RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack and Boise State Broncos left a sold out Mackay Stadium crowd breathless Saturday night.
“It was a wild game,” Boise State quarterback Grant Hedrick said after the Broncos’ exhausting 51-46 victory in front of 32,327 fans and a national television audience on CBS Sports Network.
“We fought our tails off,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said. “I’m proud of the heart and fight we showed.”
The loss dropped the Wolf Pack to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the West Division of the Mountain West. Boise improved to 4-2 and 2-1 in the Mountain Division. The two rivals could meet yet again this December in the conference title game.
“I’d like to get another crack at them,” Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said.
Both teams were seemingly worn out physically and mentally by the end of the four-hour game.
“This was such a big game for us,” said Boise State running back Jay Ajayi, who finished with 152 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. “I put my heart into this game. This is probably one of my favorite wins.”
It was also one of the Pack’s most heartbreaking losses. The third largest crowd in Mackay Stadium history saw the Wolf Pack lose for the 14th time in their last 15 games against Boise State.
“That game was fun to be on the winning side of it,” Boise coach Bryan Harsin said.
“It’s nights like this that make college football fun,” Polian said.
The second-year Pack coach, though, wasn’t smiling after the game. Polian now has a record of 7-10 over the last two seasons with two of the losses coming to the Broncos.
“You can’t expect to make the mistakes we made and expect to win the game,” Polian said. “That’s nuts to think you can turn the ball over four times and still have a chance to win. It’s like I told (the team). There are no moral victories. Everybody is going to tell them this this week, ‘Hey, Good job. You hung in there.’ So what? We have to find a way to win.”
Fajardo was intercepted four times -- three in the first half -- and all four led to Boise State touchdowns. Fajardo had been intercepted just once in the first four games.
“That’s on me,” Fajardo said. “My teammates did a wonderful job coming up to me and saying, ‘Keep your head up. Keep fighting.’ It’s tough as a quarterback when you throw that many interceptions. I’ve never done it before. You don’t want to throw another one. But in the end you just have to go out there and keep playing.”
Fajardo did just that and nearly staged another Mackay Miracle, similar to the one the Wolf Pack turned in four years ago in a 34-31 overtime win at home over the Broncos. The Pack outscored the Broncos 17-7 on Saturday in the fourth quarter and had the ball at the Boise State 39-yard-line on first down with 2:03 to go. Boise defensive end Beau Martin, though, sacked Fajardo for a 4-yard loss on second down and two Fajardo incomplete passes on third and fourth down ended the comeback.
“Somehow we had a chance to win the game at the end but I’m not sure we deserved that with the way we played,” Polian said. “In the end we had no business winning that game. The turnovers were killer. It was ugly and we didn’t deserve to win but we showed a lot of guts and perseverance.”
Polian wouldn’t blame the loss on Fajardo’s four interceptions.
“I’m not putting this on the quarterback,” Polian said. “Could he play better? Of course. But we all can play better. We can coach better. We all could have done better.”
Fajardo completed 23-of-43 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns. Hedrick, who led Boise to a 34-17 victory over the Wolf Pack last year in relief of injured starter Joe Southwick, completed 26-of-31 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns. Last week Hedrick himself was intercepted four times in a 28-14 loss at Air Force.
“That was a blast tonight,” Hedrick said. “It was personal. We didn’t bring our A game last week and we wanted to come out tonight and prove something.”
The Broncos still have not lost back-to-back games in the regular season since 2005 and have not lost back-to-back conference games since 1997.
“Grant had a lot of fire in his eyes,” Harsin said. “It was personal for him.”
Fajardo now knows how Hedrick felt a week ago.
“Cody did great,” said Wolf Pack wide receiver Hasaan Henderson, who caught seven passes for 141 yards. “He was accurate. He made great audibles and he ran the ball well.”
“I obviously wanted some throws back,” Fajardo said. “But Boise did a great job with different looks and their secondary did a great job on balls in the air.”
Boise’s first three interceptions were the difference as the Broncos took a 30-21 lead at halftime. All three interceptions led to touchdowns and the final two came in the final 3:22 of the half as Boise State wiped out a 21-16 Wolf Pack lead.
Fajardo was picked off by safety Darian Thompson on the Pack’s first possession of the game and by linebacker Tyler Gray and cornerback Donte Deayon about a minute apart late in the second quarter.
Thompson’s interception gave the Broncos the ball at the Wolf Pack 27-yard line with 9:21 to go in the first quarter. It took Hedrick just six plays to go the 27 yards for the game’s first touchdown and a 7-0 Boise State lead. Hedrick flipped the ball inside to tight end Jake Roh on the touchdown pass and Roh went up the middle untouched for a 3-yard score with 6:54 to go in the opening quarter.
Gray’s interception, with just over three minutes to go in the half, stole all the first-half momentum from the Wolf Pack. The 6-foot-4 junior linebacker stepped in front of a Fajardo pass intended for tight end Jarred Gipson near the right hash mark. Gray then rambled 32 yards for the touchdown, giving the Broncos a stunning 23-21 lead with 3:22 to go in the half.
“I threw it right to him,” Fajardo said.
The Broncos would never trail the rest of the game.
Fajardo then turned the ball over for a third time just three plays later. Deayon snared a Fajardo pass deep down the middle intended for Henderson at the Broncos 41-yard line. Hedrick and the Broncos then covered the 59 yards in just three plays. A 55-yard pass from Hedrick to Chaz Anderson on first down put the ball at the Pack 4-yard line. Hedrick then scored two plays later on a 2-yard run for a 30-21 Boise State lead just 1:32 before halftime.
The Wolf Pack earlier scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives to take a 21-16 lead with six minutes to go in the first half. Fajardo scored on a 13-yard run to cap a 75-yard drive as the Pack tied the game at 7-7 with 5:13 to go in the first quarter. Two big plays -- a 28-yard Fajardo pass to Gipson and a 30-yarder to Henderson -- set up the touchdown.
Fajardo and Gipson then hooked up to give the Pack its first lead of the game. Gipson, a sophomore tight end, hauled in a 10-yard pass down the middle for a touchdown, giving the Pack a 14-13 lead with 13:36 to go in the second quarter.
Boise took a brief 16-14 lead on a 35-yard field goal by Dan Goodale with 8:59 to go in the second quarter (Goodale had earlier missed a 43-yard field goal and an extra point) but the Wolf Pack came right back to reclaim the lead at 21-16.
Fajardo and Henderson did all the heavy lifting on the Pack’s third touchdown drive. Henderson caught three big passes on the 75-yard, eight-play drive -- 30 yards to the Wolf Pack 49-yard line, 34 yards to the Boise 11-yard line and the 12-yard touchdown on a great catch in the right corner of the end zone with 6:08 to go in the half.
“We felt good at the half,” Fajardo said. “We were only down nine. The game could have been out of hand with the three interceptions. But we were still in it.”
Another Fajardo mistake -- his fourth interception of the game -- led to another Boise State touchdown early in the third quarter and extended the Broncos run to 21 unanswered points. Fajardo, trying to escape pressure from Gray, seemingly tried to throw the ball out of bounds to his right. Fajardo’s throw, though, went right to Thompson for his second interception of the game.
“I just couldn’t get it out of bounds,“ Fajardo said.
Hedrick and the Broncos, once again, didn’t waste much time in capitalizing on the turnover. Hedrick connected with tight end Holden Huff on first down for 23 yards to the Pack 6-yard line. Ajayi then scored two plays later on a 1-yard run for a 37-21 Boise State lead with 13:42 to go in the third quarter.
“We stunk to open the half,” Polian said. “But we found that extra gear to keep answering.”
Polian was proud of the way his team kept fighting.
“This game could have gotten way out of hand,” Polian said. “It could have been a blowout. But we kept finding a way to make some plays.”
It took the Wolf Pack just four plays to cover 79 yards as Fajardo exploded up the middle of the field on a 56-yard touchdown run with 10:53 to go in the third quarter. The Pack quarterback then found wide receiver Richy Turner on a two-point conversion pass to cut Boise’s lead to 37-29.
The 216-pound Ajayi, who ran for 222 yards against the Wolf Pack last year, extended Boise’s lead back to two touchdowns later in the third quarter. The junior scored his second touchdown of the game on a powerful 26-yard run as Boise took a 44-29 lead with 4:03 to go in the third quarter. Ajayi took Hedrick’s handoff and almost immediately ran into Wolf Pack tackle Salesa Faraimo. Ajayi, though, bounced off Faraimo and exploded down the left side for the long touchdown.
Ajayi later added a 74-yard run.
“What I’m disappointed in is our pursuit to the ball,” Polian said. “And we didn’t tackle the way we need to. We talked about Ajayi before the game and how we needed to pursue the ball and tackle him and he just broke too many tackles.”
The Pack defense, though, did its part to keep the comeback alive.
Junior defensive end Ian Seau tipped a third-down Hedrick pass, grabbed it out of the air and carried it 32 yards into the end zone as the Wolf Pack pulled to within 44-36 with 14:18 to play.
Boise State, though, needed less than a minute to go back up by two scores.
Ajayi did it all by himself, exploding through a winded Wolf Pack defense for 74 yards on first down, for the longest run of his career. After a facemask penalty on the Pack’s Rykeem Yates, Ajayi went the final two yards for the touchdown as Boise took a 51-36 lead with 13:22 to play.
The 51 points are the most Boise has scored in this rivalry since it beat the Pack 69-67 in overtime in 2007. It is the most points the Broncos have scored in Reno since it beat the Pack 58-21 in 2004.
The Broncos, though, needed almost every one of those 51 points to hold off the Pack.
“Nevada is a great team at home,” Harsin said.
Wolf Pack freshman running back James Butler erupted through an exhausted Boise State defense for 51 yards down to the Broncos’ 15-yard line to set up yet another Pack touchdown. Fajardo and Gipson connected for a 12-yard touchdown two plays later as the Wolf Pack cut Boise’s lead to 51-43 with 12:04 to play. The Wolf Pack pulled to within 51-46 on a 45-yard field goal by Brent Zuzo with 7:56 to play. The Pack had a first down at the Boise 16-yard line on the drive but a key sack by Boise’s Sean Modster on third down forced the Pack to settle for three points.
“When we had to kick the field goal you got the feeling we missed an opportunity,” Polian said.