Pack defense disappears down the stretch in loss to La. Tech
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – The Nevada Wolf Pack simply has no explanations for what took place Saturday afternoon at Mackay Stadium.
“We were dominating them,” linebacker James-Michael Johnson said. “I don’t know what happened.”
What happened clearly left the Wolf Pack and the disappointed crowd of 11,639 shaking their heads in disbelief.
The Wolf Pack, with a piece of the Western Athletic Conference title on the line, gave up 21 unanswered points in the final nine minutes and were stunned by the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, 24-20.
“This is a bitter, bitter, bitter disappointment,” Pack coach Chris Ault said. “I’m just sick about it.”
A second-consecutive WAC title wasn’t the only prize on the line on Saturday.
The loss snapped the Wolf Pack’s 16-game winning streak at home and a 10-game winning streak against WAC opponents. It was also the first time the Wolf Pack has squandered a lead of at least 17 points at home in a loss since a 42-34 loss to Louisiana Tech in 2003 when they had a 21-3 lead.
“I felt we were in control the whole game,” said running back Lampford Mark, who had 109 yards on 28 carries. “Even when things weren’t going our way I still had faith in my team.”
The Pack was in total control for the first 51 minutes, building a 20-3 lead.
Quarterback Cody Fajardo connected with wide receiver Rishard Matthews on a 20-yard pass over the middle for a 7-0 lead with 45 seconds to play in the first quarter. Jake Hurst then kicked his first two career field goals (from 19 and 24 yards out) in the third quarter and Stefphon Jefferson scored on a 4-yard run as the Pack took a 20-3 lead in the fourth quarter.
“We moved the ball real well,” Ault said.
Ault, though, knew his offense left some points on the field, especially when they had to settle for two field goals.
“There are no excuses,” Ault said.
The Pack, though, seemed to have the game — and a share of the WAC title — in total control with the 20-3 lead in the fourth quarter.
“In the first half we were very good defensively,” Ault said.
Make that three quarters.
The Wolf Pack held the Bulldogs’ offense to a mere 123 total yards — just five yards on the ground — and five first downs and a field goal through three quarters. Louisiana Tech quarterback Colby Cameron was just 11-of-26 for 118 yards through the third quarter.
Everything changed in the fourth quarter.
Cameron led the Bulldogs to three touchdowns in a span of just 8:20 to stun the Pack. The 6-foot-2 junior tossed three touchdown passes — nine yards to Quinton Patton, 14 yards to Myles White and eight yards to Taulib Ikharo — as the Wolf Pack secondary suddenly disappeared.
“We just lost control in the fourth quarter,” cornerback Isaiah Frey said. “Our goal coming into the second half was to not let them score any points.”
That goal, like the school’s first unbeaten conference season since 1995, vanished in the fourth quarter under a flurry of Cameron passes. The Bulldogs quarterback, who was repeatedly off target through the first three quarters, missing numerous wide open teammates, suddenly couldn’t miss.
Cameron was 14-of-19 in the fourth quarter for 237 yards and the three Pack-breaking touchdowns. Patton, who had just two catches for 47 yards through the first three quarters, caught five passes for 115 yards in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t do anything different in the second half from what we did in the first half,” Pack defensive coordinator Andy Buh said.
The difference was on the scoreboard.
“It’s not so much them as much as it was us,” said Frey, who knocked down three of Cameron’s passes. “You could tell that we were on our heels in the fourth quarter. We did that to ourselves.”
The three Bulldogs’ scoring drives in the fourth quarter were 84, 89 and 92 yards. The first one took 11 plays and ended with the 9-yard touchdown to Patton with 9:11 left in the game. The second scoring drive in the fourth quarter was six plays and was capped by the 14-yard scoring pass to White with 5:56 to play.
The third and final scoring drive was a thing of beauty.
Facing a 3rd-and-12 from his own 6-yard line with two minutes to play, Cameron connected with running back Hunter Lee for a crucial 23-yard gain to the 29-yard line.
“I should have had him,” said Johnson, who ended up making the tackle.
The Bulldogs, though, were still 71 yards away from the end zone with under two minutes to play.
Cameron then found Patton for 35 yards to the Wolf Pack 36 and Jacarri Jackson for 25 to the Pack 11-yard line on successive plays.
“They made plays over our guys that we are obviously disappointed in,” Buh said.
“We didn’t make plays when they came to us,” Frey said.
Lee rambled for three yards on the ground to the Pack 8-yard line on first down. Cameron then went back to the air on second down, finding Ikharo in the left corner of the end zone for the game-winning strike.
Cameron ended up completing nine of his last 11 passes for 164 yards and three touchdowns.
“We had our opportunities,” Ault said. “But we just didn’t finish in the fourth quarter. They did and that was the difference. They deserved to win because they finished and we did not.”
Ault, though, pinned as much blame on the offense as he did the defense for the shocking loss. The Pack had 272 total yards and controlled the ball for nearly 22 of the 30 minutes in the first half but had just a 7-0 lead at the intermission.
“We moved the ball but we didn’t have much to show for it,” Ault said.
The numbers everywhere but on the scoreboard clearly don’t add up to a Pack defeat. The Wolf Pack out-gained the Bulldogs 465-412 and had the ball nearly twice as long (39:35 to 20:25). The Pack also had eight more first downs.
Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo finished with impressive numbers, completing 23-of-32 passes for 212 yards, but the red-shirt freshman also turned the ball over twice on a fumble and an interception.
“We got to the goal zone a lot of times and we kept coming up empty,” Fajardo said. “That was me making dumb reads or making bad passes.”
Mark, who has gone over 100 yards on the ground in each of his two starts this year, said the offense kind of relaxed after building the 20-3 lead.
“I felt we let our guard down a little,” Mark said. “We got too comfortable with the situation.”
Nobody in silver and blue is comfortable now.
If Louisiana Tech beats New Mexico State next Saturday in their final WAC game, the Wolf Pack will have to win at Utah State and against Idaho at Mackay Stadium on Dec. 3 to earn a share of the WAC championship.
“We’re down but not out,” said Fajardo, who is now 5-1 as the Pack starter at quarterback. “That’s the way we’re looking at it.”