RENO -- With under a minute left in the first half, the University of Nevada had a defining moment. Not only in the game, which they were losing 17-14 to San Jose State, but in their season.
Nevada had the ball on its own 20 with 53 seconds left in the first half and two timeouts left. Zack Threadgill threw an incomplete pass that was followed an 8-yard run by B.J. Mitchell on second down. As Threadgill looked over the sidelines looking for advice, the clock was ticking away. Boos from the crowd of 19,481 at Mackay Stadium filled the Saturday afternoon air, meanwhile Threadgill looked like a 3-year-old who had lost his mommy at Meadowwood Mall. He didn't know what to do.
With seven seconds left, Threadgill finally called a timeout but it was pointless one as the half eventually ended without the Wolf Pack even getting into Spartan territory. The inefficiency capsulated an uninspiring half of football for a team that was coming off a 59-34 loss to Hawaii.
"Our season was hanging in the balance," said wide receiver Nate Burleson, who came into the game as the nation's leader in receptions, yet had only one catch for five yards in the first half.
Fortunately for the Wolf Pack, who have been a Jekyll and Hyde team all season, they had two defining moments.
The second one came in the form of Burleson, who caught seven passes for over 100 yards in the third quarter, and then watched his team score 17 points in the third in what was a dominating second half in a 52-24 win over San Jose State.
"This was a big game for us," said coach Chris Tormey. "Adversity reveals the character of a team. We've had a tremendous amount of adversity these last three weeks and I think our character really showed through today."
Nevada (3-4 overall, 2-1 WAC) snapped a three-game losing streak with the win and moved into a tie for third place with San Jose State and Fresno State in the Western Athletic Conference.
As Burleson went, so did the Wolf Pack and Threadgill, who passed for only 76 yards in the first half but finished with 233. Yeah, Matt Milton's career high 224 yards rushing helped the Wolf Pack outscore the Spartans 38-7 in the second half. And yeah, the Wolf Pack defense holding San Jose State on its first two possessions did as well. But the team with most ineffective offense would lose this game. In the first half, that was Nevada. But in the second half, it wasn't the Spartans' ineffectiveness as much as Threadgill finally got the ball to Burleson.
"He's a playmaker and we need to get him the ball," Threadgill said. "He wants the ball. When you have a guy that wants the ball, it makes my job that much easier. It was just a matter of being efficient in the passing game. We really came out in the second half and performed. We kept getting better as the game went on."
On the Wolf Pack's first drive of the second half, Burleson caught two passes for 35 yards, including a 14-yard catch on third down, then Threadgill found Maurice Mann for a 13-yard TD catch that put Nevada on top for good, 21-17. On Nevada's next possession, Burleson caught a 23-yard toss from Threadgill, which eventually set up Damon Fine's 37-yard field goal. Then later in the third quarter, Burleson leaped over a defender and caught a 27-yard TD pass with under a minute remaining to give Nevada a 31-17.
"If it's a critical situation, like on third down, I want the ball," Burleson said. "We hit that 31 and that's been our magic number. I wanted to overachieve that. It's been a struggle to put both halves together."
Nevada needed only to score 31 points in its two previous wins over BYU and Rice, but the Wolf Pack won by exceeding that number against the Spartans. Milton's 107 yards rushing in the fourth quarter, including TD runs of 31 and 71 yards, had a lot to with that, but so did the Wolf Pack defense.
San Jose State (4-3 overall, 2-0 WAC) quarterback Scott Rislov was picked off twice in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Keone Kauo intercepted a Rislov pass and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown with 6:27 left in the game. Then on the Spartans' next possession, freshman Dominic Cruz intercepted a Rislov pass. On the next play, Milton, a freshman, busted a 71-yard touchdown run, the longest rush of his career.
"Defensively, we got some take aways and that was key in the second half," Tormey said. "We've played well at times in the second half (this season) and sometimes we haven't. A lot of inexperienced players stepped up and made plays for us. The more you make plays, the more confidence you get. We wanted to dominate, to try and wear them down. That was the plan last week against Hawaii, but we got so far behind."