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Joe Santoro: Ranking the Nevada Wolf Pack’s bowl games

Joe Santoro
For the Appeal
Nevada quarterback Carson Strong hands off to running back Toa Taua during the game against UNLV on Nov. 30.
Tom R. Smedes/AP | FR171463 AP

Jay Norvell is excited to ring in the new year in Boise.

“Bowl games are like chicken wings,” Norvell said, commenting on the Wolf Pack’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl matchup on Jan. 3 against Ohio. “There’s no bad bowl games.”

Wolf Pack history, though, begs to differ with the Wolf Pack head coach. Nevada, which played in its first bowl game on New Year’s Day 1948 in Phoenix’s Salad Bowl, has already been to 16 bowl games and not all of them tasted as good as a chicken wing dipped in hot sauce. Some of them, in fact, felt like a chicken wing stuck in the back of the throat.

Where will the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl fit in with the Pack’s 16 other bowl game appearances? Well, we’ll find out Jan. 3.

“We’ve got to rise up and find a way to play our best football,” said Norvell of his 7-5 Wolf Pack, which ended its rollercoaster regular season with a stunning 33-30 overtime Fremont Cannon loss to the UNLV Rebels at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 30, a loss that also included an ugly post-game brawl.

There will be no Fremont Cannon at stake on Jan. 3 against Ohio, hopefully no punches thrown after the game and, if past Boise bowl games are any indication, Albertsons Stadium will be nearly half empty for the strange 12:30 p.m. (Reno time) start on a Friday afternoon after the holidays are over.

But all that matters is that the Pack will get a plate or two of chicken wings to close out the season.

“We want to become the first Nevada team to win bowl games in back-to-back years,” Norvell said, referring to last year’s 16-13 overtime win over Arkansas State in the Arizona Bowl.

Playing in a bowl game is nothing new for the Pack. This year’s game will be its 12th in the last 15 years. The site of this year’s bowl is also not strange to the Pack. The Wolf Pack has played the Boise State Broncos 20 times (losing 18) in Boise and has also played twice before in Boise’s 22-year-old bowl. Only the name has been changed. The first two times the Pack went to Boise for a bowl game it was called the Humanitarian Bowl and the MPC Computers Bowl. The Pack, by the way, is 2-20 in Boise against the Broncos and in the two bowl games (losses to Miami, Maryland) combined. The Pack should feel right at home on Jan. 3 in Boise. Ohio will be the fourth Mid-American Conference team the Pack has played in a bowl game (after Bowling Green, Toledo, Ball State). This will also be the 11th time the Pack will play a bowl game in a current Mountain West stadium (three each in Boise, Las Vegas and Hawaii and two in New Mexico).

Here’s how the previous 16 Wolf Pack bowl games rank in terms of importance, excitement, individual performances, meaning and significance, ranked from worst to first . . .

16. New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 22, 2007): New Mexico 23, Nevada 0

You can’t get more meaningless and unimportant than this. The Pack did not score a single point, despite having freshman sensation Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and a three-year-old offense (the Pistol) that the nation had yet to discover. The Wolf Pack had just 12 first downs and 210 yards against New Mexico coach Rocky Long’s defense and had to punt 11 times. Kaepernick had one of his worst games in a Pack uniform, completing just 13-of-31 passes for 137 yards with three sacks and running for 26 yards on 12 carries. And, oh yeah, the game was played in 34-degree weather in beautiful Albuquerque and the Pack finished the season 6-7. So, yes, there is such a thing as a bad bowl game.

15. Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24, 2009): SMU 45, Nevada 10

Well, there are worse places to be on Christmas Eve than Honolulu. The Pack, though, fell behind 31-0 by halftime, 38-0 in the third quarter and didn’t score its first touchdown until there was just 64 seconds to play. To make matters worse, coach Chris Ault’s pistol offense lost to June Jones’ run-and-shoot for all the nation to see. Somebody named Kyle Padron passed for 460 yards and two touchdowns on the Pack. There’s not enough hot sauce in the world to make this one taste good.

14. New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 20, 2014): Louisiana 16, Nevada 3

The Wolf Pack returned to the bowl party after a one-year absence but somebody forgot to bring the offense. The Pack had just 13 first downs and 213 total yards. Quarterback Cody Fajardo passed for just 124 yards and was sacked four times. The only Pack points in coach Brian Polian’s first bowl game came on a 21-yard field goal by Brent Zuzo. The only bright spot for Nevada was the defense, which had four sacks and three tackles for a loss by Brock Hekking held Louisiana to three field goals and one touchdown.

13. Harbor Bowl (Jan. 1, 1949): Villanova 27, Nevada 7

The 1948 season was a strange one for the Wolf Pack. The Pack played just two home games all year. It won two games in Ohio (at Cincinnati, Dayton) and five in the state of California (Fresno, Loyola Marymount, St. Mary’s, Pacific, San Francisco). So playing a team from Pennsylvania in San Diego on New Year’s Day seemed perfectly normal. The Pack, though, was literally beaten up by the Wildcats in a one-sided affair. Quarterback Stan Heath suffered two broken ribs and tailback Sherman Howard absorbed a serious gash in his forehead. They both did not play after the second quarter. The fourth quarter at Balboa Park was played in a driving rain. After the game the media accused Villanova of playing outside the rules. Radio broadcaster Bill Steel, of KFMB in San Diego, said after the game, “Unhampered by officials, Villanova slugged, kicked and engaged in every dirty tactic known to win the game.” The game ended an era for Nevada. The Pack, which went 32-9 from 1945-48, would go just 5-5 in 1949 and 1-9 in 1950 and then drop the sport for a year. It then struggled throughout the 1950s and 1960s until Ault turned it around in 1976.

12. Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24, 2011): Southern Mississippi 24, Nevada 17

Back in Honolulu on Christmas Eve. Same result. The Pack actually led 14-7 on two Lampford Mark touchdown runs and found itself in a 17-17 tie in the fourth quarter. But, once again, the pistol offense failed to amaze everyone with some of its regular-season magic. Mark rushed for 183 yards but Fajardo was just 8-of-19 through the air for 60 yards and ran for just 14 yards on nine carries. The Pack had 15 first downs and 10 punts in yet another forgettable game to end another forgettable 7-6 season. This was the fifth time in its last six bowls that the Pack would score 20 points or less.

11. Humanitarian Bowl (Dec. 30, 2008): Maryland 42, Nevada 35

The Wolf Pack lost another game in Boise but at least it had some fun along the way. Colin Kaepernick opened a lot of eyes nationally, throwing for 370 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a 15-yard score as the Pack stood toe-to-toe with a Power Five school. The Pack had 484 yards. Mike McCoy caught 13 passes for 172 yards. The Pack fell behind 28-14 but Kaepernick found Mark Mitchell and Vai Taua for touchdown passes to tie the game. Maryland partially suspended seven players for the start of the game because they missed curfew during the week. One of those players, running back Da’Rell Scott, entered the game and ran for 174 yards and the game’s two deciding touchdowns that broke the 28-28 tie. So, yes, the Pack lost because Maryland used suspended players. Sort of.

10. Arizona Bowl (Dec. 29, 2015): Nevada 28, Colorado State 23

James Butler had a great game, rushing for 192 yards and two touchdowns, a 77-yarder in the second quarter and the game winner from four yards out with 66 seconds to play. And it’s always nice to win a bowl game, even if it is the most laughed at bowl in Division I history. First of all, it was between two teams from the same conference. Nevada was 6-6 entering the game with one of the wins coming against a FCS team (UC Davis). The Fremont Cannon was red, thanks to a stunning loss to UNLV at home back in October. Colorado State had to win its last four games to get to 7-5. The game was not on network television. If there was ever a perfect example of college football offering too many bowl games, this was it.

9. Arizona Bowl (Dec. 29, 2018): Nevada 16, Arkansas State 13

The Wolf Pack won a bowl game. In overtime, no less. So, as Norvell should have said, there are no bad bowl games when you win. But this one, like the Pack’s previous trip to the Arizona Bowl in 2015, came awfully close. The Pack took a 10-7 lead on Devonte Lee’s 1-yard touchdown run with 66 seconds (see the similarity to 2015 Arizona Bowl). But the Pack defense couldn’t hold the lead, surrendering a game-tying 32-yard field goal by Arkansas State’s Blake Grupe that was set up by a penalty on the Pack for having too many players on the field. The Pack won the game on an 11-yard pass from Ty Gangi to Reagan Roberson in overtime after Arkansas State had taken a 13-10 lead. Arkansas State had significantly more first downs (25-15) and more yards (499-285). But the victory was the Pack’s eighth of the season in a year when they once again allowed UNLV to win the Fremont Cannon. The Pack will be trying to do exactly the same thing this Jan. 3 in Boise.

8. MPC Computers Bowl (Dec. 31, 2006): Miami 21, Nevada 20

This game is ranked so highly because of the opponent, a strong 2006 Pack season and because of how well the Pack played. Miami came to Boise with five national championships in its trophy case. The Pack had won just three bowl games. The Hurricanes were the best football program the Pack had ever played in a bowl game and still own that title (sorry, Ohio). This is a game, though, that the Pack could have and probably should have won. It played better in this loss than it did in at least two of its bowl wins (2018, 2015). The Wolf Pack had more first downs (23-13) and had the ball for 34 minutes against the Hurricanes. Nevada had to settle for four field goals by Brett Jaekle. The Pack, up 8-7, went for a two-point conversion and failed. The Pack had the ball at the Miami 36-yard line with 23 seconds to go but Jeff Rowe’s pass was intercepted. The game was the last for Miami coach Larry Coker, who was fired in November but stayed on to coach in the bowl game. “We had our chances,” Ault said after the game. “It was a great game.” The loss completed an impressive 8-5 season for the Pack with all of the losses coming against strong opponents (road losses at Fresno State, Arizona State and Hawaii, a neutral site in the bowl and home against Boise State).

7. Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 14, 1995): Toledo 40, Nevada 37

The Wolf Pack and Rockets made history in this game. This was the first game in NCAA college football history to go to overtime (the rule was implemented just before the 1995 bowl game season) as Toledo won on Wasean Tait’s fourth touchdown run of the game. Yes, you don’t have to win a bowl game to make it memorable and important. You just have to play well and the Pack did exactly that in this one. The Pack had the ball first in overtime and elected to kick a 22-yard field goal by Damon Shea. Tait finished with 185 yards on 31 carries. Wolf Pack quarterback Mike Maxwell passed for 330 yards. The two teams came into the game with just two losses (Toledo was 10-0-1 and the Pack was 9-2) combined entering the game. This was also Ault’s last game as Pack coach until 2004. It was also the second time out of three that he stepped down as coach after a bowl loss (1992, 1995, 2012).

6. Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 18, 1992): Bowling Green 35, Nevada 34

Again, the Pack made history in a bowl game. The Wolf Pack became the first team in NCAA history to win its conference (Big West) and go to a bowl game in its first season in Division I-A (now FBS). The Pack fell behind Bowling Green 28-3 by halftime in the inaugural Las Vegas Bowl. The Wolf Pack, though, roared back with what looked like yet another magical comeback engineered by quarterback Chris Vargas. Vargas and the Pack scored 31 unanswered points on touchdown runs by Bryan Reeves and Dedric Holmes and scoring catches by Mike Senior and Tom Matter. The Pack took a 34-28 lead with seven minutes to play on a 19-yard field goal by Steve Terelak. But a special teams mistake on an attempted Pack punt gave Bowling Green the ball at the Pack 15-yard line with 1:45 to go. Bowling Green then won the game on a 3-yard scoring pass with 22 seconds to go on fourth down. This was the first time Ault retired after a devastating loss in a bowl game. It would not be the last.

5. New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 15, 2012): Arizona 49, Nevada 48

This was arguably the Wolf Pack’s most exciting bowl game in school history. The Pistol offense was phenomenal as quarterback Cody Fajardo passed for 256 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for 140 yards and a score. The Pack rolled off 105 offensive plays and gained 605 yards. Stefphon Jefferson ran for 180 yards. Zach Sudfeld caught two touchdown passes. The Pack, which had the ball for 39 minutes, took a seemingly comfortable 48-35 lead on a 25-yard field goal by Allen Hardison with just 1:48 to play. Arizona, though, scored two touchdowns in the final 46 seconds to steal the victory. The Pack never trailed until Arizona took a 49-48 lead with 19 seconds to play. Ault retired after this game and has never come back.

4. Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24, 2005): Nevada 49, Central Florida 48

Finally, a Christmas Eve in Honolulu that didn’t ruin the holidays. This was the game that the nation discovered the Pistol offense. It was just the first year of Ault’s new offense and quarterback Jeff Rowe passed for 254 yards and the Pack ran for 369 yards. B.J. Mitchell ran for 178 yards and Robert Hubbard ran for 126. The Pack won in overtime on a 4-yard touchdown run by Rowe and survived when future NFL kicker Matt Prater missed an extra point after Central Florida’s touchdown in overtime. Future NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall caught 11 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns for Central Florida. A new era in Nevada had officially begun, wiping out the dark years of 1997-2004.

3. Salad Bowl (Jan. 1, 1948): Nevada 13, North Texas State 6

The Salad Bowl in Phoenix was historic for the Pack. It was its first bowl game and nobody forgets its first bowl game, let alone its first bowl win. Coach Joe Sheeketski’s Pack was 8-2 in the regular season, winning at Oregon against former Pack coach Jim Aiken and quarterback Norm Van Brocklin in early October. Getting to a bowl game in 1947 was not easy. There was just 13 that season. The Salad Bowl, named to make the nation aware of all the vegetables grown in the Phoenix desert, was the Pack’s first step in front of a national spotlight. The Pack, though, decided at first not to play North Texas State because it was promised a more well-known and attractive opponent, such as TCU. That decision created bad blood between the two schools. “We didn’t like being insulted by being told we weren’t good enough to play this club from Nevada,” said Odus Mitchell, who coached North Texas from 1946-66. “Like all Texans we’re proud of our state. Nevada is as unknown in Texas as they say we are out there.” One Pack player responded, “We’ll make those Texans sorry they insisted on playing us.” The Pack agreed to play the game after the Kiwanis Club of Phoenix threatened a lawsuit and because Sheeketski allowed the Pack to practice on its own until the team met in Phoenix a few days before the game. The Pack came out winners in its first bowl game on a 95-yard pass from Stan Heath to Tommy Kalmanir and a 3-yard run by Ernie Zeno. After the game the Phoenix Kiwanis Club gave the Pack wrist watches. The Salad Bowl would finally wilt and fade away after 1955.

2. Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 19, 1996): Nevada 18, Ball State 15

OK, yes, hardly anybody saw the Pack beat Ball State on the night of Dec. 19, 1996. Just 10,118 fans were at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl. But this game was meaningful for Nevada for many reasons. It was the first time the Pack won a bowl game as a Division I-A (FBS) school after narrow losses in 1992 and 1995. It also was proof that the Pack could win something meaningful without Ault as head coach, something that has not happened since. The 1996 Wolf Pack went 9-3 for first-year head coach Jeff Tisdel, with two of the losses coming in paycheck games at Oregon and at Cal. The Pack even destroyed UNLV (54-17) and Boise State (66-28) on back-to-back weeks along the way. The offense scored 30 or more points in nine of its first 11 games. But it was the Wolf Pack defense that was superb in the bowl game as linebacker Mike Crawford turned in arguably the Pack’s best defensive performance in a bowl game in school history with 14 tackles, one forced fumble and an interception. Wide receiver Damond Wilkins caught two touchdown passes from two different quarterbacks (John Dutton, Eric Bennett) and Damon Shea kicked two field goals. This game is still the greatest victory by a Wolf Pack coach not named Ault since Ault took over the program in 1976.

1. Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (Jan. 9, 2011): Nevada 20, Boston College 13

Northern Nevada clearly had Wolf Pack fever in January 2011. The Wolf Pack, led by a group of unforgettable seniors such as Colin Kaepernick, Vai Taua and Dontay Moch, had already stunned Boise State in Reno in late November to help them capture a share of the Western Athletic Conference title. The Pack went 12-1 in the regular season and was ranked in the Top 25 and then had more than a month to get excited about a bowl game. Northern Nevada responded, traveling the short distance to San Francisco’s AT&T Park and swelling attendance to 41,063. Boston College had to win its last five games in a row to get to 7-5 after losing five in a row at mid-season. But the Eagles had a solid defense led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, and plenty of time to study Ault’s Pistol offense. The Pack offense, which rolled through opponents all season long, struggled. Kaepernick found Rishard Matthews on a 27-yard touchdown pass and Matthews made the play of the game on a 72-yard punt return for a score as the Pack took a 17-7 lead. The Pack’s 20 points, though, were the fewest it scored all season. Kuechly would finish with 12 tackles and an interception. But the Wolf Pack left San Francisco with a bowl win and a 13-1 record because of its defense which held the Eagles to 12 first downs and 185 total yards. Kaelin Burnett had two sacks and forced a fumble. The Wolf Pack completed its dream season the right way.