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Third time’s a charm

Joe Santoro
LVN News Service
Nevada quarterback Tyler Stewart looks to pass as running back Don Jackson runs a route in the Wolf Pack's win over UC Davis last year at Mackay Stadium.
THOMAS RANSON / LVN |

The Nevada Wolf Pack football team wants you to believe that a game against the Arizona Wildcats of the Pac-12 Conference is really not all that different from a game against the UC Davis Aggies of the Big Sky Conference.

“It feels just like another game,” junior quarterback Tyler Stewart said of the much anticipated match up against Arizona on Saturday (4 p.m., CBS Sports Network) at Mackay Stadium. “We’re just going to go out and play some football, whether it’s Arizona or UC Davis.”

The Wolf Pack beat Davis, 31-17, last Thursday night at Mackay Stadium to open the season. Arizona beat Texas-San Antonio also last Thursday in their season opener, 42-32.

“This game means everything to me but every game means everything to me,” Wolf Pack junior guard Jeremy Macauley said. “I’m just going to look at (Arizona) as just another nameless, faceless opponent.”

Don’t let the Pack fool you. They certainly know the names and faces of the Wildcats, a team that beat the Pack in 2012 (49-48) in the New Mexico Bowl) and last year (35-28 in Tucson).

“Look, we’re not playing the (1985) Chicago Bears,” Pack coach Brian Polian said. “This is a good Arizona team. But their players are 18-22 years old and our players are 18-22 years old. We’re not going to go out there just hoping to keep the game close. We’re going out there to win the game.”

The Wolf Pack has won four games against Pac-12 teams since 2003, beating Washington 28-17 in 2003, California 52-31 in 2010 and 31-24 in 2012 and Washington State 24-13 last year. The Pack, though, is just 4-15 against Pac-12 teams since 1996 with two of the losses coming against the Wildcats.

“If we beat a ranked opponent (Arizona is ranked No. 22) from the Pac-12, no doubt it will be a confidence booster,” Polian said. “But in the end, it will just make us 2-0 on the season.”

The last time the Pack beat a ranked team from the Pac-12 was 2010 against Cal. The Golden Bears were 24th in the Coach’s Poll entering the game.

“I can’t wait to get to Saturday,” Wolf Pack senior running back Don Jackson said.

The Wolf Pack, Polian said, will wear all-white uniforms on Saturday and are urging fans to also wear white.

“I expect it to be loud and I expect it to be wild and crazy,” Jackson said. “Last year the ‘White Out’ game was Washington State and I remember it gave us a lot of juice.”

The last time the Wildcats came to Reno they went back home to Tucson with a 23-14 loss to the Wolf Pack on Nov. 1, 1924. Arizona, though, leads the series 3-1-1 and hasn’t lost to the Pack ever since the helmets featured facemasks and were no longer made of leather. The most memorable game between the two teams was in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 15, 2012 when the Wildcats scored two touchdowns in the final 46 seconds to stun the Pack 49-48 in Chris Ault’s final game as Pack head coach.

“It’s going to be a battle, for sure,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who is 10-0 in regular season non-conference games since taking over the program in 2012. “It’s going to be very intense.”

Rodriguez, who is 27-14 as Arizona head coach and 147-98-2 in 21 seasons as a head coach (also at Michigan, and West Virginia), wasn’t all that pleased with his team’s performance against UTSA last week. “I didn’t think we played particularly well, especially on defense,” said Rodriguez, a former offensive coordinator at Clemson and Tulane. “Nevada, what they do offensively, is very similar to what we saw last week (against UTSA) and struggled with and struggled with last year. So we have to get much better or we won’t win this game.”

Texas-San Antonio, led by freshman Blake Bogenschutz’s 332 passing yards, piled up 525 yards of offense against Arizona and controlled the football for just over 35 minutes. Arizona never sacked Bogenschutz on any of his 43 pass attempts. The Wildcats needed a pair of defensive scores, a 23-yard interception return by Anthony Lopez and a 24-yard fumble return by Jamar Allah, to beat the Roadrunners.

“We’ve got to do all we can defensively to get stops and not let them (Nevada) control the tempo,” Rodriguez said.

Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo passed for 321 yards and three touchdowns in the Pack’s 35-28 loss at Arizona last year. Fajardo also rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown and threw for 256 yards and three touchdowns against the Wildcats in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl.

“We prepared well against them last year,” Jackson said. “We knew what was coming. Everybody kept their poise and Cody stepped up and made throws.”

Stewart, who is 2-0 in his career as a starting quarterback, was an efficient 13-of-20 for 163 yards and a touchdown and also ran for 43 yards and a touchdown against Davis. Jackson rushed for 124 yards and two scores against the Aggies on just 13 carries. He‘ll likely see much more of the workload against Arizona.

The Wildcats defense will be without standout linebacker Scooby Wright. The Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year winner of last year injured his knee against UTSA and will miss a month. The 6-foot-1, 246-pound junior had 14 tackles last year against the Pack, helping keep Jackson and friends to just 108 yards rushing on 40 carries.

“We didn‘t run the ball well against them last year at all,” Jackson said.

But that was with Mr. Wright on the field.

“I’m very disappointed he won’t be playing,” said Jackson, who had 44 yards on 18 carries against Wright and Arizona last year. “He makes the game very interesting.”

“Scooby is a huge loss for them,” Polian said. “I’m not happy he’s hurt. I have a great admiration for him. There’s a drop-off (from Wright to his replacements) but it’s not as big as people think.”

The Wildcats are led by sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon. Solomon, who won four state titles and compiled a 57-3 record as Bishop Gorman High’s quarterback from 2009-12, threw for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns last year as a freshman. He was 22-of-26 for 278 yards and three touchdowns against the Pack.

“He makes the whole thing go,” Polian said.

Solomon, who lived in Hawaii until his family moved to Las Vegas when he was 10-years-old, has never lost to a Nevada team as a starting quarterback. He was 40-0 against teams from Nevada while at Bishop Gorman and is 2-0 at Arizona after beating the Wolf Pack and UNLV last year.

“They want to spread you out and get the ball on the perimeter and create one-on-one situations with tacklers,” Wolf Pack linebacker Bryan Lane said. “We just have to stay poised. They are also going to run up tempo a lot and try to run a lot of plays. If you are not ready for that rapid tempo, it can hit you up pretty bad.”

“We have to function in space,” Polian said. “We’ll need our defensive linemen to come out and go chase the ball. We can’t let those 5-yard hitches become 45-yard catch-and-runs.”

The Wildcats also feature running back Nick Wilson. Wilson, a sophomore from Fresno, had 171 yards and two touchdowns against the Pack a year ago. He had 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns last year as a freshman.

“He can make you miss but he’s also not afraid to run behind his pads,” Polian said. “He’ll punish you for trying to tackle him. When he gets going he’s a handful.”

The Wolf Pack, Polian said, will experience a different level of team speed from Arizona compared to what it saw a week ago against UC Davis. “Is the speed of the game going to be different?” Polian said. “Most definitely. But football is football. We’ll adjust to the speed on the first series of plays. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

The Wolf Pack definitely talked a confident game this week.

“I don’t think our guys are intimidated,” Polian said. “I don’t think they are scared by any stretch of the imagination. But they have a healthy respect for Arizona.”

Arizona is a 10-12 point favorite on Saturday.

“I have full faith in this football team that we can win this game,” Lane said. “I don’t feel like we’re an underdog at all.”