RENO — Brian Polian warned his Nevada Wolf Pack football team about the Cal Poly Mustangs this week. It turns out the Wolf Pack didn’t take their head coach all that seriously.
The Wolf Pack narrowly escaped its first loss to a FCS team in more than two decades Friday night, holding off the Big Sky Conference’s Mustangs 30-27 in overtime in front of a season-opening crowd of 19,138 at renovated Mackay Stadium. It took a 5-yard touchdown run by James Butler in overtime for the Pack to avoid one of its most embarrassing losses since joining the FBS in 1992.
“I want to go on record by saying I don’t ever want to schedule them again,” Polian said. “Let’s schedule someone else.”
The last Wolf Pack loss to a FCS team (the former Division I-AA) is at Boise State, 37-27, on Sept. 19, 1994 in Boise’s final year in the Big Sky.
“People might say after this, ‘Why does it take you to go to overtime to beat a FCS team?’” Polian said. “Well, if you say that you don’t know football.”
Polian, now in his fourth year as Pack head coach, improved his career record to 19-20 with four of the victories coming against FCS teams. The first three victories over FCS teams, also over Big Sky Conference teams (UC Davis twice, Southern Utah), were by an average of 18 points.
“Am I alarmed?” Polian said. “I’m not alarmed. I’m pleased. We are never going to apologize for a win.”
Cal Poly’s run-oriented, triple-option offense piled up 383 yards rushing on 71 carries. Mustangs quarterback Dano Graves ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns and was 5-of-12 for 62 yards through the air.
“Everybody has good football players,” Polian said. “That quarterback (Graves) is a good football player. Their scheme is really good.”
The Wolf Pack offense also had a good scheme to start the game.
The Wolf Pack jumped out to a 21-7 lead after one quarter and appeared ready to stroll to an easy season-opening victory. Butler exploded up the middle for a 50-yard touchdown run on the game’s sixth play to get the evening started as the Pack scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions.
Quarterback Tyler Stewart completed all seven of his passes in the first quarter, including touchdown strikes of six yards to Wyatt Demps in the right corner of the end zone and nine yards to Jerico Richardson in the left corner. Demps’ touchdown gave the Pack a 14-0 lead with 9:13 to go in the opening quarter. The brief four-play, 27-yard drive was set up by a fumble (recovered by the Pack’s Dameon Baber) by Graves.
“We knew we had to start fast,” Stewart said.
The Wolf Pack piled up 176 yards of offense in the first quarter with 82 of them coming off Stewart’s right arm. The senior also had an electrifying 15-yard run in the opening quarter to help set up his touchdown pass to Demps.
And then, suddenly, the offense disappeared.
The only points the Wolf Pack put on the scoreboard in the second, third and fourth quarters combined was a field goal by Brent Zuzo with just three seconds to go before halftime. The Pack had just 162 yards combined over the final three quarters of regulation. Those final three quarters saw Stewart go just 9-of-15 for just 95 yards through the air and Butler running for just 40 yards on 10 carries.
“They were not going to just let James Butler run the ball,” Polian said.
Butler finished the game with 123 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
“They really tried to bring the house,” said Butler of Cal Poly’s defense. “It was pretty confusing.”
“We got physically worn down in the second half,” Polian said.
Cal Poly’s predictable offense also seemed to confuse the Pack. The Mustangs had 71 plays (the Pack’s 34) and controlled the ball for 36:09 of regulation.
“They came after us,” Pack linebacker Alex Bertrando said. “They just kind of wear you down.”
The Wolf Pack’s lack of offense allowed Cal Poly to methodically climb back into the game. The Mustangs cut the Wolf Pack’s lead to just 24-17 on a 10-yard touchdown run by Graves on the second play of the fourth quarter. The eight-play, 68-yard touchdown drive was kept alive by a 30-yard run by Graves on a 3rd-and-21 play down to the Wolf Pack 49-yard line.
“That 3rd-and-20 run absolutely killed us,” Polian said. “We have to get off the field on 3rd-and-20 especially against a triple-option team.”
The Mustangs then tied the game on an 18-play, 79-yard drive that ate away 9:06 of the fourth quarter clock. Kori Garcia had runs of 14 and 19 yards on the drive and fullback Joe Protheroe carried the ball 10 times for 28 yards. It was Protheroe who gained two yards on a 4th-and-1 run from the Wolf Pack 12-yard line to keep the drive alive. Graves capped off the drive three plays later with a 1-yard scoring run.
The touchdown, though, almost didn’t happen as Graves fumbled the ball inside the 10-yard line on first down. Cal Poly center Joey Kuperman, though, fell on the ball at the 1-yard line to save the drive.
“We didn’t get a lot of breaks,” Polian said. “That ball was just sitting there at the one for us.”
The Mustangs scored first in overtime on a 37-yard field goal by Casey Sublette to take a 27-24 lead. The Wolf Pack, though, put the ball in the end zone on its first overtime drive to win the game.
Stewart found wide receiver Hasaan Henderson for a 12-yard gain on first down and Butler broke free for eight yards on second down. He then found the end zone two plays later from five yards out to avoid the upset loss.
“After I got in the end zone I was a little confused,” Butler said. “I didn’t know why everyone was in the end zone with me. I didn’t really know what happened.”
Polian used his post-game talk to his players and the media to try to convince everyone beating a FCS team by just three points in overtime at home was not the end of the world.
“Coach P always tell us to never be sorry for a win,” Butler said. “We were excited.”
“We have a lot to teach and there’s a lot we have to improve on before next week (at Notre Dame on Sept. 9),” Polian said. But we found a way to win the game. That’s all that matters.”