RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack didn’t need a miracle to beat the Boise State Broncos Saturday night.
But it sure would have helped.
The Broncos survived four turnovers to outlast the Wolf Pack 31-27 in front of a crowd of 21,431 at Mackay Stadium. Boise State (4-2, 2-1) has now beaten the Pack 16 out of the last 17 games in the rivalry with the lone loss, the “Mackay Miracle,” coming in 2010 (a 34-31 Wolf Pack overtime victory).
The Wolf Pack drops to 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the Mountain West.
“There are no consolation prizes in these games,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “We just have to learn how to finish games in the fourth quarter.”
Neither team scored in the fourth quarter but those final 15 minutes is when the Broncos put the game away. Boise State had the ball for 13:28 of those final 15 minutes, running ff 27 plays and piling up eight clock-eating first downs. The Pack had the ball for just 1:32 and five plays and did not have a first down in the fourth quarter.
“I’ve talked to the team about that a lot,” said Norvell, now 6-13 as the Wolf Pack head coach over the past two seasons. “We have to score points in the fourth quarter and we have to come up with stops on defense. We didn’t do that in this game.”
The Broncos, leading 31-27, took over the ball on their own 15 with 8:26 to play. Boise State then proceeded to chew away at the clock, running 17 plays and devouring all but the final six seconds. The key play was an eight-yard pass from quarterback Brett Rypien to wide receiver C.T. Thomas for a first down at the Wolf Pack 31-yard line with 2:52 to go on a 4th-and-8 play.
“That was just an incredible throw and an incredible catch,” Norvell said.
Norvell used the Wolf Pack’s three second-half timeouts wisely. Had the Pack stopped the Broncos on that key 4th-and-8 pass the Pack would have had just under three minutes to go 30-plus yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“We (the offense and defense) have all the confidence in the world in each other,” Wolf Pack linebacker Malik Reed said. “I knew if we could just get them (the offense) the ball back they would have made something happen.”
Norvell also had confidence in his offense.
“If we would have stopped them we would have had a chance to drive it and win it,” Norvell said.
Boise State picked up four first downs on their final drive. The first three came on three third downs, needing three, four and one yard.
Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi and the offense didn’t get a chance for a dramatic game-winning drive.
“That’s what we want as an offense,” said Gangi, who completed 24-of-42 passes for 304 yards ad two touchdowns. “We want the ball in our hands to go finish the game.”
The Wolf Pack punted from the Boise State 47-yard line with just over eight minutes to go to complete their only full drive of the fourth quarter. The Pack also had the ball for two desperation plays in the final six seconds.
The difference in the game came down to a Wolf Pack decision to kick a 28-yard field goal by Ramiz Ahmed with 1:21 to go in the third quarter. Up until that point the two teams, which were tied 17-17, at halftime, were trading touchdowns in the third quarter.
Boise State went ahead 24-17 and 31-24 on two Rypien touchdown passes to Thomas (36 yards) and A.J. Richardson (41 yards). The Pack answered with a 50-yard Gangi-to-McLane Mannix touchdown to tie the game at 24-24 and then settled for Ahmed’s field goal to cut the deficit to 31-27.
“I don’t regret that decision at all,” said Norvell of his decision to kick a field goal instead of going for a first down or touchdown on a 4th-and-7 play from the Boise State 11-yard line. “If we had gotten a little closer I probably would have gone for it, say maybe 4th-and-3. But no regrets To beat a good team like that you have to make some stops in the fourth quarter and we just didn’t.”
Rypien got hot at the right time. The Boise State quarterback struggled early, completing just 14-of-22 passes in the first half for 125 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. In the second half Rypien was 14-of-16 for 174 yards and two scores to finish the game at 28-of-38 for 299 and two touchdowns.
“He’s a very experienced quarterback,” Norvell said. “He made the plays when he had to.”
The Wolf Pack and Broncos fought to a 17-17 halftime tie after a wild first half that featured five turnovers, the longest run from scrimmage in Boise State history and the second longest interception return in Mackay Stadium history.
The Wolf Pack took a 3-0 lead three minutes into the game on a 35-yard field goal by Ahmed on the game’s opening drive and appeared to be in position to expand the lead on their second drive. But that’s when the first-half wildness began as Pack running back Kelton Moore fumbled the ball away at the Broncos’ 4-yard line. Linebacker Jabril Frazier forced the fumble and nose tackle Sonatane Lui returned it to the 12-yard line.
“Kelton is one of our most reliable runners,” Norvell said. “We just have to do a better job of securing the ball.”
The Broncos immediately took advantage of Moore’s fumble. Wide receiver John Hightower went in motion from the right side, took a handoff from Rypien and scampered down the left side untouched 88 yards into the end zone to give the Broncos a 7-3 lead. Hightower’s run with just over six minutes to go in the first quarter equals Jeremy McNichols’ school-record 88-yard run against San Jose State in 2015 as the longest in Boise history.
The two teams traded turns giving the ball up.
Boise’s first turnover of the game led to the Pack’s first touchdown. Wolf Pack safety Dameon Baber picked off a Rypien pass, giving the Pack the ball at the Boise 44-yard line. Two plays later the Pack was in the end zone and leading 10-7.
Gangi connected with wide receiver Romeo Doubs for 23 yards through the air down to the Boise 21-yard line on first down. Jaxson Kincaide then exploded up the middle for 21 yards and a Pack touchdown (and a 10-7 Nevada lead) on the very next play. The touchdown was Kincaide’s first since he scored three as a freshman in 2016.
The Broncos’ remained mistake -prone on their very next drive as Baber snared his second interception of the game on the second play of the second quarter. Baber, who now has 11 career interceptions, returned the ball 29 yards to the Broncos’ 29-yard line.
The Pack, though, decided to attack the end zone right away as Gang lofted a pass toward Doubs down the right side near the goal line. Boise State cornerback Tyler Horton, though, stepped in front of Doubs at the 1-yard line for the interception.
“Turnovers in the red zone, those are difficult to overcome,” Norvell said.
Horton made it hurt.
The Broncos’ 5-foot-11 senior then weaved his way through the Pack offense down the left sideline for a 99-yard return for a touchdown. The play gave Boise State a 14-10 lead and is 1-yard short of the longest interception return for a touchdown in Mackay Stadium history, a 100-yard return last season by Baber against San Jose State.
A Pick Six for a touchdown in that situation, that’s a 14-poit swing,” Norvell said. “That’s something we have to fix.”
The Broncos, however, were not finished helping the Wolf Pack’s cause in the first half. The Broncos’ third turnover of the first half, a fumble by Hightower after a 7-yard pass completion near midfield, set up the Pack’s second touchdown of the opening half.
Gabe Sewell returned Hightower’s fumble 14 yards to the Boise State 35-yard line with 91 seconds to go in the half. It took Gangi and the offense just five plays to find the end zone on an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Elijah Cooks for a 17-14 Wolf Pack lead with just 42 seconds remaining in the half. The 6-foot-4 Cooks, who played with the Wolf Pack men’s basketball team last season, out-jumped Boise’s 5-foot-9 cornerback Avery Williams for the pass.
The Pack’s five-play, 35-yard scoring drive was given a boost by two costly Boise penalties. The Broncos were guilty of roughing Gangi on an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-7 from the Boise 32 and also were called for pass interference, giving the Pack the ball at the 7-yard line. The Broncos were called for nine penalties in the first half, costing them 108 yards in field position. In the second half they played penalty-free football.
That 17-14 Pack lead, though, didn’t last long as the Broncos drove 55 yards in seven plays in the final 37 seconds of the half to tie the game at 17-17 on a 31-yard field goal by Haden Hoggarth.
Gangi, who missed last week’s 21-3 loss to Fresno State because of a leg injury, was 13-of-24 for 149 yards in the opening half. Rypien, who was not intercepted this season until San Diego State grabbed two of his passes last week, was 14-of-22 in the first half for 125 yards and the two interceptions. Nephi Sewell picked Rypien off in the second half for the Pack’s third interception.
“Our defense just expects to make turnovers now,” Norvell said.
Both team’s offenses eliminated the mistakes in the third quarter and the results showed up on the scoreboard as Boise took a 31-27 lead into the final 15 minutes.
The Broncos went 75 yards in 10 plays after taking the second half kickoff to take a 24-17 lead. Rypien found Thomas for a 36-yard touchdown on a 4th-and-6 pass.
Gangi and the Pack, though, answered right back with a nine-play, 77-yard scoring drive of their own to tie the game at 24-24. Gangi did most of the heavy lifting on the drive, completing five passes on the drive for 69 yards with 50 of those yards coming on a touchdown strike to Mannix with just under seven minutes to play in the third quarter. Mannix took the 2nd-and-9 pass from Gangi at about the 40 and streaked toward the left sideline and into the end zone.
Rypien and the Broncos, though, were just heating up. It took the senior quarterback just three passes to break the tie, giving Boise a 31-24 lead. He found running back Alex Mattison for nine yards, tight end Garret Collingham for 19 and then finished off the drive with a 41-yard scoring pass to Richardson.
The Pack cut the lead to 31-27 on their next drive as Ahmed kicked his28-yard field goal to cap off a 12-play, 56-yard drive. Gangi completed a 14-yard pass to Brendan O’Leary-Orange down to the Boise 14-yard line for a first down but a 3-yard run by Toa Taua and two incomplete passes by Gangi forced the Pack to settle for the field goal.
The Wolf Pack will play at Hawaii on Saturday before returning to Mackay Stadium for their final two home games of the year against San Diego State (Oct. 27) and Colorado State (Nov. 10).
“Moral victories,” Gangi said. “I’m not a believer in moral victories. But we are showing improvement. The Mountain West is up and down. It really comes down to which team gets hot. We’re now just going to try to win out and see what happens.”