RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack passed its first test of the season Thursday night at Mackay Stadium.
New starting quarterback Tyler Stewart completed 13 of 20 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown as the Wolf Pack methodically turned back the UC Davis Aggies 31-17 in front of a season-opening crowd of 21,483.
The victory over the Football Championship Sub-division Aggies, though, wasn’t the walk in the park the Pack might have expected. The Big Sky Conference’s Aggies, who finished 2-9 a year ago, actually outscored the Pack 14-10 in the second half. Davis quarterback Ben Scott also went 32-for-47 passes for 238 yards.
“Look, same thing as last year,” Pack coach Brian Polian said. “I will never apologize for a win. There were a lot of good things out there tonight and things we need to do better. But, overall, there was a lot to be excited about.”
Running back Don Jackson, who had 124 yards and two touchdowns, agreed the Pack should feel good about Thursday night.
“You have to celebrate after a win, no matter who it is against,” Jackson said. “They are never easy.”
Most of the excitement Polian was talking about, though, was in the first half.
The Pack jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the second quarter as the outcome was never in doubt the rest of the game. The Aggies scored a consolation touchdown on a 3-yard run by Scott with just two second left to make the final score respectable.
Davis’ decision to go for the late touchdown seemed to irritate Polian.
“I don’t know about calling timeouts like they did at the end and risking your quarterback taking a big hit in a game that you can’t win,” Polian said. “I don’t necessarily agree how the end of the second half played out. I’m just glad nobody got hurt.”
Polian was most pleased about the play of his quarterback. Stewart also ran for 43 yards on nine carries, including a 15-yard touchdown.
“I was really, really pleased with Tyler Stewart,” Polian said. “I loved his composure. I loved his leadership. There’s not much to be upset about with Tyler. I loved his energy. It was a very good first step for him.”
Stewart’s 43 yards rushing also didn’t surprise Polian.
“I wouldn’t call him fast but he’s not the statue people think he is,” Polian said. “He’s athletic enough to pull it down and take off.”
Stewart took the victory in stride.
“I felt I was prepared and the offense was prepared so I was just excited to get out there and play,” Stewart said. “I came here to play football and get an education so I was just happy to be out there with those guys.”
Stewart also wasn’t surprised with his success against the Aggies.
“I have high expectations,” he said. “So I wasn’t surprised.”
Stewart, named the starting quarterback just two weeks ago after a spring and summer-long competition with redshirt freshman Hunter Fralick, did have some help. Jackson had his fifth 100-yard rushing game of his career. James Butler also chipped in with 65 yards on 14 carries as the Pack ran for 232 yards on 39 carries.
“Don ran the ball well,” Polian said. “They (Davis) stacked the box on him and they obviously wanted to make Tyler beat them. But Don ran well.”
“The Union (the offensive line) did a great job for me,” Jackson said.
Fralick got into the game with the Pack up 31-10 with four minutes to play for one uneventful drive. All three of his passes fell incomplete as the Pack had to punt.
Stewart was nearly perfect in the first half, completing 9-of-10 passes as the Pack jumped out to a 21-3 lead at the intermission. The 6-foot-4 junior, now 2-0 as a starting quarterback in his career, led the Pack to touchdowns on their first three drives.
Jackson did the honors on the first two drives, scoring on runs of 1 and 7 yards, respectively. Stewart then completed a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jarred Gipson as the Pack took a 21-0 lead with just more than six minutes to play in the half.
The Aggies, which lost to the Pack 36-7 at Mackay Stadium in 2013, never really stopped Stewart and the Pack in the first half. The Pack had the ball for just three complete drives. The fourth time they had the ball Stewart took a knee and killed off the final seconds of the half.
Jackson did most of the work on the first scoring drive, carrying the ball seven times for 31 yards. The senior broke free on a pair of 13-yard runs during the drive and also scored from a yard out for the 7-0 lead with 4:10 to play in the first quarter.
Stewart completed his first two passes of the night on the opening drive, 18 yards to Hasaan Henderson and nine yards to Brayden Sanchez. Stewart’s only incomplete pass of the first half came from the 16 yard line on the opening drive as he missed Gipson over the middle in the end zone. A pass interference penalty on the Aggies on the next play, however, gave the Pack a first down at the 2-yard line, setting up Jackson’s first score.
The Pack took a 14-0 lead three minutes into the second quarter as Jackson capped an 80-yard, nine-play drive with a 7-yard score. Jackson, who also had a 22-yard run during the drive down to the Davis 14-yard line, stiff-armed two Davis defenders on his touchdown run over the right side.
The third Pack drive of the first half also ended in the end zone as Stewart found Gipson from 2 yards out after a timeout. Stewart was 7-for-7 through the air on the drive with three of the completions going to Henderson. He also completed an impressive 16-yard pass to Jerico Richardson after stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure. The 11-play, 80-yard drive didn’t feature one third down play as the Pack marched down the field almost at will.
The only Davis points of the first half came on a 26-yard field goal by Brady Stuart just 47 seconds before halftime. The Aggies, though, moved the ball well at times in the first half, picking up 156 total yards.
Davis ran the ball effectively on the game’s first drive and found itself with a first down at the Pack 32-yard line just six plays into the game. A sack by the Pack’s Salesa Faraimo and a false start on the Aggies, though, helped keep Davis off the scoreboard.
The Aggies did go 66 yards on 16 plays for their field goal. Scott completed 6-of-11 passes on the drive for 64 yards. Three consecutive incomplete passes into the end zone from the 9-yard line, however, forced the Aggies to settle for the three points.
All of the Pack’s intensity, though, seemed to vanish in the second half. Stewart was just 4-of-10 in the second half as the Pack scored just 10 points.
Stewart and the Pack offense stumbled right out of the second half gate, punting on the first two drives of the third quarter after not punting at all in the first half.
Stewart was also sacked twice in the third quarter after going untouched in the first half.
Some of the intensity and efficiency, though, returned late in the third quarter just in time. Stewart completed a 37-yard strike down the middle to Richardson for a first down at the Davis 22-yard line on the Pack’s third drive of the second half. He also ran the ball for 12 yards and a first down to the 10-yard line on the drive.
The drive, though, stalled inside the 10 as the Pack had to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Brent Zuzo and a 24-3 lead with 48 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The Aggies, though, then seemed to get a second wind. They scored their first touchdown on a 5-yard pass from Scott to wide receiver Ramon Vargas. Vargas’ score completed a well-executed 15-play, 77-yard drive that ate up 8:45 of the game clock.
The Wolf Pack upped its lead to 31-10 with 5:11 to go on a 15-yard touchdown run by Stewart. Stewart faked his way around Davis free safety Zack Jones at about the 12-yard line on his way to his first rushing touchdown of his career. The drive covered just 41 yards as the Pack took over the ball after an on-sides kick by Davis that backfired.
Davis’ final scoring drive, which ended with Scott’s 3-yard touchdown run with two seconds to play, covered 67 yards in 12 plays.
The Aggies ended up dominating time of possession, hogging the ball for just more than 34 minutes. The Pack, though, outgained Davis, 395-327.
Polian is now 12-14 in his third year as Wolf Pack head coach. His first victory was the 29-point rout over Davis in 2013.
The Wolf Pack will host the Arizona Wildcats a week from Saturday at Mackay Stadium.
“We have to take a big step from Week 1 to Week 2,” Polian said.