First place in WAC on the line
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – Both the Nevada Wolf Pack and Fresno State Bulldogs want to leave the Western Athletic Conference a little something to remember them by.
“Our goal is to win a WAC championship,” Pack coach Chris Ault said. “That means a lot to us in our last year in the conference.”
“It’s my senior year,” Pack linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “I want to leave with a WAC title.”
The Bulldogs, who will venture into Mackay Stadium for a WAC showdown with the Wolf Pack on Saturday (1:05 p.m., 630-AM), feel the same way.
“It’s all about winning a WAC title,” Fresno coach Pat Hill said. “But all we’re concerned about right now is beating Nevada.”
The Wolf Pack and Bulldogs, who will both join the Mountain West Conference next season, have a lot in common. Both schools have yet to win an outright WAC championship or complete an undefeated WAC season. Fresno, which joined the WAC in 1992, won a share of the conference title in 1992, 1993 and 1999. Nevada, which entered the WAC in 2000, shared the championship in 2005 and last year.
“We can still reach all our goals,” Pack cornerback Khalid Wooten said. “There’s no reason we can win the rest of our games and win a WAC title.”
Saturday’s showdown could be pivotal to winning a conference crown. The winner – Fresno is 3-4 overall and 2-0 in the WAC while the Pack is 3-3, 1-0 – will be the only remaining unbeaten WAC team in conference play.
“It’s like Coach Ault says,” Nevada defensive tackle Brett Roy said. “The winner of this game will be sitting in the front of the bus and the loser will be sitting in the middle of the bus. We want to be driving that bus.”
“Both teams will be in a must-win situation,” Hill said. “This is a big, big game.”
Both teams also come into this game after a rocky first six, seven weeks of the season. Fresno, as usual, played a tough non-league schedule and, as usual, lost almost every one of the games, falling to Cal, Nebraska, Mississippi and Boise State. The Wolf Pack started out 1-3, after losses to Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State.
Both schools, it seems, are happy to finally be able to concentrate on the WAC portion of their daunting schedules.
“We’re the defending champions,” Ault said. “We’re playing at Mackay. The great thing about getting back to conference play is it raises everyone’s level of expectations. And you don’t have to say anything to your players to get them ready to play these games. They know what’s at stake.”
Both the Bulldogs and Wolf Pack will come into Mackay with a lot of confidence. The Pack is riding a two-game winning streak over UNLV (37-0) and New Mexico (49-7) and Fresno beat Utah State 31-21 a week ago.
“We needed that,” Ault said. “Our kids played hard and they did what they were supposed to do. We made some nice improvement.”
“We have a lot of confidence right now,” Wooten said.
There will be a lot of confident players on the field on Saturday at Mackay.
“That was a real big win for us,” said Hill of Fresno’s win over Utah State. “It was a great game for our growth as a football team. After facing so much adversity against Boise (a 57-7 loss on Oct. 7), and then bang, we’re down 14-0 (against Utah State), we showed a lot of character and resiliency. A lot of teams could have folded at that point.”
The Wolf Pack has won its last three games against Fresno State.
“They are coming off a great game for them,” said Ault, referring to the Bulldogs’ win over Utah State. “The second half was all Fresno. They just took the game over. You saw a real good Fresno football team in that second half.”
The Bulldogs average 27.3 points and 373 total yards a game. Fresno running back Robbie Rouse (812 yards, five touchdowns) is 14th in the nation in rushing. Quarterback Derek Carr has passed for 1,665 yards and 12 touchdowns. Wide receiver Jalen Saunders has caught 22 passes for 524 yards and five scores.
“That’s a very fast team, they have a tremendous amount of athletes,” Roy said.
Rouse ran for 223 yards and two touchdowns last season in a 35-34 loss to the Wolf Pack in Fresno.
“He’s as good as you’re going to see,” said Ault of the 5-foot-7, 185-pound Rouse. “He had a huge game against us.”
Carr, a sophomore, adds another element to the Fresno offense this year. The 6-3, 200-pound brother of former Fresno State and NFL quarterback David Carr, has completed 60% of his passes.
“They do a nice job with him,” said Ault of Carr. “They allow him to do what he feels most comfortable with.”
Carr also has plenty of weapons. In addition to Saunders, his favorite targets also include Josh Harper (26 catches, 320 yards), Rashad Evans (29 for 255), Devon Wylie (19 for 222) and Isaiah Burse (23 for 140).
“They have a very explosive offense,” Ault said.
The Wolf Pack defense has allowed just seven points and 367 total yards in its last two games combined against UNLV and New Mexico.
“It’s been a whole team effort,” Roy said. “We had almost eight quarters in a row of scoreless football. Not many teams in the nation can do that.”
Ault, though, warned everyone this week not to get too excited about dominating the offenses of UNLV and New Mexico.
“You have to realize that those two offenses (UNLV and New Mexico) didn’t have quarterbacks who could throw the ball,” Ault said. “So we’re realistic about where we’re at as a defense.”
Ault was quick to remind everyone that Fresno State poses a much different test for his Pack defense.
“Those two teams (UNLV and New Mexico ) are not the caliber of a Fresno State,” Ault said. “Fresno State’s offense is going to challenge our defense, no question about it.”
Rouse had 140 yards and Carr passed for 248 yards and two touchdowns against Utah State. Saunders also turned a screen pass into a 23-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter as Fresno took its first lead.
“We missed a block on that play,” said Hill of the screen pass touchdown. “But Jalen just took it over with his athletic ability. He took a 2-yard gain and turned it into a touchdown. He’s a playmaker.”
Carr, who red-shirted last season, also has the ability to make big plays. He passed for 281 yards and a touchdown in a 42-29 loss at Nebraska on Sept. 10 and threw for 254 yards and a touchdown in a 38-28 loss to Mississippi on Oct. 1.
“He (Carr) is very talented and he plays with a lot of emotion,” Hill said. “He really studies the game and as times goes on he’s going to get better and better.”
Hill, though, was even more impressed with his defense against Utah State. The Bulldogs defense has struggled this year, allowing an average of 34 points and 401 yards a game. But they shut out Utah State in the second half.
“It was a great defensive effort,” he said. “I am real excited about the way our defense performed.”
The Pack has scored at least 35 points in each of its last four games against Fresno, led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Vai Taua. Kaepernick accounted for 1,157 yards (728 passing, 429 rushing) and 12 touchdowns (seven rushing, five passing) in four games against Fresno. Taua, who did not play against Fresno in 2007, ran for 531 yards and six touchdowns in three games against the Bulldogs.
Both Kaepernick and Taua were seniors a year ago.
“Colin Kaepernick was a special quarterback,” Hill said. “Vai Taua was a special running back. But they still have a good stable of running backs and they might even be more efficient throwing the ball now.”
The Wolf Pack used its running game to chew up the Bulldogs since Ault took over as head coach in 2004.
The Pack has averaged 280 yards per game on the ground in its last seven games against Fresno. During that time the Pack has had eight 100-yard rushing games by individuals — two each by Kaepernick, Taua and Robert Hubbard and one each by Luke Lippincott and Talib Wise.
The Bulldogs allow 184 yards a game on the ground.
“We’ve had success against them recently because our offense has been able to keep the ball,” Ault said.