Brian Polian is hoping the power of positive thinking pulls his Nevada Wolf Pack football team out of its losing streak.
“I don’t believe in dwelling on the negative,” the rookie head coach said this week. “It’s just who I am. I’m positive by nature.”
The negative has been suffocating his football team lately. The Wolf Pack is mired in its first four-game losing streak since 2001 and hasn’t won a game in six weeks, since a 45-42 victory over Air Force on Sept. 28.
“I go into the meeting rooms and tell all the players, ‘OK, pick your head up, put a smile on your face and let’s go get the next one,’” Polian said. “If you sit and dwell on what isn’t going right, that doesn’t do anybody any good.”
The Wolf Pack needs three victories in its final three games, starting today (12:30 p.m.) against the Colorado State Rams in Fort Collins, Colo., to become bowl eligible for the ninth season in a row.
“I’m not even thinking about that,” Polian said. “All we’re thinking about is Colorado State.”
And nobody in silver and blue is thinking a whole lot about the past nine games. The Pack, at 3-6 overall and 2-4 in the Mountain West, has its worst record after nine games since the 2001 team was 2-7. Making the 3-6 record even worse is that the Wolf Pack has already lost all its top rival games, against UNLV, Boise State and Fresno State.
“The losses are hard on everyone,” said senior wide receiver Brandon Wimberly, who has never seen the Wolf Pack finish with a losing record since he joined the program in 2008. “We’ve been losing games we shouldn’t be losing.
“It’s just disappointing. A couple of the teams, like UCLA and Florida State, were just better than us. But the other teams, they have similar skill sets as we do. But we’ve just been killing ourselves in these games with penalties and mistakes.”
Despite the lack of positive results recently, Polian has done a commendable job keeping the confidence level high in the Pack locker room.
“Our mantra is ‘Keep chopping wood,’” Polian said. “And never put down the axe. Sooner or later the tree is going to fall. And from the body language I’ve observed, I really believe our guys believe in that.”
The Wolf Pack players clearly seem to believe in their young head coach.
“I take it personally when we lose a game,” offensive tackle Joel Bitonio said. “I hate when we lose. But we also know that we have to move on to the next opponent. We have to keep working to get better whether we win or lose the week before. That never changes.”
That next opponent is struggling almost as much as the Wolf Pack. Colorado State is just 4-5 overall and 2-2 in the Mountain West for second-year head coach Jim McElwain. McElwain, the former offensive coordinator at Alabama (2008-11), went 4-8 in 2012 in his first year in Fort Collins.
“They are significantly improved over last year,” Polian said.
That might be an exaggeration. The Rams, led by junior quarterback, Garrett Grayson, have become more potent on offense, averaging 33 points a game. Grayson has thrown for 2,244 yards and 15 touchdowns.
But the Rams’ defense is allowing 32 points and 446 yards a game with 309 of those yards coming through the air.
“You can look at that and say we should go in there and throw it 50 times a game,” Polian said. “But when you do that you still have to protect the quarterback. And I really believe that in order for us to be successful, we have to be balanced.”
The Rams’ ground game has also been impressive this year with Kapri Bibbs (836 yards), Donnell Alexander (362 yards) and Chris Nwoke (343 yards). Nwoke led the Rams in rushing in 2011 with 1,130 yards and Alexander led the team last year with 587.
Bibbs, a red-shirt sophomore from the Chicago area (Plainfield, Ill.), has blossomed in his first year in Fort Collins. After playing for Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, last year, the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder leads the nation with 15 rushing touchdowns this year.
“We have to stop the run,” Wolf Pack defensive end Ian Seau said. “They have a lot of good backs and some big guys up front (on the offensive line). If we stop the run we’ll have a good chance to win.”
The Wolf Pack hasn’t stopped the run all season, allowing 258 yards a game on the ground. Then again, the Pack has also struggled against the pass at times. Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr threw for 487 yards and three touchdowns against the Pack last Saturday in a 41-23 Bulldogs’ win.
“Colorado State has a very multiple offense,” Polian said. “You are going to see four or five different personnel groups in the game. They’ll show the concepts we saw from Fresno State with four wides and on the very next play they can come at you with the power game with two tight ends. It will be a big challenge for us.”
The Wolf Pack has never won in six games in Fort Collins and trails the all-time series overall with Colorado State at 9-2. Colorado State beat the Wolf Pack seven times in a row from 1997-2005 under head coach Sonny Lubick. The Pack, though, dominated the Rams, 51-6, in the last meeting between the two teams in 2010.
“Keep chopping wood,” Polian said. “That’s my message whether we are 3-6 or 6-3. The message will never change.”