RENO - That old Pack magic is alive and well at Mackay Stadium.
The Wolf Pack outlasted the Fresno State Bulldogs 45-38 Saturday afternoon in a wild Western Athletic Conference game. The Pack, which has won 15 games in a row at home, is now on top of the WAC all alone at 4-3 overall and 2-0 in conference play.
"We beat a good football team," Pack coach Chris Ault said. "And we had to come back to do it. This is a big win."
The comeback wasn't large - the Pack trailed just twice by a single point (14-13 and 24-23) each time - but the Pack could never relax against the Bulldogs. The Wolf Pack seemingly put the game away on a 23-yard touchdown run by quarterback Cody Fajardo for a 45-31 lead with just 2:15 to play but the Bulldogs came right back on quarterback Derek Carr's third touchdown pass of the day with 1:06 left.
The Pack didn't seal the victory until it safely tucked away an on-side kick by the Bulldogs with 1:04 left.
"Our special teams were outstanding, right down to that last on-side kick," Ault said. "I'm very excited today because our special teams showed up. And they showed up in every phase."
The difference between the Pack and Bulldogs just might have been the special teams. Rishard Matthews returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 Pack lead in the first quarter, Allen Hardison kicked three field goals in the first half and Bubba Boudreaux fell on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown after Fresno muffed a Pack punt.
"We have worked harder than ever before on special teams this year," Ault said. "That is real exciting for me to see the kids believing in what you are talking about and going out there and executing it on the field."
Matthews, who also returned a punt for a touchdown in last January's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl victory over Boston College, fielded Andrew Shapiro's punt at his own 14-yard line in the middle of the field. He then took off down the middle, stiff-armed Fresno's Steven Plevney to the turf, and cut to the right and sailed into the end zone down the sideline.
"I just kind of use it by instinct," said Matthews of his lethal stiff-arm. "It's just something to get a few extra yards."
"(Special teams coach Ken Wilson) felt comfortable all week that we would get a return on them," Ault said.
Boudreaux's touchdown gave the Pack a 30-24 lead with 11:56 to play in the third quarter. Fresno's Devon Wylie allowed the ball to carom off his shoulder at about the 5-yard line. Boudreaux then climbed over Wylie and outfought the Bulldog for the ball in the end zone.
The Pack never trailed the rest of the afternoon.
"We work on that," said Ault. "That was a great play. But you have to be there to get them like that and we were on them all day long on their punt returns."
The Pack offense and special teams clearly bailed out the Pack defense. Fresno State's offense piled up 522 yards (the Pack had 581) as Carr passed for 315 yards and three touchdowns and running back Robbie Rouse had 167 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
"They did a couple things we hadn't seen," Pack linebacker James-Michael Johnson said. "All game long we kept saying, 'This isn't us. We're better than this.' But we got the victory and that's all that counts."
Fresno kept pressuring the Pack all afternoon.
"We knew it would be a dogfight," Pack safety Duke Williams said.
The 'Dogs definitely kept fighting.
Rouse exploded down the middle for a 65-yard touchdown to cut the Pack lead to 10-7 in the first quarter and Carr found Jalen Saunders from eight yards out for his first touchdown pass and a 14-13 Fresno lead early in the second quarter.
Mike Ball, who ran for a career-high 198 yards, scored on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Fajardo for a 20-14 Pack lead and Hardison's third field goal of the game (from 48 yards out) gave the Pack a 23-17 lead as the first half ended.
The Bulldogs and Pack traded touchdowns in the first three minutes of the third quarter (Carr found Victor Dean from 9 yards out and Boudreaux fell on the muffed punt) but then both offenses fell into a funk that lasted until the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
"I didn't like that third quarter," Ault said. "Cody (Fajardo) had people open but he just wasn't seeing it. He was locking in on one guy and wasn't seeing things the way he should have."
Fajardo got the message.
"Sometimes I get tunnel vision out there and only look at one read," Fajardo said. "But (Ault) did a good job of calming me down."
Fajardo said an 11-yard pass he completed to Corbin Louks to the 50-yard line early in the fourth quarter also helped calm him down.
"It was a little audible hitch to Corbin," Fajardo said. "After that I was able to play my game and relax."
Fajardo led the Pack 85 yards on 11 plays, culminating in a 16-yard touchdown run by Ball, for a 37-24 lead with 6:47 to play.
Fresno then immediately answered, going 59 yards on three plays (Rouse scored on a 25-yard run) to cut the Pack lead to 37-31 with six minutes to go. Fajardo then guided his teammates 80 yards in seven plays, finishing it off himself with a 23-yard scoring run and a 45-31 lead with 2:15 left.
"Cody is getting better and better every week," said Matthews, who caught seven of Fajardo's passes for 148 yards. "He's just stepping up every week and he's showing a lot of leadership."
Ault said he told backup quarterback Tyler Lantrip to get ready to go into the game as Fajardo struggled in the third quarter. He never had to make that decision.
"That fourth quarter was music to our ears," Ault said.
The Wolf Pack, which will bring a three-game winning streak to New Mexico State next Saturday, has now won four games in a row against Fresno.
"We're climbing that mountain on our way to becoming WAC champions," Fajardo said.