Nevada Wolf Pack top San Jose State on 40-yard field goal as time expires
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO — Malik Henry never had a doubt.
“I had all the faith in the world that we would win this game,” the Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback said after a 41-38 walk-off victory over the San Jose State Spartans in front of a crowd of 15,311 at Mackay Stadium on Saturday. “We all came out and believed in ourselves.”
Henry, making his first start in a Wolf Pack uniform, completed 22-of-37 passes for 352 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The 6-foot-2 junior engineered two drives in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter that broke ties, including the game-winner that ended in a 40-yard field goal by Brandon Talton as time expired.
“It felt real good being able to play,” said Henry, whose previous experience this season was just three passes in one game. “My guys never let me hang my head. They never let me get down. They kept picking me up.”
The Wolf Pack, now 4-2 overall and 1-1 in the Mountain West, led by as much as 31-10 early in the third quarter but had to break a pair of ties at 31-31 and 38-38 in the fourth quarter to hold off the Spartans (3-3, 1-2). The Pack has now won 15 of its last 17 games against San Jose State and has won nine games in a row in the one-sided rivalry at Mackay Stadium.
“This was big for our team,” Wolf Pack defensive tackle Dom Peterson said. “From that (loss) two weeks ago (54-3 to Hawaii on Sept. 28), we just wanted to get that taste out of our mouths. If we were 3-3 right now (instead of 4-2), who knows how the team would be mentally.”
Henry and the Wolf Pack washed away the taste of the Hawaii loss with a seven-play, 46-yard game-winning drive that used up all of the final 2:30 on the clock. Toa Taua, who ran for 160 yards on 34 carries, exploded for a 27-yard gain on the first play of the drive down to the San Jose State 42-yard line. The final play of the drive was a 10-yard pass from Henry to Kaleb Fossum to the Spartans 33-yard line that made Talton’s job a bit easier.
“It’s an unreal feeling,” said Talton, who also beat Purdue 34-31 back on Aug. 30 with a 56-yard field goal as time expired. “It’s hard to explain. But I’m just out there doing my job. The way I look at it, I just believe that’s what I’m expected to do.”
Talton, who also kicked a 25-yard field goal for a 24-3 lead in the second quarter, has now made all 12 of his field goal attempts this season.
“What can I say about Talton?” Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “He’s just an amazing kid, so mature beyond his years. I don’t think there was anybody in that stadium who thought he wouldn’t make that kick.”
Henry was brilliant on his first fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Tied 31-31, the Wolf Pack took over on its own 25 with 8:20 to play. Henry led them on an efficient 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive that ate away 4:27 on the clock.
The new Pack starting quarterback was 6-for-7 through the air for 62 yards on the drive and completed two crucial passes on third down to keep the drive alive, finding Dominic Christian for 13 yards on 3rd-and-7 from the Pack 39 and Elijah Cooks for 13 more on 3rd-and-7 from the San Jose 45. He followed the pass to Cooks with an 18-yard strike to Ben Putman and another 13-yarder to Cooks down to the 1-yard line, where Taua found the end zone to give the Pack a 38-31 lead with just under four minutes to play.
“He handled the game well,” said Norvell of Henry. “He did what we asked him to do. We just told him to play with poise and execute the game plan and that’s what he did.”
“I have a great group of guys behind me,” said Henry, who praised his teammates repeatedly after the game. “We felt real comfortable with the offense. The coaches put in a package for me with plays I like, plays I feel comfortable with and plays I can execute.”
The Wolf Pack offense set a season high for points and total yards (541) in the victory. The Pack also held the ball for a season-high 39:16 and equaled its season high with 25 first downs.
“We’re going to keep going higher,” Henry said. “We’re not going to look back.”
Devonte Lee scored on a pair of short touchdown runs, Talton connected on a 25-yard field goal and Austin Arnold returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown as the Wolf Pack led 24-10 at halftime.
Lee and Taua carried the ball on five of the six plays on the Pack’s first scoring drive as the Wolf Pack eased Henry into his first start. Lee capped the drive with a 2-yard run to give the Pack a quick 7-0 lead just five minutes into the game. But it was a 55-yard pass from Henry to Cooks down the left sideline that did most of the damage on the 66-yard drive.
The opening drive was a sign of things to come all afternoon long as the Wolf Pack set a season-high with 51 running plays in the game. The Pack’s 189 rushing yards against San Jose State is also its second most this year (200 against UTEP).
“We really wanted to lean on Toa (Taua),” Norvell said. “He had a career high in touches (34) and that was by design. When you are not playing as well as you can (as a team) you have to lean on your best players and Toa is one of them. We want to ride those guys. And let them do what they do.”
The second Pack touchdown arrived even more quickly that the first. Arnold picked off a Josh Love pass and returned it 40 yards for a score as the Pack took a quick 14-0 lead with 9:34 to play in the first quarter. Arnold’s touchdown came just 43 seconds after Lee’s score.
Arnold’s play is the sixth interception return for a touchdown by the Wolf Pack against San Jose State since 2002. Dameon Baber returned two interceptions for touchdowns against the Spartans in 2017. The other three Pack pick sixes against the Spartans since 2002 were by Nigel Haikins (2014), Nick Hawthrone (2005) and Keone Kauo (2002). The Pack has now also intercepted 18 passes against San Jose State since 2002 (17 games).
Lee scored again, this time for a yard out, as the Pack took a 21-3 lead a minute into the second quarter. The 11-play, 77-yard drive featured three key Henry completions to Romeo Doubs (20 yards), Crishaun Lappin (19) and Cole Turner (11).
Down 24-3 with less than a minute to play in the first half, though, San Jose State’s offense came alive. Love, who completed 23-of-45 passes in the game for 405 yards and three touchdowns, needed just three passes and 17 seconds to cover 61 yards for the Spartans’ first touchdown, cutting the Pack lead to 24-10 just 17 seconds before halftime on a 37-yard pass to Isaiah Hamilton.
The Wolf Pack defense would allow 35 points in the game’s final 31 minutes. The Pack offense, though, also kept scoring.
Any momentum the Spartans’ might have had after their late second-quarter touchdown disappeared quickly in the third quarter. It took Henry and the Wolf Pack just one play and eight seconds to extend the Nevada lead to 31-10.
Henry’s first touchdown pass of his Wolf Pack career was a perfectly-thrown pass to Doubs down the right sideline on the first play of the second half for a 75-yard touchdown. Doubs caught the ball at about the San Jose State 45-yard line and never broke stride for his first touchdown of the season and third of his career.
“Really? It was that long?” smiled Henry. “I had no idea. Romeo can run with the best of them. He can fly. I knew all I had to do with throw it up to him and he’d run under it.”
The two teams, though, were only getting started on offense.
It took the Spartans just two plays and 35 seconds to answer the Henry-to-Doubs touchdown. Love found wide receiver Bailey Gaither for a 60-yard touchdown strike as the Spartans cut the Pack lead to 31-17.
Starting with San Jose State’s final touchdown drive to end the first half and ending with the Love-to-Gaither score early in the third quarter, the two teams combined for three touchdowns on just six plays over just 87 seconds.
The Spartans, though, sliced the Nevada lead to just 31-24 before the end of the third quarter. Rico Tolefree intercepted a Henry pass at the Wolf Pack 29-yard line to set up the San Jose State score. Love found Hamilton for 16 yards on third down and Walker for 13 yards down to the Pack 1-yard line on the drive. DeJon Packer then scored on a 1-yard run with just over six minutes to go in the third quarter to cut the Pack lead to just a touchdown.
The fourth quarter would be even more frantic.
The Spartans tied the game twice, at 31-31 and 38-38, as Love continued to shred the Pack defense. A 20-yard pass from Love to Tre Walker tied the game at 31-31 with 8:20 to play as Love drove his teammates 10 plays in 80 yards.
He then engineered a seven-play, 68-yard drive that took just 71 seconds to tie the game at 38-38 with 2:36 to play. Packer scored on his second short touchdown run of the game to tie it but it was a 22-yard Love pass to freshman Andre Crump and a 40-yarder to Gaither that put the Spartans in scoring position.
“I was so impressed with Josh Love and I told him that after the game,” said Norvell, who improved his record to 15-16 as Pack head coach.
The Wolf Pack, which has now scored 30 or more points against San Jose State in 11 of its last 12 games against San Jose State at Mackay Stadium since 1993, will now go on the road for two games, at Utah State this Saturday and Wyoming on Oct. 26.
“We’ll find out a lot about our football team over the next two games,” Norvell said.