their season opener and had to rally from a 16-0 deficit last week to beat lowly New Mexico State 26-16. In between those two games they lost to Ohio State (42-7) and Oregon State (34-30).
“We’re a little shocked we didn’t start off with a win,” Aztecs linebacker Nick Tenhaeff said of the loss to Eastern Illinois.
“We’re not a consistent football team,” said Aztecs head coach Rocky Long, who beat the Wolf Pack 23-0 in the 2007 New Mexico Bowl as New Mexico’s head coach. “We haven’t looked good one time this year in an entire game. I’m disappointed where we are and I’m not satisfied at all. I thought we’d be better than we are.”
Long’s Aztecs tied for the Mountain West championship last year with Boise State and Fresno State. One of their victories was a 39-38 overtime thriller against the Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium on Oct. 20, 2012 when Long stunned the Pack by going for two points (and succeeding) in the first overtime.
Long, though, doesn’t look at that 2012 game as any kind of a confidence booster for his Aztecs this year.
“Nevada outplayed us for three quarters in that game and we just outplayed them for one quarter and one overtime,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re a confident football team right now.”
Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo completed 29-of-40 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns against San Diego State last year. He led the Pack to a 31-21 lead with less than eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter and 38-31 in overtime before the defense wilted.
“That loss was obviously one of the worst we had last year,” Fajardo said.
Adam Dingwell engineered the San Diego State victory last year at Mackay Stadium. Entering the game on the Aztecs’ third possession because of an injury to starting quarterback Ryan Katz, Dingwell proceeded to throw for 177 yards and three touchdowns. Dingwell, though, will be on the bench Friday night in favor of walk-on junior quarterback Quinn Kaehler.
Kaehler replaced an injured and struggling Dingwell in the Aztecs’ second game at Ohio State. Dingwell, who was intercepted five times in the first five quarters of the season, went down with a back injury against Ohio State. Kaehler, who played the last two seasons as Diablo Valley College and joined the Aztecs just nine months ago as a walk-on, stepped right in and has thrown for 696 yards and three touchdowns.
Polian though, isn’t focusing on the Aztecs’ quarterback this week.
“They do have the ability to take shots down the field with their quarterback,” Polian said. “But in the perfect world they would like to run it 60 per cent of the time.”
San Diego State is 10th in the 12-team Mountain West in rushing at 118 yards a game. The Wolf Pack is 11th in the conference in stopping the run, allowing 269.6 yards on the ground each game.
Freshman Donnel Pumphrey leads San Diego State in rushing with 220 yards and three touchdowns. Adam Muema has 118 yards and one score.
“Pumphrey is about 165 pounds and is really, really fast,” Polian said. “He’s a difference maker.”
“I’m sure most people can see that we’re a lot more effective when we get the run game going,” said Kaehler, who completed 22-of-34 passes for 229 yards against New Mexico State.
“Defensively, it all starts for us with, ’Can we stop the run?’” Polian said.
When Kaehler does throw, he will likely go to wide receivers Ezell Ruffin (20 catches, 299 yards) and Colin Lockett (21 for 279). New Mexico State put double coverage on Lockett last week, holding him to two catches, and nearly upset the Aztecs.
“Lockett can run away from a lot of people,” Polian said. “He gives us match-up problems.”
The San Diego State defense, which will be without injured middle linebacker Jake Fely, leads the Mountain West in fewest rushing yards allowed at 121.3 a game. Fely broke his foot against New Mexico State and was replaced by Josh Gavert. Gavert has 11 tackles and has forced a fumble this year.
Losing Fely, Long said, “was a dramatic shock to our defensive system.”
“He’s ready to play,“ said Tenhaeff of Gavert. “He could play for a lot of teams in our league. It’s just that he had an all-league player (Fely) ahead of him. I don’t think there’s going to be a huge drop off.”
Given San Diego State’s stout defense against the run, the Wolf Pack might take to the air like it did a week ago (56 pass attempts, 38 completions) against Air Force.
“Their quarterback (Fajardo) is very good,” Tenhaeff said. “He’s a unique player. He’s dynamic and that’s the guy we’re going to have to stop first and foremost.”
Both the Aztecs and Wolf Pack are members of the West Division of the Mountain West. The Pack is tied atop the division with Fresno State at 2-0 in league play. The win over Air Force last week made Polian the first rookie Wolf Pack head coach to win his first two league games since Dick Trachok won his first two Far Western Conference games in 1959 over Chico State and UC Davis. The last rookie Pack head coach to win his first three league games is Jim Aiken in 1939.
San Diego State has won its last seven Mountain West games, all last year.
“The goal of every team is to win a conference title,” Tenhaeff said. “Winning this game is very important for both teams.”