Joe Santoro: In rare twist, Nevada vs. San Jose State has meaning
When the Nevada Wolf Pack and San Jose State Spartans football teams meet it rarely means social media is going to blow up.
For the most part, this 121-year-old rivalry has been as exciting as kissing your sister, getting a pair of socks for Christmas and watching an apple tossed into your bag at Halloween.
The Spartans on the schedule is the Wolf Pack’s piece of celery in a Bloody Mary and the stale fortune cookie on its payment tray. Just get it out of the way and move on to more important matters.
Beating the Spartans has been less troublesome than disposing of that wilted piece of celery. The Wolf Pack has won 15 of the last 17 and 20 of its last 25 games with Northern California’s Sparty. The Pack, which has won 22-of-33 games overall in the one-sided series, won those 20 games since 1941 by an average of 18 points, putting up offensive numbers along the way that would warrant two smiley face, three clapping hands, four flexed biceps and five thumbs up emojis at the end of every Pack fan text message.
This year, of course, is different.
The game, drum roll please, finally has meaning. The Wolf Pack and Spartans will meet at Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium on Friday night with a spot in the Mountain West Championship game Dec. 19 on the line. Yes, the celery stalk has replaced the vodka as the focus of the Pack’s Mountain West Bloody Mary this year. And you thought this year couldn’t have become more unpredictable.
You could argue this Friday night’s game is the most important in the often-ignored rivalry. It’s the first time since the first game in 1899 that the two have met in the final regular season game of the year.
But Friday night’s Sam Boyd lights will not be the first to illuminate an important, unforgettable Pack-Spartans cage match. Such important, meaningful games in this rivalry have indeed been rare. But this weekend’s Mountain Wild, Wild West showdown brings to mind a thrilling time in the Big Wild, Wild West Conference when Nevada and San Jose State fought each other fist-to-fist in two of the most tantalizing, heart-stopping games in all of college football nearly three decades ago.
The years were 1992 and 1993. The Wolf Pack was in its first two seasons of big-boy Division I-A football trying to fake it with not enough scholarships, budget, players, TV money and different uniform combinations. Venerable San Jose State, despite being ignored in its own backyard because of Stanford, Cal and the San Francisco 49ers, was the Wolf Pack’s measuring stick back in the days before the internet and groceries that showed up on your doorstep in a box.
“San Jose State is a legitimate Division I program with a winning tradition,” Pack head coach Chris Ault said the week before meeting the Spartans on Nov. 7, 1992.
The 1992 game was the first in the bland rivalry since 1948. The Wolf Pack dropped football after the 1950 season because of finances and brought it back without scholarships, a real budget and little talent in 1951. The Wolf Pack then muddled through four decades as a Division II and Division I-AA school with varying degrees of success and never dreamed of playing mighty San Jose State until it jumped to Division I-A and the Big West in 1992.
“They are where we want to be,” said Ault in 1992 of the Spartans.
The Wolf Pack found itself with a stunning 4-0 record in Big West games heading into its matchup with San Jose State in 1992. A victory over the Spartans would give the Pack no worse than a tie for the conference crown. No team in NCAA history had ever won its conference and gone to a bowl game in its first year in Division I-A.
“They are the only unbeaten team (in league play) in the league,” said San Jose State coach Ron Turner, whose Spartans were 2-1 in league play at the time. “They are the team to beat.”
The afternoon game would be televised locally by Channel 4 (NBC).
“This is for a spot in a bowl game,” said Ault of the inaugural Las Vegas Bowl in December 1992. “A real bowl game. Games don’t get any bigger than this.”
The Wolf Pack fell behind the Spartans 34-16 heading into the fourth quarter at Spartan Stadium. San Jose State scored two defensive touchdowns as linebacker Anthony Washington stole the ball from Pack running back Zeke Moore and Pack quarterback Chris Vargas was picked off by defensive lineman Kevin O’Connell on a middle screen.
“There’s no words for it,” Moore said after the game. “It’s inexcusable.”
It had all the feel of yet another heartbreaking Pack loss in an important game, reminiscent of all of the losses in the Division I-AA playoffs starting in the late 1970s.
Ault, as he often did from 1990-92, replaced starting quarterback Fred Gatlin with Vargas at halftime. Gatlin, after all, was just 8-of-16 for 113 yards in the first half and the Pack offense needed a jolt of electricity.
Vargas, already known as the Magic Man mainly because of his ridiculous 35-point 55-49 comeback victory over Weber State at Mackay Stadium the year before in relief of Gatlin, started to spank the Spartans.
The Pack, much like this year, had a truckload of talented, confident and bold wide receivers in 1992 that included Chris Singleton, Michael Stephens, Bryan Reeves and Mike Senior, and Vargas knew how to use all of them.
Vargas, competing against future 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, would proceed to connect with Reeves for two touchdown passes. The Wolf Pack junior would complete 24-of-38 passes for 333 yards in the second half as the Wolf Pack unleashed the 1992 version of the Air Raid.
Those two defensive touchdowns by the Spartans, however, proved too much to overcome, even for the Magic Man. Reeves would catch 15 passes in the game, equaling a school record he already shared with Ross Ortega. Reeves also added a short touchdown run during the Pack comeback for his third score.
But the comeback fell just a bit short as Garcia completed 14-of-35 passes for 211 yards in a 39-35 Spartan victory. San Jose State running back Nathan Dupree, a 1989 Wooster High graduate, ran for 160 yards on 35 carries.
“This was our championship game,” Reeves said after the game. “We played well enough but not well enough to win.”
Reeves was wrong on both counts. It wasn’t the Pack’s championship game and the Pack did indeed play well enough to win. The Pack ended up winning the Big West title in 1992 despite losing to the Spartans. Nevada beat Utah State 48-47 in another wild game the following week to finish 5-1 in league play ahead of 4-2 San Jose State and Utah State.
The Spartans and Pack met again the following year on Nov. 6, 1993 in another important Big West game. The rivalry, now in its 10th decade despite a 44-year (1948-92) break, was finally becoming interesting.
The game in 1993 was the final home game at Mackay Stadium of the year in front of a then-stadium record crowd of 28,631. Many of those fans came to honor Vargas, who was playing in his final Mackay game.
The head coaches were now Jeff Horton of Nevada and John Ralston of San Jose State. But most everything else (Vargas, Garcia, phantom defense, etc.) was the same as the previous year. And that included the heart-stopping, tantalizing finish.
The Wolf Pack, 2-1 in Big West games, trailed the Spartans 45-28 with nine minutes to go. Garcia, who completed just 14-of-29 passes, tossed four touchdown passes and Dupree, playing in his first game in Reno since his high school days, had 166 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
“It seemed like the whole city was there,” Dupree said. “All my friends, all my enemies.”
Vargas, unfortunately for the Spartans, was also there.
“The sun was setting behind Mackay, just like it always is when we get a miracle at Mackay,” Pack center Ryan O’Donnell said after the game. “It was the greatest feeling. You just knew it was going to happen.”
Vargas would end up completing 35-of-49 passes for 457 yards and four touchdowns. Stephens would catch eight passes for 137 yards, Reeves would haul in nine for 134 yards and Senior would also grab nine for 110. Senior, with just one catch to his credit, walked off the field at halftime with a pair of sprained ankles.
“It took me 10 minutes to walk to the locker room at halftime,” Senior said.
It was the Spartans that limped off the field after the game. Reeves caught three touchdown passes. On the third one he caught the ball, turned and faced the other 21 players on the field and fell backwards into the end zone for dramatic effect. It was his school-record 15th touchdown catch of the season.
“He (San Jose State defensive back Dee Grayer) came up to me and said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again,’” Reeves said. “I just told him, ‘Man, get off me. I had to do something.’”
The Pack won the game on Armando Avina’s 30-yard field goal with eight seconds to play.
“I told Vargas after I kicked it, ‘That was for you. It was his last game here (at Mackay Stadium). He’s just done so much for this program.”
The field goal likely would not have even been possible if not for a Ralston coaching blunder. Facing a 4th-and-1 from the Pack 45-yard line with 90 seconds to go, the Spartans decided to go for the first down. The Pack also had no timeouts remaining and couldn’t stop the clock. So the Spartans did it for them.
Pack linebackers Dan Ledieff and Martin Washington came up big and stopped San Jose State running back John Mountain for no gain.
“I apologized to my team,” said Ralston, the former head coach at Stanford (1963-71) and the Denver Broncos of the NFL (1972-76). “It was a dumb decision. If I’m the athletic director I’d fire me on the spot.”
“I thought they were going to punt,” Horton said. “I would have.”
The Pack, led by Vargas, piled up 625 yards of offense and had 32 first downs.
“If he isn’t the best quarterback in the country I don’t know who is,” Horton said.
Like Ted Williams drilling a home run in his final Fenway Park at-bat, Vargas gave Pack fans one more miracle in his Mackay farewell.
With the comeback still in progress in the fourth quarter, Vargas walked over to his mom in the stands behind the Pack bench.
“She is always too nervous to watch the whole game,” Vargas said. “So I went up to her and said, ‘You have to watch this. We’re going to pull this out.’”
Vargas passed for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone.
“God is on our side,” said Reeves, who didn’t say whether or not his quarterback was God.
Reeves, who never lacked for confidence or brashness, went up to Vargas in the huddle in the fourth quarter and told his quarterback, “Get me the ball, get me the ball.” Vargas just looked at him and said, “Hey, I’ll throw you the ball. Just keep your head in the game.”
Avina’s kick almost didn’t produce a happy ending for the Pack. San Jose State kicker Joe Nedney, who would go on to a long career in the NFL, barely missed a 62-yard field goal as time expired.
The officials assessed two personal fouls on the Pack for “excessive celebration” after Avina’s field goal. The entire Pack bench emptied out onto the field after Avina’s kick as the sun was setting behind the Mackay stands.
“I don’t know that two penalties were warranted,” Ralston said. “One, maybe. If you can’t get excited in a game like this, then something is wrong.”
The Pack, because of the penalties, had to kick off from its own 10-yard line, handing Nedney a shot at a game-winning kick with a second left in the game from near mid-field.
“They are taking the fun out of the game,” Wolf Pack defensive lineman Jim Jones said of the officials. “What do they expect us to do? Just stand there?”
In 1992 and 1993 nobody could, for once, take the fun out of the Wolf Pack-Spartans rivalry.
The Pack then celebrated again (without penalty) after Nedney’s kick sailed just wide.
“The first person I hugged was a fan from the stands,” Jones said. “He was blitzed out of his mind.”