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Mackay Miracle gets interference

Joe Santoro
For The Nevada Appeal
Nevada linebacker Byan Lane Jr. tackles CSU wide receiver Joe Hansley short of a first down late in the second half.
STEVE RANSON / SRANSON@LAHONTANVALLEYNEWS.COM |

The Nevada Wolf Pack couldn’t overcome a slow start, the officials and the Colorado State Rams Saturday night at Mackay Stadium.

The Wolf Pack staged a furious comeback, rallying from a 31-3 deficit to trail by just a touchdown with under a minute to play, only to fall short, 31-24, to the Rams in front of an exhausted crowd of 21,847.

“For everyone who gets on me for getting on the officials during a game, well, this is why,” Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian said. “I do this for a living. This is how I support my family. Why do I get upset with the officials? Look at tonight. This is why I get upset.”

Polian was angry with three calls on the Wolf Pack’s final drive. Ian Seau was called for a 15-yard personal foul on a Colorado State punt that set up the drive. Instead of getting the ball at the 41-yard line, the Pack started their final drive at their own 26-yard line with 4:56 to play, trailing 31-24.

“How is he supposed to know the play was over?” Polian asked. “Nobody heard a whistle. The explanation I was given is that he is just supposed to know.”

The Wolf Pack, though, seemingly overcame the penalty as wide receiver Jerico Richardson caught a Cody Fajardo pass on the left sideline on the fourth play of the drive and went 63 yards for an apparent game-tying touchdown with 3:45 to play. Richardson, who would catch 10 passes for 122 yards in the game, was called for offensive pass interference on the play, wiping out the touchdown.

Once again, though, the Wolf Pack overcame the penalty.

Fajardo moved the Wolf Pack to the Colorado State 15-yard line with 1:33 to play. He found Richardson for 12 yards, tight end Jarred Gipson for five yards and Richy Turner for 19 more to keep the Pack comeback alive. On 3rd-and-5 from the 10-yard line with 51 seconds to play, he lofted a pass toward wide receiver Hasaan Henderson in the left corner of the end zone.

Colorado State cornerback DeAndre Elliott, who was interfered by Richardson earlier in the drive, got tangled up with Henderson on the play and ended up intercepting the ball. Henderson was also called for pass interference on the play. The Rams, obviously, declined the penalty and took the interception, ending the Wolf Pack comeback.

“That’s one pass I would like to have back,” Fajardo said.

Polian didn’t blame the play on Fajardo.

“Those three calls (the Seau, Richardson and Henderson penalties) were incredibly influential on the outcome of the game,” Polian said. “I vehemently disagree with those last three calls. But I have to be very, very careful because I can get hit in my wallet (by the Mountain West for criticizing the officials) if I say the wrong thing.”

Polian, though, added the three calls “better be right.”

Right or wrong, the calls played a huge role in leaving the Wolf Pack at 3-3 overall this season and 1-2 in the Mountain West. Colorado State, winners of four in a row, are 5-1, 1-1. The Wolf Pack has now lost three of its last four games with the last two coming in heartbreaking fashion (51-46 to Boise and against Colorado State) at home in crucial Mountain West games at home.

“Those are tough losses,” Polian said. “But what are we going to do? We’re not going to cancel the season. We can’t allow the heartbreak of the last two weeks to be an excuse. We have to keep swinging.”

“Sometimes when you lose by 35 it’s easier to take,” said Fajardo, who completed 27-of-50 passes for 297 yards and rushed for 88 yards. “When you lose by seven, five or three, those are tougher.”

Fajardo and the Wolf Pack almost completed one of the greatest comebacks in school history.

Down 31-3 late in the third quarter to a team that had allowed just 21 fourth-quarter points all season long, the Pack scored 21 unanswered points (14 in the fourth quarter) and were seemingly on the way to tying the game in the final minute.

“Every quarterback dreams of having the ball in his hand with the game on the line, with a chance to tie or win the game,” said Fajardo, who now has a 17-19 record as the Wolf Pack starter in his career. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities like that. But, obviously, I haven’t been too successful at it.”

His failure on Saturday wasn’t for a lack of effort.

Fajardo was 19-of-33 for 233 yards in the second half after struggling in the first 30 minutes. His 27 completions gave him 770 for his career, surpassing David Neill (763 completions) for the Wolf Pack school record. A week ago against Boise State he was intercepted four times. The only interception he threw against Colorado State came on his final play.

“Coach Rolo (offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich) told me this week, ‘Failure is just a bruise. It’s not a tattoo,’” Fajardo said. “I’ll use that same motto to get me through this week, too.”

Fajardo and the Wolf Pack battled through a lot of bruises in the first half against the Rams.

The Rams, which have now won 11-of-13 games in their rivalry with the Wolf Pack, took a commanding 24-3 lead on their second drive of the third quarter as quarterback Garrett Grayson found a wide open Rashard Higgins for a 51-yard touchdown. The two also connected for a 42-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter as the Rams took a 14-0 lead. Higgins, who had four touchdown catches in a 42-17 victory over Tulsa last week, now has 10 touchdown catches this season.

Grayson finished the game with 26 completions in 36 attempts for 326 yards and three touchdowns. Higgins caught 10 passes for 194 yards.

The Rams then seemingly put the game away later in the third quarter.

A nine-yard touchdown run by running back Dee Hart gave the Rams a 31-3 lead with 4:48 to go in the third quarter. Hart’s touchdown capped a four-play, 48-yard drive that was set up by a 24-yard punt return by the Rams’ Joe Hansley. Hart, who played his first three seasons at Alabama, now has five rushing touchdowns this season and finished with 90 yards against the Pack on 23 carries.

The 28-point deficit is the Wolf Pack’s largest since a 62-7 loss at Florida State on Sept. 14 last season.

“Defensively we were out of sorts,” Polian said. “It’s like I told the team. Those last three calls had a lot to do with the outcome of the game. But it’s not the officials’ fault we were down 31-3. We did that to ourselves.”

“We didn’t play well until the fourth quarter,” defensive end Lenny Jones said. “We can’t win doing that.”

Well, they almost did.

Down 31-3 with the fourth quarter fast approaching, the Wolf Pack was in jeopardy of failing to score a touchdown in a game for the first time since a 35-0 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 5, 2009. The Pack, though, avoided that embarrassment as Fajardo scored on a 13-yard run late in the third quarter to cut the Rams lead to 31-10.

The Pack defense then showed up to kick the the improbable comeback into high gear.

With the Rams offense on the move again, Pack safety Nigel Haikins ripped the ball away from Hart at the Wolf Pack 32-yard line where it was recovered by Jones. It took Fajardo just two minutes to cover the 68 yards and cut the Rams’ lead to two touchdowns. The senior quarterback found seldom used wide receiver Kendall Brock for a 24-yard gain down to the Rams’ 44-yard line to jump start the drive. He then scrambled for 18 yards down the right side for a first down at the 26-yard line. A 13-yard pass to Turner gave the Pack a first down at the 11. Fajardo then connected with Henderson for a 9-yard touchdown two plays later to slice the Colorado State lead to just 31-17 with 10:31 to go.

“I felt like the team fed off of that,” said Jones of his fumble recovery. “We picked it up fro there.”

The Pack offense, which struggled for the better part of three quarters, was suddenly unstoppable.

“We just executed better,” Polian said. “The difference was execution. It’s that simple.”

The Wolf Pack then cut the seemingly insurmountable Rams lead to just one slim touchdown with a full six-plus minutes to go.

Fajardo and the Pack went 79 yards in nine plays and used just 2:04 to pull to within 31-24 with 6:22 to go on an 11-yard touchdown pass to Turner. Turner caught Fajardo’s pass inside the 5-yard line and slipped into the left corner of the end zone for his first touchdown of the year.

“In the first half they (Colorado State) were doing some things in coverage we hadn’t seen,” Fajardo said.

The Wolf Pack trailed 17-3 at halftime and was held without a touchdown in the first half for the first time in almost two years (Dec. 1, 2012 against Boise State).

“At halftime we went over what they were doing and in the second half we found we could exploit them,” Fajardo said.

The comeback, though, fell frustratingly short for the second week in a row.

“Enough with the moral victories,” Polian said. “I’m proud of our guys. I’m proud of the fact that we probably should have tied the game if not for outside influences. I thought they competed their tails off.”

The Wolf Pack now heads out on the road for two games at BYU (Oct. 18) and Hawaii (Oct. 25) before returning to Mackay Stadium to meet San Diego State on Nov. 1. Despite the last two losses, the Pack is still very much in the race for the West Division championship of the Mountain West. At 1-2, they trail first-place Fresno State (2-1), who were upset by UNLV on Friday night, 30-27.

“We still can achieve everything we want to achieve,” Jones said.

“Look, we’re 3-3,” Polian said. “We’re not 0-6. “Our three losses this year have been gut wrenching. We now have to show some resolve. But a lot of our goals are still in front of us.”

“Games like these only bring a team closer,” Fajardo said. “I’m proud of the guys for fighting hard. I know they’ll lay everything on the line for me and I’ll lay it all on the line for them.”