Bittersweet win for Wolf Pack
RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack didn’t know whether to laugh or cry on Saturday.“It was a bittersweet win,” senior safety Duke Williams said after a 45-34 victory over the Northwestern State Demons in front of 19,399 fans at Mackay Stadium. “We have a lot of things to work on.”The Wolf Pack avoided its first loss to a Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) team since 1994 thanks to a combined 602 yards and six touchdowns passing and rushing from running back Stefphon Jefferson and quarterback Cody Fajardo.“The offense was excellent,” Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault said. “We did a lot of good things.”Ault wasn’t as complimentary about the Wolf Pack defense.The Pack allowed 585 total yards and four touchdowns to the Demons, an offense that had averaged just 177.5 yards and 18.5 points a game in its first two games. “There is no excuse for the way we played on defense,” Ault said. “I’m disappointed, no question about it.”It could have been worse.Williams made the play of the game, stealing the ball away from Demons quarterback Brad Henderson a yard away from the Wolf Pack end zone.“It was a quarterback draw,” the Wolf Pack strong safety said of the second-and-goal play from the Pack 1-yard line with the Wolf Pack clinging to a 17-13 lead. “Their quarterback was in a pile, looking for a hole and he tried to stretch his hand with the ball and I just stripped it from him.”Williams stole the ball and proceeded to return it to the Demons’ 48-yard line.“They had all the momentum,” Williams said. “I knew I had to make a big play.”Williams’ game-changing play definitely changed the momentum.“I had no idea what happened,” Fajardo said. “All I saw was Duke taking off with the ball and I thought he was going to score. That was a huge play. We needed that.”It turned out to be a 14-point play in a game that was eventually decided by 11 points.“After Duke’s play we knew we had to score with that momentum,” Fajardo said.It took the Pack all of one play and nine seconds to capitalize on Williams’ heroics as Jefferson exploded through the stunned Demons’ defense for a 48-yard touchdown run and a 24-13 Pack lead.“A play like that gives everybody a lift,” Ault said.It was Jefferson and Fajardo, though, that did all the heavy lifting.Jefferson finished with 247 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 27 carries for the most rushing yards by a Wolf Pack player since Vai Taua had 263 against Fresno State on Nov. 7, 2008. Jefferson’s 247 yards are also the eighth most in one game in Wolf Pack history.“The holes were there,” smiled Jefferson. “And they were big.”Jefferson now has gone over 100 yards in all five of his career Wolf Pack starts, including the first three games this season. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior had 99 yards at halftime and also gave the Pack a 38-20 lead early in the fourth quarter on a 52-yard run up the middle when he simply outran the Demon defense.“When a running back is running like that, it just makes it easy for the quarterback,” Fajardo said.The Wolf Pack (now 2-1) piled up a season-high 655 yards, the first time they’ve gone over 600 yards in a game since Oct. 29 of last season when they had 683 in a 48-34 win at New Mexico State.Fajardo also did his part, running for 118 yards and three touchdowns and completing 21-of-33 passes for 237 yards and another score. The sophomore found the end zone on the ground from 2, 10 and 22 yards out, with his final score (the 22-yarder) giving the Pack a 45-27 lead with 6:13 to play.“When they (Northwestern State) tried to take me away, Stefphon would gash them and when they would try to take Stefphon away, I would gash them,” Fajardo said. “Whatever they did, they were wrong.”And Fajardo and Jefferson were right.The key Wolf Pack drive of the game — a 5-play, 75-yard work of art by Fajardo — came at the end of the first half. The Demons had just taken a surprising 13-10 lead on a 34-yard field goal by John Shaughnessy with just 49 seconds to go before halftime.And the last thing the Pack wanted to do was go into the halftime locker room at home trailing a FCS team.Fajardo and friends took over at their own 25 with 49 seconds to go. The Pack quarterback found wide receiver Aaron Bradley for 15 yards through the air to get the drive going and then connected with wide receiver Richy Turner for 17 yards to the Northwestern State 43-yard line.After an incomplete pass to Zach Sudfeld, Fajardo then found his 6-foot-7 tight end for 18 yards to the 25-yard line and the final 25 yards for the touchdown in the left corner and a 17-13 Pack lead.“I went into the locker room at halftime and just went, ‘Whew,’” Fajardo smiled. “We needed that and that gave us the confidence we needed in the second half.”The importance of that first-half saving drive was not lost on Ault.“It was a big-time drive,” Ault said. “And Sudfeld made a big-time play.”That first-half ending touchdown was what the Wolf Pack coach expected a week ago in a 32-31 loss to South Florida when the Pack had the ball with 38 seconds to play on a drive that also began at their own 25-yard line.“We were confident we’d do it last week but we had some dropped passes,” Ault said.Northwestern State kept the pressure on the Pack defense to the end of the game. The Demons scored on a 40-yard run by Daniel Taylor to cut the Wolf Pack lead to 38-27 with 9:18 to play and Henderson also found Harvey Phillip on a 68-yard scoring strike to cut the Pack lead to 45-34 with 5:35 left.The Pack has now given up four touchdowns of 40 yards or longer — three touchdown passes of 50 yards or longer — in the past two fourth quarters over the past two weekends against South Florida and Northwestern State.“We have to step it up in the secondary,” said Williams, who led the Pack with 12 tackles. “We have a lot of issues that need to be fixed.”The Pack is now 13-3 against FCS teams since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) in 1992.“We have to come out with better focus than we had today,” Jefferson said. “It doesn’t matter what team we’re playing.”“To be honest, that was tougher than I expected,” Fajardo said with a smile.