The Nevada Wolf Pack took out all of its frustrations on the San Jose State Spartans on Saturday afternoon.
“We were due,” safety Dameon Baber said after a 59-14 victory in front of the smallest crowd (14,604) at Mackay Stadium this season.
The victory over the Spartans snapped the Wolf Pack’s three-game losing streak and improved its record to 2-8 overall and 2-4 in the Mountain West. San Jose State, which has now lost nine games in a row, fell to 1-10, 0-6.
“It’s been frustrating for everyone this year,” Pack defensive end Korey Rush said. “Everybody had enough.”
“This shows what we’re capable of doing,” Pack coach Jay Norvell said.
Baber showed some things that even Norvell didn’t know were possible. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior intercepted three passes, returning two of them for touchdowns. Baber also picked up a blocked punt and scored another touchdown, becoming just the third player in NCAA history to score three touchdowns on returns in a single FBS game.
“It is still unreal to me,” Baber said. “It’s a blessing.”
Baber returned a blocked punt six yards for a touchdown to give the Pack a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter. He returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown for a 28-7 lead midway through the second quarter and returned another interception 39 yards for a score and a 52-7 lead late in the third quarter.
“That was a pretty amazing performance by him,” Norvell said. “It’s the kind of day that shows his explosiveness as a player.”
The interceptions were Baber’s first since he had six as a freshman in 2015. The touchdowns were his first since he played at Palmdale (Calif.) High School.
“It’s been very frustrating, not having a pick in a year and a half,” said Baber, who also had a three-interception game as a freshman in 2015 against Fresno State. “But picks are hard to come by.”
Not on Saturday.
San Jose State quarterback Montel Aaron, who completed just 9-of-18 passes for 108 yards, badly missed his intended receivers on Baber’s first two interceptions. The third interception bounced off a Spartan receiver and deflected right to Baber.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Baber said. “I was just watching the quarterback and seeing where he was throwing the ball and then just trying to make a football play.”
Baber’s wild afternoon even stunned his own teammates.
“I got back in the locker room and said to (offensive line) Coach (Mason) Miller, ‘I feel like I didn’t even do a thing,’” offensive tackle Austin Corbett said. “I’d be on the bench watching the defense and all of a sudden there was Dameon and the defense scoring and it’s back on the bench for me.”
The Wolf Pack defense, which allowed an average of 43 points a game the last three games, held the Spartans to 302 yards. The Pack defense also had six sacks, 3.5 by defensive end Malik Reed. Nose tackle Hausia Sekona recovered two San Jose State fumbles and linebacker Austin Paulhus had 11 tackles. Baber outscored San Jose State all by himself.
“I was happy to see our defense make big plays,” Norvell said. “Our defense hadn’t played particularly well the last few weeks.”
“This group keeps fighting everyday,” Rush said. “They deserve this, very much so. I just wish it could have happened earlier in the season.”
Baber simply turned in one of the greatest performances by a Wolf Pack defensive player in school history.
“To see that many game-changing plays by one player in one game is remarkable,” Norvell said.
“Dameon is such a pure football player,” said Rush, who had seven tackles, 2.5 for a loss, and half a sack. “He’s had his struggles but today he looked like 2015 Dameon. He’s persevered. He never threw in the towel and today it all paid off for him.”
“He’s back,” Pack wide receiver Wyatt Demps said. “He’s back to his freshman year when he had six picks.”
Demps had seven catches for 115 yards and caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Ty Gangi. Gangi, who completed 16-of-23 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns, found Demps from 39 yards out to tie the game at 7-7 with three minutes left in the first quarter. He also connected with Demps for a 3-yard score to give the Pack a 35-7 lead late in the second quarter. The Pack quarterback also hooked up with running back Jaxson Kincaide for a 6-yard scoring pass and a 45-7 lead early in the third quarter.
“We saw if we make big plays in all three phases of the game, we can be a pretty good football team,” Norvell said.
It was Demps who blocked a San Jose State punt with 1:06 to go in the first quarter that turned into Baber’s first touchdown. “That says a lot when your leading receiver is also one of your best special teams players,” Norvell said of Demps.
“We just practiced that scheme all week and it was successful for us,” said Demps of the blocked punt.
“We saw (on film) that they didn’t (punt) block all that well and we took advantage of that,” Baber said. “About five of us just went after the punt.”
The Wolf Pack’s 45-point margin of victory is its largest since it beat Hawaii 69-24 on Sept. 22, 2012. The Pack’s 38 first-half points on Saturday are its most in a half since it scored 42 in the first half of a 63-20 victory over New Mexico State on Nov. 21, 2009. The Pack’s 59 points are the second-most it has ever scored during its 31-game, 118-year rivalry with San Jose State, behind a 62-7 win in 2009.
The 59 points are the most the Pack has scored in a game at Mackay Stadium since it beat Idaho 70-45 in 2009 and the second most it has ever scored in a Mountain West game home or away after the 69-24 win at Hawaii in 2012 in the first Mountain West game in school history.
“I like to see our players respond and do the things they are capable of doing,” Norvell said. “When you play with confidence great things can happen.”
The Wolf Pack will finish its season with a game at San Diego State this Saturday and at home on Nov. 25 against UNLV.
“You know, when you have just one win all year and you keep working hard everyday and lifting weights and you just don’t see results, it’s tough,” Corbett said. “This was big for us. This kind of makes everything taste better.”
“This game is a great indication that we are headed in the right direction,” Norvell said.