The Nevada Wolf Pack football team did the unthinkable.
The Wolf Pack lost to the Idaho State Bengals of the Big Sky Conference, 30-28, on Saturday in front of a stunned crowd of 16,394 at Mackay Stadium. It is the Wolf Pack’s first loss to a Football Championship Subdivision team since it lost to Boise State in 1994. It is also the Pack’s first loss to Idaho State since 1981 after 11 consecutive victories.
“We certainly can play better than we did tonight,” Pack head coach Jay Norvell said. “That’s the part I’m most disappointed in.”
Norvell is now the first coach to start his Wolf Pack career 0-3 since Gordon McEachron in 1955. Idaho State, which is now 36-112 since the start of the 2004 season, had lost 27 games in a row to Football Bowl Subdivision teams dating back to 2000 before beating the Wolf Pack.
“After our first two games I thought we made steps forward,” Norvell said. “Obviously tonight was not a step forward.”
The Bengals, now 2-1 this season, dominated the first three quarters. Idaho State, which last played at Mackay Stadium in 1991, jumped out to a 30-7 lead with 10 minutes to go in the third quarter on a 50-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tanner Gueller to wide receiver Michael Dean on a slant down the middle of the Pack defense.
“I didn’t feel this team could run the ball on us the way they did,” Norvell said. “I didn’t think they could pass protect against us the way they did and I didn’t think their receivers could run routes on our secondary the way they did.”
The Bengals did all those things and more in jumping out to their shocking 23-point lead.
A 36-yard field goal by Parker Johnson gave Idaho State a 3-0 lead just four minutes into the game and the Bengals led for the rest of the way. A 1-yard touchdown run by Ty Flanagan made it 10-0 with 6:45 to go in the first quarter. In the second quarter Johnson added another 36-yard field goal and one from 19 yards out and Gueller connected with Hagan Graves on a 15-yard scoring strike as the Bengals took a 23-7 lead at the break.
“I’m sure a lot of people are disappointed,” Wolf Pack safety Asauni Rufus said.
“This stings a lot,” offensive lineman Austin Corbett said. “We didn’t do our jobs across the board.”
The Pack, though, almost took the game to overtime.
Quarterback Kaymen Cureton, making his first college start, looked like a nervous freshman at the start of the game, completing just 8-of-17 passes for 55 yards with an interception by halftime. He also ran the ball seven times, gaining 21 yards but also losing 25 (two of the losses were on sacks). He also fumbled the ball away on one of his many scrambles.
“It was just nerves,” said Cureton, who became the first true freshman to start a game for the Wolf Pack since David Neill in 1998. “I was a little too jumpy.”
Cureton was intercepted on the Pack’s second drive, leading to Idaho State’s first touchdown and a 10-0 deficit. Cureton also fumbled the ball away on a scramble, leading to Johnson’s 19-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in the first half for a 23-7 deficit.
“We knew he was going to make mistakes,” Norvell said. “It was his first start.”
Norvell said he understands if some of the fans in attendance wanted him to make a quarterback change at halftime. “I wanted to see him play in the second half,” Norvell said. “We felt that Kaymen was doing a lot of things we were asking him to do. It wasn’t all the quarterback’s fault at that point (halftime) in the game.”
Cureton continued to struggle in the third quarter, missing wide open wide receiver Brandon O’Leary-Orange down the left sideline on the Pack’s first drive in the third quarter.
But the momentum shifted drastically midway through the third quarter as the Pack defense finally got some crucial stops and Cureton settled down.
The 5-foot-11 Cureton led his teammates on an eight-play, 65-yard scoring drive to cut Idaho State’s lead to 30-14 with 7:10 to go in the third quarter.
The running backs did the bulk of the work on the drive but Cureton did find wide receiver Wyatt Demps on a 21-yard pass down to the Idaho State 39-yard line on the second play. A pass interference penalty on the Bengals’ Brandon Monroe gave the Pack a first down at the Bengals’ 25. The running backs took over from there. Kelton Moore carried three consecutive times for 13 yards and Blake Wright, who did not have a carry in the first two games of the season, found the end zone from 12 yards out.
“I just calmed down,” Cureton said. “And everything slowed down for me.”
Cureton played extremely well in the fourth quarter, completing 8-of-10 passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns as the Wolf Pack nearly completed a 23-point comeback.
“For his first start he did a lot of good things,” Norvell said. “We knew he would make plays and he did.”
Cureton engineered a 12-play, 67-yard scoring drive to cut Idaho State’s lead to 30-22. He found McLane Mannix for eight yards, O’Leary-Orange for four yards and Moore for 18 on the drive. He then put the ball in the end zone on a 10-yard pass to Demps in the back right corner of the end zone. Cureton then came right back and found Trevion Armstrong on another pass in the back right corner of the end zone for the two-point conversion to pull the Pack within eight.
“He did a great job for his first college start,” Corbett said.
The Wolf Pack still trailed by eight with 4:09 to play. Cureton then led his teammates on a 10-play, 78-yard drive that culminated in a 3-yard touchdown pass to Demps with 58 seconds to play, cutting the deficit to just 30-28. The drive actually covered 84 yards as offensive tackle Jake Nelson was called for a 5-yard penalty for being illegally downfield on the first play and Cureton lost a yard on a scramble on the next play as he dropped the ball and fell on it.
On the very next play, though, he found a streaking Mannix down the left sideline for a 54-yard gain down to the Idaho State 26. Moore had an 11-yard gain on the ground two plays later down to the 7-yard line. Cureton then found Demps four plays later on fourth down for the touchdown.
The comeback, though, fell short as Cureton rolled to his right on the two-point conversion attempt. The ball slipped out of his hand and fell to the ground as he was about to loft a pass to Demps in the back right corner of the end zone.
“It just slipped,” Norvell said. “The ball came out of his hands. I liked the call. I liked the matchup.”
What he didn’t like was his team’s effort for the majority of the game.
“I was disappointed in our overall response in a competitive situation at home,” Norvell said. “We’ve got to live with that. One of our goals this year was to win all of our home games and play real well at home (the Pack is now 0-2 at home). We didn’t do that. I was disappointed in the way our guys fought. It’s my job to get to the bottom of it.”
The Wolf Pack outgained the Bengals 423-383, had more first downs (25-18) and, for the first time this season, dominated time of possession, controlling the ball for 35:26. Cureton was 19-of-33 for 205 yards and three touchdowns. Moore and Jaxson Kincaide each rushed for 96 yards as the Pack ran for 218 yards on 56 carries.
The statistics, though, didn’t matter much right after the game for the winless Wolf Pack. This is the first season the Pack has started out 0-3 since 2009. That Pack team (Colin Kaepernick was a junior) went on to win its next eight in a row before losing its final two to finish 8-5 on the year.
“We can’t let this happen again,” Corbett said. “To start 0-3, that’s not the way anyone wants to start a season. I never thought we’d lose to a FCS team.”
Rufus, though, said the Wolf Pack hasn’t lost confidence.
“The type of team we have, I think we are capable of bouncing back,” Rufus said.
The Wolf Pack must now win six of its final nine games to become bowl eligible. The Pack goes on the road next Saturday to face Washington State in its final non-conference game of the year.
“I will never count us out,” Rufus said. “They key now is to just put everything in perspective. A lot of our goals (conference title, bowl game) can still be achieved.”
“We’re really not that far away from playing pretty good football,” Norvell said.