The result wasn’t pretty.
With backup quarterback Cristian Solano forced into action because of a leg injury to starter Ty Gangi, the Wolf Pack offense sputtered most of the night in a 21-3 loss to the Fresno State Bulldogs. It is the first time the Wolf Pack has been held without a touchdown since a 16-3 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the 2014 New Orleans Bowl.
Solano, who had thrown just seven passes (completing six) in his Wolf Pack career going into the game, played well at times. The 6-foot-1 junior completed 22-of-43 passes for 195 yards and also did his best to keep drives alive with 23 scrambles for 71 yards.
“At the end of the day, as the quarterback, we lost. It’s all on me,” Solano said.
The Wolf Pack, which has yet to win games in consecutive weeks in the coach Jay Norvell era, fell to 3-3 overall and 1-1 in the Mountain West. Fresno State improved to 4-1, 1-0.
“We have a very disappointed locker room,” Norvell said. “Our kids are hurting. And that’s good. They should be disappointed. It should hurt..”
Norvell, who said he didn’t make the decision to rest Gangi until Saturday morning, didn’t blame the loss on his backup quarterback.
“The running game didn’t do enough to help the quarterback,” Norvell said. “When the quarterback is our leading rusher in a game, we just can’t function that way.”
The Wolf Pack ran the ball 43 times for 132 yards. Kelton Moore’s 28 yards on six carries was the top production from a running back.
“When you are effective running the ball it takes pressure off the quarterback,” Norvell said.
Fresno State’s running game was almost non-existent. The Pack held the Bulldogs to just 30 yards on the ground on 24 carries.
“Our defense showed a lot of growth,” Norvell said. “That’s something we can improve on.”
The Wolf Pack outgained Fresno State 327-271 and had more first downs (21-12) and also controlled the ball for 35:26. But it was the Bulldogs’ defense that won this defensive struggle. Fresno State, which has allowed just 78 points this season, made life as a starter difficult for Solano, picking off three of his passes and sacking him four times.
“It was real tough,” Solano said. “That‘s a good defense.”
Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion completed 20-of-28 passes for 241 yards and two scores. It took a 27-yard touchdown pass to KeeSean Johnson with 8:28 to play, though, to finally put the game away.”
“Until that last touchdown we were really one drive away from making it a football game,” Norvell said. “But we just didn’t respond.”
Solano nearly battled McMaryion to a draw in the first half.
Fresno State took just a 7-3 lead at the intermission, thanks to a 19-yard touchdown pass from McMaryion to running back Ronnie Rivers with 13:11 to go in the second quarter. The Pack defense, though, held the Bulldogs without a point on five of six drives in the opening half, keeping the game within striking distance for Solano and the offense.
The Wolf Pack outplayed the Bulldogs everywhere but on the scoreboard in the opening half. The Pack had more first downs (10-7), more plays (41-27), more total yards (171-116) and controlled the ball for 18:04 of the 30 minutes.
“Cristian really did a lot of good things early,” Norvell said.
Solano, who ran for a 9-yard touchdown in the Wolf Pack’s 72-19 rout over Portland State in the season opener, was a dual threat in the first half. He completed 10-of-20 passes for 92 yards and also scrambled nine times for 38 yards on the ground. He took off for a 15-yard gain on the second play of the game for a first down, picked up seven more and another first down on the Pack’s second drive and weaved his way through the Bulldog defense for 11 yards and another first down on the Pack’s final drive of the half.
Solano’s 71 rushing yards for the game is the most by a Wolf Pack quarterback this season.
“I just saw a lot of holes open up,” he said. “I just wanted to get five or six yards and keep drives going.”
Solano’s best run of the first half helped set up the Pack’s only points of the first 30 minutes, a 41-yard field goal by Ramiz Ahmed with eight minutes to go in the second quarter. Facing a 4th-and-2 from his own 40-yard line, Solano faked a handoff to Toa Taua and scampered 13 yards around the left side for a first down. Ahmed kicked his field goal three plays later to cut Fresno’s lead to just 7-3, capping off an 11-play, 51-yard drive.
Solano, though, was intercepted twice in the first half but neither turnover hurt the Wolf Pack. Fresno State cornerback Tank Kelly snared a Solano pass at the Fresno State 46 (no Pack receiver was near the ball) and returned it 43 yards to the Wolf Pack 11 yard line with 2:31 to go in the half. The Bulldogs, though, returned the favor on the very next play as Jamire Jordan fumbled the ball away after a hit by Pack safety Dameon Baber. The ball bounced in the air right to linebacker Gabe Sewell, giving the Pack the ball at its own 9-yard line.
“We gave a good effort on defense,” Baber said. “But we still came up short. It hurts. But I was happy with the way the defense responded.”
Solano and the Pack nearly turned that turnover into points.
Solano moved the Wolf Pack from the 9-yard line down to the Fresno State 42, where his third-down pass was picked off by the Bulldogs’ Juju Hughes at the 5-yard line with 11 seconds to go in the half.
Fossum was Solano’s favorite target in the opening half with six catches for 56 yards.
The 6-foot-2 McMaryion, who played his first two seasons (2015, 2016) at Oregon State before transferring to Fresno State last season, was 12-of-16 in the first half for 101 yards, though he was victimized by two drops by wide receiver KeeSean Johnson.
McMaryion was 7-for-7 through the air for 65 yards on the Bulldogs’ only scoring drive in the first half. The key pass on the 69-yard, nine-play drive was a 7-yard pass from McMaryion to Johnson down to the Pack 19-yard line on 3rd-and-six. McMaryion then hooked up with Rivers for the 19-yard scoring pass on the very next play. Rivers ran between blocks from left tackle Christian Cronk and left guard Nick Abbs on his way to the end zone.
The Bulldogs extended their lead to 14-3with 10:20 to go in the third quarter on Rivers’ second touchdown of the game, a 2-yard run on a 4th-and-1 play. The touchdown was set up by a 69-yard McMaryion pass to Jared Rice on the first play of the drive, down to the Wolf Pack 11-yard line.The 6-foot-5 Rice ran untouched through the middle of the Wolf Pack defense before he was brought down by Baber at the 11.
The Pack, defense, though, made the Bulldogs earn the touchdown, stopping Rivers for no gain on 3rd-and-1. Rivers, playing in just his second game of the year, had two carries for 25 yards (no touchdowns) last week in his season debut against Toledo.
The Pack, now 21-29-1 after 50 games against Fresno State in the rivalry which began in 1923, failed to pick up a first down on any of its first three drives of the third quarter. But Solano and the Wolf Pack did show some life late in the quarter. Starting at his own 5-yard line, Solano ran the ball three consecutive times for a total of 12 yards and a first down of the quarter. Solano also connected with McLane Mannix for a 13-yard gain and Elijah Cooks for a 6-yard gain for a pair of first downs just past midfield.
The drive ended a play later, though, as an underthrown Solano pass down the middle intended for Fossum was intercepted by Bulldogs free safety Mike Bell.
“We knew that to have a chance in this game we couldn’t turn the ball over,” Norvell said.
The Bulldogs put the game away with 8:28 to play on a 27-yard scoring strike from McMaryion to Johnson. The short, four-play, 44-yard drive was set up by a 31-yard Wolf Pack punt by Quinton Conaway, who earlier had punts of 74 and 51 yards.
The Wolf Pack will host Boise State (3-2, 1-1) at Mackay Stadium this Saturday night (7:30 p.m.). The Broncos were beaten at home on Saturday by San Diego State, 19-13.
“We’re disappointed but a lot of teams in our league are disappointed right now,” Norvell said. “A lot of teams are just like us. We still have half the season left and we can still make this a very special season.”