RENO — Brian Polian now has his first signature victory as the Nevada Wolf Pack’s head football coach.
The Wolf Pack used a stingy defense and a patient offense to beat the Washington State Cougars, 24-13, Friday night in front of 26,023 fans at Mackay Stadium and a national television audience on ESPN. Polian, now in his second year as head coach, now has his first victory over a Pac-12 Conference team. More importantly, the Wolf Pack, coming off a 4-8 season in Polian’s first year, now has a two-game winning streak to start the season.
Washington State fell to 0-2.
The Pack defense, which has struggled in recent years, frustrated the Cougars’ high-flying spread offense all night long. The Cougars piled up plenty of yards (427) and first downs (25) as quarterback Connor Halliday completed 38-of-57 passes for 389 yards. The Cougars, though, only found the end zone once. The Pack, which never trailed in the game, also held the Cougars to just a field goal in the second half.
The Wolf Pack offense seemed content to play it safe and conservatively all night. Quarterback Cody Fajardo completed just 12-of-21 passes for 110 yards as the Pack ran the ball 56 times for 214 yards.
The Wolf Pack used that conservative approach on offense to take a 14-10 halftime lead. The Pack, in an effort to kill some clock and keep the Cougars’ offense off the field, ran the ball 26 times in the opening half (for 113 yards) and threw just 13 passes (for 35 yards).
The Pack scored twice in the opening half on two vastly different drives.
Wolf Pack freshman cornerback Kendall Johnson picked off a Halliday pass at the Nevada 43-yard line and returned it 45 yards to the Washington State 12-yard line to set up the game’s first score. It took the Pack just four plays to cover the dozen yards as Don Jackson scored from a yard out with 1:18 to go in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
The second touchdown featured freshman running back James Butler and saw the Wolf Pack cover 91 yards on 10 plays. Fajardo was just 2-of-3 through the air on the drive for nine yards. Butler carried the ball five times for 20 yards on the drive, scoring the touchdown untouched from a yard out for a 14-0 lead with 10:59 to go in the second half.
The biggest play on the scoring drive, though, belonged to Fajardo. The senior exploded up the middle for a 55-yard run before he was brought down at the Washington State 8-yard line. It still took the Pack, though, four offensive plays and a pass interference penalty on Washington State in the end zone to score on the drive.
Fajardo’s long run accounted for more than a third (55 of 148) of the Pack’s offense in the first half.
The Cougars started to cut into the Pack’s two-touchdown lead midway through the second quarter. Halliday, who was 18-of-30 for 183 yards in the first half, led the Cougars on an 80-yard drive for their only touchdown in the first 30 minutes.
It took Halliday and the Cougars just five plays to cover the 80 yards. All five plays on the drive covered at least 10 yards, including the 13-yard touchdown pass from Halliday to Vince Mayle in the left corner of the end zone over Pack cornerback Evan Favors.
Halliday was 4-of-4 on the drive through the air for 56 yards and running back Theron West also had a 19-yard run. The other five yards on the drive were due to a Wolf Pack off-sides penalty to open the drive.
The Wolf Pack defense played well in the opening half despite allowing the 80-yard scoring drive. Linebacker Jordan Dobrich and strong safety Duran Workman each blitzed Halliday for sacks on the Cougars’ first drive. The Pack defense held Washington State to just 10 yards rushing on nine carries, thanks to the sacks by Dobrich (15 yards) and Workman (five yards). Workman also intercepted a Halliday pass in the second quarter at the Wolf Pack 40-yard line.
The first half was also a penalty-filled affair as the Pack was called for six infractions and Washington State was whistled five times. The Cougars seemed to be hurt the most by the penalties. Cornerback Daquan Brown was called for pass interference in the end zone, setting up Butler’s 1-yard scoring run. Marcus Mason was called for unsportsmanlike penalty after a fake punt attempt by the Pack failed near midfield in the first quarter. A false start call on Cougars’ center Riley Sorenson pushed the ball back to the 8-yard line forcing Washington State to settle for a 25-yard field goal by freshman Erik Powell with 1:54 to go in the half.
It was a pair of missed field goals in the third quarter by Powell that sabotaged the Cougars’ offense. The left-footed kicker missed wide right from 37 yards out on the first Washington State drive of the second half and was wide right from 38 yards away with 2:49 to go in the third quarter.
The Cougars went eight plays and 49 yards before Powell’s first miss and 11 plays and 51 yards before his second miss.
Halliday found his rhythm in the third quarter, completing 12-of-15 passes for 115 yards but had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard thanks to Powell as the Wolf Pack carried their 14-10 halftime lead into the fourth quarter.
Powell’s second miss seemed to energize the Wolf Pack offense.
The Pack took over the ball at their own 21-yard line with 2:49 to go in the third quarter and proceeded to march 79 yards in 14 plays to take a 21-10 lead with 12:15 to play. Jackson started the drive with an 18-yard run and did most of the dirty work on the drive. He finished the drive off with a 2-yard touchdown over the right side for the first multi-touchdown game of his two-year Pack career.
Fajardo also completed a key 22-yard pass to wide receiver Hasaan Henderson on a 3rd-and-11 play from the Pack 38-yard line to keep the drive alive.
The Cougars switched field goal kickers in the fourth quarter. Quentin Breshears replaced Powell and the junior connected from 38 yards out to cut the Pack lead to 21-13 with 9:32 to play. Breshears’ field goal, his first of the season, capped an eight-play, 39-yard drive.
The Wolf Pack, though, then put the game away with a clock-eating, efficient drive.
Fajardo led the Pack 52 yards in 12 plays for a 40-yard field goal by Brent Zuzo and a 24-13 lead with 4:25 to play. The drive ate away 5:07 of the fourth-quarter clock.
Fajardo took control on the drive, running 13 yards and completing passes to tight end Jared Gipson (five yards) and Henderson (21) for three important first downs. The pass to Henderson, a deep slant on the left side, gave the Pack a first down at the Washington State 26-yard line.
The Pack defense then put its stamp on the victory.
Defensive end Brock Hekking dragged down Cougars’ running back Jamal Morrow on fourth down, short of a first down at the Washington State 43-yard line to give the ball back to the Pack with just 3:42 left.
The Wolf Pack will try to beat its second Pac-12 Conference team in a row when it travels to Tucson to meet the Arizona Wildcats next Saturday.