Wolf Pack defense steps up against Cougars
For the Nevada Appeal
The Nevada Wolf Pack dared to do something Friday night that it hasn’t had the nerve to do in a very long time.
It asked its defense to go out and win a football game.
And the defense responded.
“I can’t speak enough about that defense,” Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian said after a 24-13 victory over the Washington State Cougars in front of a Mackay Stadium crowd of 26,023 and a national television audience on ESPN. “We tackled. We ran to the ball. We hit. We held a (Cougars’ head coach) Mike Leach offense to 13 points. That’s a hell of a statement.”
The Pack defense turned in its most impressive effort against a Pac-12 team since the last time it beat a Pac-12 team from the state of Washington in a 28-17 win over the Washington Huskies in 2003.
“Our defense is truly something special,” Pack defensive end Brock Hekking said. “Everyone is functioning on the same page. It’s a brotherhood out there.”
The Wolf Pack defense, which allowed an average of 34 points a game over the past two seasons, held the high-flying Cougars’ spread offense to just one touchdown overall and just three points in the second half. The Wolf Pack never trailed in the game and is 2-0 for the first time since 2010, the last time it beat a Pac-12 Conference school (California) at Mackay Stadium.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of this football team,” said Polian, who has now won three of his last four games to improve to 6-8 as the Wolf Pack’s head coach. “We found a way.”
That way was clearly through the defensive side of the football. The victory over the Cougars is the first time since a 17-14 victory over San Jose State on Sept. 17, 2011 that the Wolf Pack has won a game by scoring less than 31 points.
“When you hold a team like Washington State to 13 points, your confidence is through the roof, ” Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “It’s not all just about our offense anymore. We have a complete football team this year.”
The win over the Cougars is the first time the Wolf Pack has held a Pac-12 team to under 14 points since an 8-0 loss at California in 1930.
“It was truly unbelievable, a special game,” Hekking said. “It was the Pac-12. They have all the bells and whistles, the nice uniforms. We’re just blue collar guys and we wanted it more.”
Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday completed 38-of-57 passes for 389 yards but the Pack defense sacked him four times, intercepted him twice and held the Cougar running game to 38 yards on 18 carries. It is the fewest rushing yards allowed in a game by the Pack defense since it also allowed 38 to Hawaii, another pass-happy spread offense team, on Nov. 12, 2011.
“It’s always been an offensive powerhouse here at this school,” Pack linebacker Jordan Dobrich said. “It’s good to know that our defense can win games, too.”
The Pack defense’s effort allowed the normally overworked offense to play it safe and conservatively. The Wolf Pack ran the ball 56 times (for 214 yards) and threw it just 21 times (110 yards) and won the time of possession battle by nearly six minutes (32:52-27:08).
“We kept them off the field,” Polian said. “We possessed the football. We wanted to frustrate their offense by keeping it on the sideline. We felt we could run the ball. We didn’t run it great. But we ran it well enough.”
The Wolf Pack offense played without the pressure of having to carry the team, Fajardo said.
“On offense we didn’t feel like we had to score on every drive,” Fajardo said. “It was great. The main thing was to keep drives going and move the ball.”
Fajardo threw the ball on four of the Pack’s first five plays and then proceeded to throw just 17 passes over the Pack’s final 72 plays. The 21 passes are the fewest the Pack has thrown in a victory since last Sept. 21 against Hawaii (20 passes in a 31-9 victory).
“Our receivers aren’t selfish,” Fajardo said. “Nobody was coming up to me during the game and saying, ‘Hey, I’m open. I’m open. I need the ball.’ They knew what we were trying to do and everybody did their part.”
The Wolf Pack jumped out to a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter on a pair of run-heavy drives.
Running back Don Jackson (69 yards, 22 carries) carried the ball on all four plays of a brief 12-yard, four-play drive as the Pack took a 7-0 lead with 1:18 to go in the first quarter. The drive, which ended with Jackson’s 1-yard scoring run, was set up by an interception by freshman cornerback Kendall Johnson, who returned it 45 yards to the Cougars’ 12-yard line.
“We punched it in,” Polian said. “We didn’t settle for a field goal on that drive. That was big.”
Johnson’s interception might have been the turning point of the game. The Pack’s previous drive on offense ended when Brayden Sanchez was trapped for a four-yard loss on a fake punt, giving all the momentum to the Cougars. Johnson’s interceptionm though, gave the momentum back to the Wolf Pack for the remainder of the night.
“That turnover (Johnson’s interception) bailed me out for the fake punt,” Polian said. “I don’t regret it but it got me off the hook. The defense picked us up. They picked me up.”
The Pack’s second scoring drive featured the play of the game on offense, a 55-yard run by Fajardo down to the Washington State 8-yard line. Fajardo broke free up the middle of the Cougars’ defense for his longest run since a 68-yarder at Colorado State last Nov. 9. Freshman James Butler gave the Pack its 14-0 lead on a 1-yard plunge six plays later, capping off the 10-play, 91-yard drive. A pass interference penalty in the end zone on Washington State’s Daquawn Brown also helped the Pack’s cause on the drive.
The 14 points turned out to be all the Pack needed to win.
Washington State, though, did score 10 points in the final 7:15 of the second quarter to slice the Pack lead to 14-10 at the break. Halliday connected with Vince Mayle in the left corner of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown pass and Erik Powell hit a 25-yard field goal.
But that would be as close as the Cougars would get the rest of the night.
The Pack defense spent the second half bending but not breaking, forcing Washington State to keep settling for field goal tries. The Cougars attempted three field goals in the second half, making just one. Powell missed from 37 and 38 yards out in the third quarter as the Pack somehow protected its 14-10 lead. The Cougars then replaced Powell with Quentin Breshears, who finally connected from 38 yards away, cutting the Pack’s lead to 21-13 with 9:32 to go.
Wolf Pack kicker Brent Zuzo made his only field goal try of the game, hitting from 40 yards out for a 24-13 lead with 4:25 to go.
“Our kid stepped up and made a big-time field goal,” Polian said. “Those three points were very important.”
The Pack defense also stepped up with its most crucial stop of the game late in the fourth quarter. Hekking dragged down Washington State running back Jamal Morrow a yard short of a first down on a pivotal 4th-and-3 play from the Cougars’ 41-yard line with 3:42 left in the game.
“There was just so much energy out there,” Hekking said. “Guys were flying around, making plays all night long. It was full throttle, 100 miles an hour all the time.”
The Cougars out-gained the Wolf Pack 427-324 and had more first downs (25-17). The Wolf Pack offense, though, didn’t turn the ball over and never allowed Fajardo to be sacked.
“This is the game that is going to set the tone for the season,” Hekking said. “What this game did was instill confidence that we can compete with anyone.”
“A great win like this can bring a team a long way,” Fajardo said. “We’ve been saying it all spring and summer that this team has something special brewing.”
The Wolf Pack now faces its second consecutive game against a Pac-12 opponent when it travels to Tucson to meet the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday. This is the first time since 1931, when it lost to Stanford and Cal in back-to-back weeks, that the Pack has played Pac-12 teams on consecutive weekends.
“This is just one win,” Polian said. “I understand that. It’s a statement game but only for just one night. Tomorrow it’s over. But it’s a good win and we’re going to enjoy it.”