Pack, Falcons put 3-game win streaks on the line
For the Nevada Appeal
Forget the 6-3 record, the three-game winning streak, the bowl game eligibility and the likely West Division title and spot in the Mountain West championship game.
Forget all that.
Head coach Brian Polian insists his Nevada Wolf Pack football team has thought about nothing the past two weeks other than how to beat the Air Force Falcons today (11 a.m.).
“There’s been a lot of talk around the program about being 6-3, being bowl eligible and being in the mix in the Mountain West,” the Wolf Pack head coach said. “I refuse to engage in that conversation. Our focus is still just one week at a time.”
The Wolf Pack, which hasn’t played since a 30-14 win over San Diego State on Nov. 1, will bring its 6-3 record and three-game winning streak to Colorado Springs, Colo., to meet the Falcons at Falcon Stadium. Air Force, 7-2 overall and 3-2 in the Mountain West, will also put a three-game winning streak on the line this weekend.
“We’re not looking at all those other things because, quite frankly, we’re not good enough to look past anybody,” said Polian, whose Wolf Pack finished 4-8 last year in his first year as head coach.
The Wolf Pack knows if they win their final three regular season games against Air Force, Fresno State (Nov. 22) and UNLV (Nov. 29), they will win the West Division and earn a spot in the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 6. But nobody dares talk about championships and bowl games just yet.
“We know the more we win the stakes get higher and higher,” running back Don Jackson said. “But our focus is just on the task right in front of us. We’re not worried about Fresno yet. We’re not worried about UNLV. Right now we’re just worried about Air Force.”
“That’s just been the theme the last couple of years,” wide receiver Richy Turner said. “Being bowl eligible is great and getting to the Mountain West championship will be great. And we believe it can happen. But we also know that the only way to achieve those goals is to play like every week is a championship game.”
The Wolf Pack has every right to be concerned about Air Force. The Falcons have won six of their last seven games with one of those victories coming over Boise State (28-14 on Sept. 27). The Falcons beat UNLV last weekend 48-21, piling up 542 total yards of offense along the way.
“Air Force is playing with supreme confidence right now,” Polian said. “These guys scare me. Their system scares me.”
The Falcons’ triple option offense has averaged 31.7 points and 433.9 yards a game. The Falcons are also ninth in the nation in rushing at 282.4 yards a game.
“They are very good at what they do,” said Polian, who has a record of 10-11 after 21 games as the Pack head coach.
Air Force is led on offense by quarterback Kale Pearson and running back Jacobi Owens. The 5-foot-9 Pearson is 8-2 as a starter and has rushed for 478 yards and five touchdowns and passed for 1,213 yards and 10 touchdowns this year. Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo, by comparison, has passed for 1,927 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 589 yards and 10 scores.
Pearson, a senior from Tulsa, Okla., completed 5-of-6 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown last week against UNLV.
“They have really gone back to their triple option roots with great success,” Polian said. “His (Pearson’s) decision making, his ball handling, is what drives it. He’s also a better passer than people give him credit for.”
Owens, a 5-11 sophomore from Centennial High in Las Vegas, has rushed for 988 yards and five touchdowns. He ran for 135 yards and a touchdown on just 18 carries in his return to Las Vegas last week against UNLV.
“This is going to be a big challenge for us,” Polian said. “I’m not sleeping well this week. These are the kinds of games that bother you all summer.”
Air Force was certainly a big challenge for the Wolf Pack the past two seasons. The Falcons gained 600 yards and beat the Pack 48-31 two years ago at home and last year the Wolf Pack pulled out a 45-42 victory at Mackay Stadium, coming back from a 42-30 deficit midway through the fourth quarter.
“I don’t know about two years ago because I wasn’t here but we had a hard time stopping them last year,” Polian said. “Last year was a dogfight and, to be honest, they should have won the game. They had a guy wide open (on a key 3rd-and-11 pass late in the fourth quarter) and dropped the ball. We got lucky.”
The Falcons have gained 1,053 total yards combined the last two years against the Pack with 836 of those yards coming on the ground. The Wolf Pack offense has also enjoyed a lot of success against Air Force, gaining 979 yards over the last two meetings. Both the Wolf Pack and Falcons are also accustomed to controlling the football. Air Force is first in time of possession in the Mountain West this year at 32:36 and the Wolf Pack is right behind at 32:26.
“They just want to get four or five yards on every run and keep it moving,” Polian said. “That’s all they are looking for and they are very good at it.”
Neither team has had much success stopping the other the past two years. The Wolf Pack and Falcons have combined for 2,032 yards and 166 points in the two games against each other. Air Force had 600 yards and 48 points at home against the Wolf Pack two years ago and the Wolf Pack had 599 yards and 45 points against Air Force last year in Reno.
“We got lucky this time because we had a bye week last week,” Polian said. “Usually you get four days to prepare for them but this time we got six or seven. That was big.”
Polian has a lot of respect for the Air Force players.
“For a lot of our guys, football practice is the toughest part of their day,” Polian said. “For their guys, football practice is the easiest part of their day. I recognize that. I recognize that their players will never quit. I recognize that they will do whatever it takes to win.”
“They will never quit and they will continue to come after you,” Cody Fajardo said. “This is fun for them. Football is fun for them, to be able to go to practice, throw the ball around and hit people. These guys are mentally tough and they are physically tough.”
The Wolf Pack has also shown its mental and physical toughness this year, outscoring opponents 118-45 in the fourth quarter. The Pack outscored Air Force 21-7 last year in the fourth quarter to beat the Falcons.
“This week is all about discipline,” Polian said.
A victory on Saturday will give the Pack seven victories in their first 10 games of a season for the first time since 2010. The Wolf Pack is also 3-0 this year after Oct. 15 after going 2-10 after Oct. 15 the past two seasons combined. A victory over Air Force would also be the Wolf Pack’s first over a team with seven or more wins since a 20-13 win over a 7-5 Boston College team in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in Jan., 2011. The Pack has lost six games in a row (Southern Mississippi in 2011, Arizona, Boise State and Fresno State in 2012 and BYU and Fresno State in 2013) against teams with seven or more wins.
“It’s great to see guys smiling and happy after games,” Turner said. “Guys are playing for each other. We can see that all our goals are still attainable and that just makes us want to play for each other that much more.”