Nevada (barely) takes a stand
For the Appeal
RENO — Brian Polian didn’t want to look too closely at his Nevada Wolf Pack’s 27-22 victory over the Fresno State Bulldogs on Saturday at Mackay Stadium.
“We found a way to win and at the end of the day that’s all that matters,” the Wolf Pack head coach said. “That’s what I am going to focus on right now. I will have all day tomorrow (Sunday) to look at what went wrong. But I’m not going to spoil it now.”
The Wolf Pack, 3-3 overall and 1-1 in the Mountain West, jumped out to a 21-6 halftime lead but then had to hold off the Bulldogs (1-5, 0-2) in the final minute. Fresno State had a first-and-goal at the Wolf Pack 4-yard line but couldn’t find the end zone on four Chason Virgil passes.
“We knew they were going to throw the ball,” Wolf Pack linebacker Alex Bertrando said. “We just wanted to get pressure on the quarterback and make him beat us from the pocket.”
Virgil’s final pass missed wide receiver KeeSean Johnson in the left corner of the end zone with 30 seconds to play and allowed the crowd of 22,411 to go home with a smile. “I had confidence in our team,” Bertrando said. “I knew we’d get it done.”
The victory broke a two-game losing streak and allowed the Wolf Pack to breathe a sigh of relief for the first time in over a week.
“That was bad last week,” said Polian of the Pack’s a 38-17 loss at Hawaii. “That was embarrassing. That’s why I am so proud of the way our guys hunkered down and dealt with all of the adversity. They blocked all the noise, showed resiliency and showed toughness and won the game.”
Polian, though, admitted the victory wasn’t a work of art. Fresno State, which is now 2-18 in its last 20 games against FBS teams, piled up 452 total yards (255 on the ground) and came within four yards of stealing the victory. Wolf Pack kicker Brent Zuzo also missed a short field goal (24 yards) and an extra point.
“The score was closer, frankly, than I thought it should have been,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack dominated the first half as wide receiver Wyatt Demps caught two touchdown passes and quarterback Tyler Stewart scored on a 4-yard run.
Demps’ first touchdown catch came off a pass from fellow wide receiver Andrew Celis to give the Pack a 7-3 lead in the first quarter. Stewart threw a lateral to Celis who then found a wide open Demps down the right side for a 36-yard touchdown.
“We saw an aggressive defensive backfield and just thought we could sneak one by them,” said Polian of the trick play. “I did not, however, anticipate him being that wide open. When he’s that wide open you just hope he doesn’t drop it.”
Demps also caught a third touchdown pass, hauling in an 8-yarder from Stewart for a 27-16 lead with 7:56 to play. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior finished with nine catches for 124 yards and became the first Pack receiver with three touchdown catches in a game since Aaron Bradley in 2011 against Idaho.
Demps’ final touchdown proved to be the game winner and capped a 14-play, 75-yard drive that saw running back James Butler carry the ball nine times for 45 yards. Stewart’s touchdown pass to Demps was the only pass on the drive as Butler finished with 175 yards on 37 carries. Butler’s busy day is tied for the 10th most rushing attempts in a game by a Pack player.
“As good as (Butler) is, 37 carries in a game is asking too much,” Polian said.
Jaxson Kicaide also had 52 yards on eight carries as the Pack ran for 226 yards on 49 carries. “We need to get him (Kincaide) more carries,” Polian said.
Polian, though, was proud of the Pack’s final scoring drive that featured 13 runs and ate away 5:41 of the fourth-quarter clock.
“That’s a great drive,” Polian said. “That’s a man’s drive. That’s a confidence boost for the Union (the offensive line). For us to go right down the field with 13 straight runs, that’s a big boost.”
Polian was also pleased with the performance of Stewart, who completed 13-of-20 passes for 120 yards and two scores. The senior also ran the ball three times for 15 yards and a touchdown.
“Our quarterback did an unbelievable job at the line of scrimmage,” Polian said. “He identified pressure and got us into the right play. While his numbers are not great he did an outstanding job of managing the game.”
The offense, as has been the case often this season, struggled in the second half to put points on the scoreboard. The Pack punted twice, lost the ball once on a fumble (by Butler) and scored a touchdown on its four second-half drives. Just one of the second-half drives (the touchdown drive) lasted longer than four plays. The Pack didn’t score in the third quarter and now has just 10 points in six games in the third quarter all season.
“We’re kind of a methodical offense,” Polian said. “That’s who we are. We run it. That’s who we are. But when you do that you can’t waste possessions and that’s what we did. I want to be more explosive on offense and we’re always trying to find ways to be more explosive but we just need to start taking advantage of the opportunities we get.”
The Wolf Pack defense allowed Fresno State to control the ball for 32 minutes thanks to 255 yards on 48 rushing attempts.
“We have to stop the run better,” Polian said. “In college football you have to stop the run. But I am not going to focus on that (Saturday) tonight.”
The Pack defense, though, kept the Bulldogs out of the end zone when it mattered most. Virgil’s pass on first down from the 4-yard line on the Bulldogs’ final drive missed Aaron Peck thanks to solid coverage by Elijah Mitchell. His second-down pass fell incomplete to Johnson and his third-down attempt was caught by Dontel James for no gain as Asauni Rufus made the tackle. Johnson appeared to be open slightly in the back of the end zone on fourth down but Virgil missed him badly.
“Everyone executed when we needed to,” Bertrando said. “We won the game and that’s all that matters to me.”
It was also all that mattered to Polian after the game.
“The bottom line is our guys stepped up and made plays when they had to,” Polian said.