RENO — The Buffalo Bulls were just what the Nevada Wolf Pack needed Saturday night.
“I felt like we were capable of a dominant performance and we came close,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said after a 38-14 victory over the overwhelmed Bulls in front of 20,457 at Mackay Stadium. “I felt like we needed that. It’s been a while since we were dominant and I just felt like we needed that for our confidence.”
The victory is the second largest in Polian’s four seasons at Nevada after a 36-7 win over UC Davis early in the 2013 season.
“We haven’t just beat the heck out of someone for a long time,” offensive tackle Austin Corbett said. “It’s going to build our confidence.”
The Wolf Pack, now 2-1, dominated the winless (0-2) Bulls of the Mid American Conference. The Pack piled up 521 yards on offense and controlled the ball for nearly 40 minutes (39:29). James Butler, with 174 yards and three touchdowns, and Jaxson Kincaide, with 99 yards, keyed a Wolf Pack running game that gained 352 yards on the ground.
“We controlled the game pretty much the whole time,” said Wolf Pack quarterback Tyler Stewart, who was an efficient 16-of-21 through the air for 160 yards and a 2-yard touchdown pass to Wyatt Demps. “It’s nice to get a win like that. But a win is a win. Whether it’s by one point or by 20 points it doesn’t really matter.”
The Wolf Pack scored points on four of its first five drives to take a commanding 24-0 lead at halftime.
Stewart scored on a 9-yard run on the Pack’s first drive. The senior, who’s now sharing time at quarterback with sophomore Ty Gangi, also completed all three of his passes on the opening drive for 26 yards.
“When it’s time for me to play football I play football,” Stewart said. “That’s all I can do.”
Gangi was 1-of-4 through the air for nine yards and also gained 13 yards on three carries. The night, though, belonged to Stewart, who remains the unquestioned starter.
“Tyler Stewart played very, very efficiently,” Polian said. “He has handled it (sharing time with Gangi) like a true competitor.”
The Wolf Pack had to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Brent Zuzo and a 10-0 lead a minute into the second quarter as a drive stalled because of a dropped pass (by wide receiver Jerico Richardson) and a holding penalty (by guard Sean Krepsz). But Stewart and the Pack went back to their efficient ways with touchdowns on their final two drives of the half.
Butler did the honors both times, scoring from two yards out for a 17-0 lead with 6:50 to go in the half and finding the end zone from four yards away for a 24-0 lead just 1:13 before the break. Stewart completed a key 19-yard pass to Richardson and an 11-yarder to Andrew Celis to set up Butler’s first touchdown.
“From an offensive perspective there was a lot of things to feel good about,” said Polian, whose team scored its most points since a 49-27 win at UNLV on Nov. 29, 2014.
Those good feelings continued into the third quarter as the Pack took a 31-0 lead on Butler’s third touchdown of the game. The 5-foot-9, 210-pounder carried the ball seven times on the 13-play drive to open the second half for 40 yards. The junior also had back-to-back 15-yard runs on the drive to give the Pack a first down at the Buffalo 18-yard line.
“We haven’t played our best football yet,” said Butler, who has 351 yards and four touchdowns in two games against Buffalo over the last two seasons. The Pack won at Buffalo 24-21 last season.
The Wolf Pack steamrolled the Bulls on the ground, gaining the most rushing yards (352 on 64 carries) in Polian’s Wolf Pack career. Kincaide, a 5-9 speedy freshman, had almost half of his 99 yards on one carry, a 48-yard run that helped set up Zuzo’s field goal.
“If I had known he was at 99 I would have put him back in there for one more,” Polian said.
“For a freshman to get 100 is a pretty cool thing. He is more of a jitterbug type of guy with a lot of cuts,” said Stewart of Kincaide. “He’s kind of a nice little changeup from our other guys.”
“All of a sudden I looked around and he was making crazy cuts,” Corbett said. “That is very impressive to see a freshman do that.”
The Pack’s ground game was the biggest reason why Buffalo had the ball for just 20:31.
“That just kind of happened,” Polian said. “I really thought we were going to have to throw the ball to win. But we had some success and we just kind of said, ‘All right, let’s just stay with it.’”
Buffalo, which lost to Albany, an FCS team, 22-16 two weeks ago, scored two second-half touchdowns to spoil the Pack’s shutout bid. Jordan Johnson went 57-yards with a screen pass from freshman quarterback Tyree Jackson to cut the Pack’s lead to 31-7 in the third quarter.
The final Bulls’ touchdown came on a 12-yard run by Jordan with 8:50 to play after Stewart had given the Pack a 38-7 lead on a 2-yard scoring pass to Demps to open the fourth quarter.
“That long screen pass, we just got caught in a blitz,” Polian said. “That stuff happens. Give them credit. They called a great play. But that last touchdown, I’m not excited about it.”
Buffalo ran for 231 yards on the Pack defense as Johnson picked up 87 yards on 17 carries. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Jackson also ran for 87 yards on eight scrambles.
“We got the ball run down our throats a lot,” Pack linebacker Alex Bertrando said.
The Wolf Pack was hoping for its first shutout since a 37-0 win over UNLV in 2011.
“We need to get better,” Bertrando said.
The Wolf Pack, Polian said, wanted Jackson to put the ball in the air.
“We wanted to make the young quarterback beat us throwing the ball,” Polian said.
Jackson was just 7-of-22 for 130 yards and almost half of those yards (57) came on the screen pass touchdown to Johnson.
“We knew he couldn’t beat us by throwing it,” Bertrando said.
The Wolf Pack didn’t give their head coach much to worry about Saturday night, turning in one of their most complete performances since Polian took over the program in 2013.
“There’s a lot to feel good about coming out of this game,” Polian said. “I am proud of the way we bounced back after Notre Dame (a 39-10 loss last week) when we gave a disappointing performance on a national stage.”
Polian, now 20-21 as the Pack head coach, tried to keep the one-sided victory in perspective.
“Last week I said the sky is not falling,” said Polian, who graduated from St. Francis High School in Buffalo. “And this doesn’t mean that I am now looking at the world through rose colored glasses. But our job tonight was to win and we did it convincingly. After last week we had to improve and get better and we did that.”