The Fresno State Bulldogs are what the Nevada Wolf Pack football team wants to be when it grows up.
“They are doing what you need to do to have a special season,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said of the undefeated Bulldogs. “They are winning close games. Winning close games is the difference between a good season and a special season. They are finding a way to win the close games and we are not.”
The reeling Wolf Pack, losers of three in a row to fall to 3-5 overall and 2-3 in the Mountain West, travel to Fresno tonight (7:30 p.m.) to take on the 16th-ranked Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0) on national television (ESPNU). Fresno State, though, also could very well be 3-4 right now if not for four victories — two in overtime — by seven points or less.
“They haven’t done it with smoke and mirrors,” Polian said. “They deserve credit for their record.”
The Bulldogs, it seems, are ready to stage a post-Halloween party on Saturday night. The normally red-and-white Bulldogs will wear black uniforms and helmets for the first time in their school’s history. Their fans, which are called the Red Wave, are also being urged by the school to wear black on Saturday. They responded by selling out the game at 41,031-seat Bulldog Stadium four days before kickoff.
“I used to be a member of the Red Wave,” said Wolf Pack running back Kendall Brock, who grew up a Bulldogs’ fan near Fresno. “It’s loud and it’s brutal.”
The last time the Pack played at Fresno it escaped with a 35-34 win during its historic 13-1 season in 2010. Fresno State, though, came to Mackay Stadium last year and scored three defensive touchdowns on the way to a 52-36 victory, ending a four-game losing streak to the Pack.
“They are the most talented team in our conference,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack, which lost to UNLV 27-22 at Mackay Stadium last Saturday, is a 20-point underdog at Nevada sports books.
“We don’t pay attention to that stuff,” Wolf Pack linebacker Matthew Lyons said.
The Wolf Pack has stunned a heavily-favored and highly-ranked Fresno State team before. Fresno State was also ranked 16th in the country when the Wolf Pack upset them 38-35 at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 26, 2005 on a 12-yard pass from Jeff Rowe to Nichiren Flowers with 89 seconds to play.
This Fresno team, though, might be even better than in 2005. The Bulldogs have won 12 regular season games in a row, 10 games in a row at home and nine consecutive Mountain West games. Head coach Tim DeRuyter is 15-0 when his Bulldogs score 30 or more points in his two-year head coaching career and has never lost (10-0) at home.
DeRuyter, who served as the Wolf Pack’s defensive coordinator in 2005 and 2006, is doing his best to keep his Bulldogs focused.
“Are we a great team?” DeRuyter asked this week. “No. We’ve got a lot of holes we need to fix. But our guys have resolve and confidence in each other and that is huge. We’ve won a lot of close games and when you do that it galvanizes a team.”
Fresno State insists it isn’t looking at the Pack’s sub-.500 record or three-game losing streak.
“They get up for this game,” Fresno State tight end Marcel Jensen said. “They always have since I’ve been here. We’re not going to take them lightly.”
“The great thing about college football is that it doesn’t matter what your record is,” Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “If you play a great game you’ll have a chance to win.”
The Wolf Pack, which needs three wins in its last four games to become bowl eligible, hasn’t beaten anyone in a month, since a 45-42 decision over Air Force on Sept. 28. The Wolf Pack also hasn’t beaten anyone away from Mackay Stadium in almost a year, since a 31-24 win over New Mexico in Albuquerque on Nov. 17, 2012.
“Winning this game will be like getting a new life all over again,” said Wolf Pack defensive end Lenny Jones. “Win this game and win out, you go to a bowl.”
The Bulldogs are seventh in the nation in scoring at 44.3 points a game and seventh in total offense at 524.6 yards a game. Quarterback Derek Carr has passed for 2,574 yards and 25 touchdowns. Wide receiver Davante Adams has already caught 72 passes for 804 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“Their offense is prolific,” Polian said. “They play at a great temp, averaging 87 plays a game.”
Adams has been as productive as any player in the country the last three weeks, catching 36 passes for 493 yards and nine touchdowns. But Carr can also throw to wide receivers Isaiah Burse (52 catches) and Josh Harper (42) as well as Jensen (17) and running back Josh Quezada (32). Quezada (373 yards rushing) teams up with Marteze Waller (430 yards) in the backfield.
“You have to pick your poison against them,” Polian said. “You can’t stop both their pass and their run.”
No team has stopped Carr this season.
“I think David Carr could play at any program in America,” said Polian, who has been a member of coaching staffs at Stanford, Notre Dame and Texas A&M that guided quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck, Johnny Manziel and Brady Quinn. “He’ll be a (NFL) draft pick, no doubt. He looks confident at all times. He’s got great arm talent. I’ve haven’t seen a guy all year who throws the deep ball as accurately as he does.”
Huge Austin Wentworth (6-foot-5, 306 pounds) and Alex Fifita (6-4, 307) protect Carr’s blind side on the left side of the Bulldogs’ offensive line.
“Coming into the year I knew that Derek Carr was pretty good,” Polian said. “But after watching film of him this week, I believe he’s one of the best in the country. He makes their offense go.”
Carr passed for 220 yards and two touchdowns (to Adams and Jensen) last year against the Wolf Pack. In 2011 he torched the Pack for 315 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-38 Wolf Pack win.
“He has a lot of weapons he can go to,” Lyons said.
Jones, who had the Pack’s only sack of Carr last season, looks at the matchup as an opportunity.
“When you go up against a quarterback like that, you kind of lick your chops as a pass rusher,” Jones said. “Those are the games you look forward to.”
Before the Pack could look forward to Fresno State, though, they had to look back at the loss to UNLV. It was their first loss to their in-state rival since 2004.
“It was a tough weekend,” Fajardo said. “The film was terrible to watch. You could see so many missed opportunities where we could have won the game. It’s going to hurt until we get our next win.”
The UNLV game, Fajardo said, could end up being a pivotal point in this Wolf Pack season.
“That game is a huge motivating factor,” Fajardo said. “It’s either going to ruin our season or it could turn it around.”