RENO — A couple of rare offensive pass interference penalties wiped away what could have been another Mackay Miracle Saturday night.
Nevada Wolf Pack wide receivers Jerico Richardson and Hasaan Henderson were called for offensive pass interference on one drive late in the fourth quarter as the Colorado State Rams held on for a 31-24 victory at Mackay Stadium.
The Wolf Pack, which trailed 31-3 late in the third quarter, opened their final drive at their own 26-yard line with 4:56 to go, trailing just 31-24.
Richardson was called for offensive pass interference four plays into the final drive on what originally was a 63-yard game-tying touchdown catch. Richardson, though, was whistled for pushing off Rams’ cornerback DeAndre Elliott, wiping out the score.
The Wolf Pack, though, overcame the penalty and drove down to the Colorado State 10-yard line with 51 seconds to go. Henderson, though, was called for pass interference as he pushed Elliott into the end zone on the left side of the field. Elliott ended up intercepting quarterback Cody Fajardo’s pass in the end zone, ending the Pack’s furious comeback.
“I have no explanation,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said after the game. “If I offered my opinion I would probably get fined by the league office.”
The loss dropped the Pack to 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the Mountain West. Colorado State has now won four games in a row to improve to 5-1 overall and 1-1 in league play.
The Pack scored 21 unanswered points to get back in the game. The final two touchdowns (14 points) came in the fourth quarter. Colorado State had allowed just 21 points all season in the fourth quarter going into the game.
“Enough with the moral victories,” Polian said. “I’m proud of our guys. I’m proud of the fact that we probably should have tied the game if not for outside influences. But I told the team, ‘Don’t blame the officials for this. We got ourselves down 31-3.’”
Fajardo completed 27 of 50 passes for 297 yards and two scores. The senior also ran the ball 12 times for 88 yards. Colorado State quarterback Garrettt Grayson completed 26 of 36 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns.
The Rams took a commanding 24-3 lead on their second drive of the third quarter as Grayson found a wide open Rashard Higgins for a 51-yard touchdown. The two also connected for a 42-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter as the Rams took a 14-0 lead.
Higgins, who had four touchdown catches in a 42-17 victory over Tulsa last week, now has 10 touchdown catches this season.
The Rams seemingly put the game away later in the third quarter.
A nine-yard touchdown run by running back Dee Hart gave the Rams a 31-3 lead with 4:48 to go in the third quarter. Hart’s touchdown capped a four-play, 48-yard drive that was set up by a 24-yard punt return by the Rams’ Joe Hansley.
Hart, who played his first three seasons at Alabama, now has five rushing touchdowns this season. He entered the game with 453 yards rushing and finished with 90 yards against the Pack on 23 carries.
The 28-point deficit was the Wolf Pack’s largest since a 62-7 loss at Florida State on Sept. 14 last season.
The Pack, though, made things interesting in the fourth quarter against Colorado State.
The Wolf Pack avoided its first game without a touchdown since a 35-0 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 5, 2009, with a 13-yard scoring run by Fajardo late in the third quarter. Fajardo, who now has six rushing touchdowns this year, weaved his way through the Colorado State defense around the left side for the touchdown, cutting the Rams’ lead to 31-10.
The touchdown drive covered 63 yards in seven plays and also featured a great catch by Henderson for a 30-yard gain to the Rams’ 32-yard line.
The defense then kept the Pack’s comeback hopes alive early in the fourth quarter. With the Rams’ offense on the move again, Pack safety Nigel Haikins ripped the ball away from Hart at the Wolf Pack 32-yard line where it was recovered by defensive lineman Lenny Jones.
It took Fajardo just two minutes to cover the 68 yards and cut the Rams’ lead to two touchdowns. The senior quarterback found seldom used wide receiver Kendall Brock for a 24-yard gain down to the Rams’ 44-yard line to jump start the drive. He then scrambled for 18 yards down the right side for a first down at the 26-yard line..
A 13-yard pass to wide receiver Richy Turner gave the Pack a first down at the 11. Fajardo then connected with Henderson for a 9-yard touchdown two plays later to slice the Colorado State lead to just 31-17 with 10:31 to go.
The Wolf Pack then cut the Rams’ lead to just a touchdown with more than six minutes to go.
Fajardo and the Pack went 79 yards in nine plays and used just 2:04 to pull to within 31-24 with 6:22 to go on an 11-yard touchdown pass to Turner. Turner caught Fajardo’s pass inside the 5-yard line and slipped into the left corner of the end zone for his first touchdown of the year.
The Wolf Pack defense kept giving the offense chances to get back in the game.
Wolf Pack linebacker Jonathan McNeal dragged down Higgins on a key third down play after a short 2-yard catch to give the ball back to the Pack on their final drive.
The Wolf Pack trailed 17-3 at halftime and was held without a touchdown in the first half for the first time in almost two years (Dec. 1, 2012 against Boise State).
The only Pack points in the opening half came on a 21-yard field goal by Brent Zuzo as the half came to a close. The sophomore kicker earlier had missed wide right on a 50-yard field goal attempt midway through the first quarter.
Zuzo’s field goal capped a 72-yard, 10-play drive over the final 2:07 of the half. Fajardo connected with Henderson for 12 yards down to the 3-yard line to set up the field goal. He also found Richardson for two big completions (26 and 10 yards) to keep the drive alive. Fajardo also scrambled for an 18-yard gain on the second play of the drive.
The final drive allowed the Wolf Pack to take something positive into their halftime locker room after a frustrating opening 30 minutes. Fajardo missed a wide open Richy Turner inside the 5-yard line on what would have been a likely easy touchdown on the Pack’s second drive. Zuzo’s 50-yard miss came two plays after Fajardo’s pass over Turner’s head.
Colorado State also missed a field goal in the opening half as Jared Roberts misfired from 45 yards out with two minutes to go in the first quarter.
The Rams, though, broke a scoreless tie early in the second quarter as Grayson found Steven Walker on a 1-yard touchdown pass. The 65-yard, eight-play drive also saw Grayson connect with Walker for completions of 22 and 12 yards.
The Rams extended their lead to 14-0 on their next drive as Grayson found Higgins from 42 yards out. Higgins caught Grayson’s pass on the right hash mark in front of Wolf Pack cornerback Charles Garrett at the 15-yard line and found the end zone for his ninth receiving touchdown of the year.
The Rams took a 17-0 lead a minute later after blocking a Wolf Pack punt at the Nevada 25-yard line. A personal foul on Colorado State’s Nolan Peralta on the Rams’ first play of the drive helped the Wolf Pack limit the damage after the blocked punt. Roberts connected from 33 yards out for the field goal and the 17-0 lead with 2:07 to go in the half.
Fajardo was just 8-of-17 for 64 yards through the air in the first half. Grayson, who came into the game with 1,497 passing yards and 13 touchdowns, was 15-of-18 for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the opening half.
The Wolf Pack now heads out on the road for two games at BYU (Oct. 18) and Hawaii (Oct. 25) before returning to Mackay Stadium to meet San Diego State on Nov. 1.