The Nevada Wolf Pack has a bad taste in its mouth that has lasted two years.
“Every time I think about a bowl game I think about New Mexico and how Arizona came back to beat us,” senior linebacker Jonathan McNeal said of Nevada¹s last appearance in a bowl game in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl. “It¹s a bad memory.”
By the time the Wolf Pack and Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns meet in the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday morning (8 a.m., ESPN), it will be two years and five days since the Arizona Wildcats scored 14 points in the final 46 seconds to stun the Wolf Pack, 49-48, in Albuquerque on Dec. 15, 2012. For some Pack players, though, it feels like yesterday.
“I know how the seniors felt leaving the stadium that day,” McNeal said. “I know the seniors on this team don’t want to go through that. I don’t want anybody to go through that.”
The Wolf Pack, 7-5, has thought only good and positive thoughts since learning of its New Orleans Bowl invitation earlier this month.
“To go out a with eight wins is big,” senior quarterback Cody Fajardo said. ”To go out with a bowl win is big. It’s something this senior class hasn’t done.”
The Wolf Pack, which arrived in New Orleans on Tuesday, is 4-9 in bowl games and hasn¹t won one since a 20-13 win over Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Jan. 9. 2011. Fajardo is hoping to join Stan Heath (1948 Salad Bowl), John Dutton (1996 Las Vegas Bowl), Jeff Rowe (2005 Hawaii Bowl) and Colin Kaepernick (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl) as the only Pack quarterbacks in history to start and win a bowl game. Fajardo, who started and lost the 2012 New Mexico Bowl and 2011 Hawaii Bowl, is also hoping to avoid joining Kaepernick as the only Pack quarterbacks in history to lose three bowl games.
“The opportunity to play one more time is big for me and the rest of the seniors,” Fajardo said. “We might not get the opportunity to put shoulder pads on again.”
Fajardo and McNeal are two of 11 senior Nevada starters who will be playing their final college game on Saturday along with defensive backs Charles Garrett, Nigel Haikins and Evan Favors, defensive linemen Brock Hekking and Jordan Hanson, wide receivers Richy Turner and Kendall Brock and offensive linemen Kyle Roberts and Matt Galas. Fajardo will be making his third career bowl start while Galas, Turner, Hekking, Hanson and Garrett will be making their second.
“They are a program that has had a lot of bowl experience and it will be quite a challenge for us,” Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said. “They¹re an outstanding team.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns, 8-4 this season, are 3-0 in bowl games, having won the last three New Orleans Bowls over San Diego State (32-30 in 2011), East Carolina (43-34 in 2012) and Tulane (24-21 last year).
Lafayette is about 135 miles west of New Orleans.
“I expect this to be a road game for us,” Pack coach Brian Polian said. “I know the Louisiana fans will travel to the game. They will be loud and excited. It’s a bowl game but it will be a road trip for us.”
Outside of two trips to Honolulu for the Hawaii Bowl, this is the longest trip the Pack has ever made for a bowl game. Their other seven bowls have been in San Francisco, Boise (twice), Albuquerque (twice), Las Vegas (three times), San Diego and Phoenix.
“When they (Louisiana-Lafayette) make a big play it¹s going to be loud,” Fajardo said. ”When we make a big play it’s going to be silent.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns’ streak of four consecutive appearances in the same bowl is the longest current such streak in the nation. Hawaii went to eight Pineapple Bowls in a row from 1940-41 and 1947-52. The game was not played from 1942 through 1946 because of World War II. BYU went to seven straight Holiday Bowls in San Diego from 1978-84, Texas went to six straight Cotton Bowls in Dallas from 1969-74 and BYU went to five straight Las Vegas Bowls (2005-09) .
The Pack, which finished 4-8 last year to end a streak of eight straight bowl seasons, is just happy to be playing in the middle of December.
“This time last year we were talking about recruiting,” Polian said. “It¹s nice to talk about football for another couple weeks.”
“It¹s my last game,” Fajardo said. “I¹m going to give everything I can.”
The Wolf Pack, which beat Lafayette (then known as Southwestern Louisiana) 38-14 in Reno to open the 1995 season, is shooting for its first eight-win season since it went 13-1 in 2010. The Pack has won eight or more games in a season seven times (1994-96, 2005-06, 2009-10) since joining Division I-A in 1992.
“The goal is to try and win an eighth game,” Polian said. “Eight wins in a season is pretty darn good. There’s value in an eighth win. It’s something worth shooting for. It’s a valuable, meaningful goal. It shows significant progress, to be able to say we doubled our win total from one year to the next.”
Louisiana-Lafayette, of the Sun Belt Conference, is led by quarterback Terrance Broadway and running backs Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris. Broadway passed for 2,068 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 646 yards and three scores this year. McGuire, the Sun Belt Player of the Year, ran for 1,165 yards and 14 touchdowns. Harris, the 2011 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year in 2011 (McGuire won the same award last year), ran for 737 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Their quarterback makes a lot of plays and has played a lot of football,” Polian said.
Broadway was the Most Valuable Player of the New Orleans Bowl two years ago when he passed for 316 yards and a touchdown and ran for 108 yards and a touchdown against East Carolina.
“Their two backs catch your attention when you watch them on film,” Polian said. “Harris is 6-2 and almost 240 pounds and is bigger than most of our linebacker. This team is very athletic and Coach Hudspeth has re-energized the program.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns, who are hoping to go 9-4 for the fourth consecutive year under Hudspeth, know the Wolf Pack will present a big challenge.
“They have one of the best players in college football at quarterback,” Hudspeth said of Fajardo.
Fajardo also has a MVP-worthy performance in a bowl game to his credit. He passed for 256 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 140 yards a touchdown in the loss to Arizona two years ago. The senior, playing his first totally healthy season of his career, passed for 2,374 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for 997 yards and 13 touchdowns this year. Pack running back Don Jackson, at 932 yards, is also within striking distances of a 1,000-yard season. Two Pack players (Fajardo at 1,121 yards and Stephon Jefferson at 1,883 yards) went over 1,000 yards in the same year just two years ago in 2012.
“He¹s a guy you don¹t stop,” Hudspeth said of Fajardo. “You just try to slow him down.”
Hudspeth, whose Ragin¹ Cajuns have won seven of their last eight games, is anticipating a shootout of sorts on Saturday.
“We¹ll have to score points to beat this team,” he said. ”We¹ll have to move the football. You can¹t go into this game thinking you¹re going to shut them (Nevada) out. Nevada has always been known for putting up points.”
The Wolf Pack will be playing its first game in the New Orleans Superdome since a 34-17 loss to Tulane on Sept. 26, 1992. The game has attracted an average of 48,799 fans the last years with Louisiana-Lafayette. The bowl, now in its 14th year, has been played at the Superdome every year except one. The 2005 game, when Southern Mississippi beat Arkansas State (31-19), was played in Lafayette at Cajun Field because of the damage suffered by the Superdome because of Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 game had the lowest attendance (18,338) of any of the 134 previous New Orleans Bowls.
“It’s always special to play at NFL stadiums,” Polian said. “But we’ve played at the Rose Bowl (in 2013). We’ll be OK.”