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Pack must win to stay in WAC title picture

JOE SANTORO
FOr the Nevada Appeal

RENO – Chris Ault had a simple message for his Nevada Wolf Pack seniors this week.

“We looked right at our seniors and told them on Monday, ‘You need to go back and look at the film (of last Saturday’s 24-21 loss to Louisiana Tech),'” the Wolf Pack head coach said. ‘”What kind of production did we get out of you? We need you guys to do more.'”

Message received.

“Leadership is huge in a week like this,” senior linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “As seniors that is our responsibility.”

The Wolf Pack, coming off what Ault described as “the most frustrating (thing) I’ve ever been around,” now must likely win at Utah State on Saturday (11:07 a.m., 630AM, 94.7-FM, Channel 21 television) and at home on Dec. 3 against Idaho to earn a share of the Western Athletic Conference title.

The Pack, at 6-4 overall and 4-1 in the WAC, are currently a half-game behind Louisiana Tech (7-4, 5-1) in the WAC with Utah State (5-5, 3-2) close behind. A Louisiana Tech win over New Mexico State on Saturday will give the Bulldogs a share of the WAC title.

Ault said this week that the Pack will go as far as their seniors carry them.

“We need our seniors to step up,” Ault said. “This is their football team.”

The Pack faced a similar challenge last season after an equally stunning 27-21 loss at Hawaii in Week 7. After that loss the Pack knew it likely had to win its final six WAC games to have a chance at a piece of the WAC crown. The seniors last year rallied the team and did just that as the Pack finished 13-1 overall and shared the conference title with Hawaii and Boise State.

“Last year those seniors really didn’t say much,” Ault said. “It was more about their work ethic and the example they set. There wasn’t a bunch of talk. Those seniors just got everyone back to business.”

That was the challenge once again this week.

“We probably have some guys who are down now after that loss (to Louisiana Tech),” Marshall said. “But it’s up to us to get everyone focused again and come out and practice hard and go out and win our last two games.”

Make no mistake, the loss to Louisiana Tech rocked this football team. The Bulldogs, down 20-3 in the fourth quarter, scored 21 unanswered points to steal the victory.

“Those last nine minutes, we wish we could get those back,” senior defensive tackle Brett Roy said. “But we can’t and now we have to learn from it. We have to learn how to put teams away and finish them off.”

Despite the meltdown in the fourth quarter last weekend, the Pack defense remains second in total defense in the WAC, allowing 378.5 yards a game. Utah State is first at 351.9.

Roy, though, said this game is all about leadership from the seniors.

“That’s my role and the role of all our seniors,” Roy said. “We have to make sure nobody is out here going to panic, nobody is down emotionally. It’s up to the seniors to show everyone that the world isn’t over.

“We still control our destiny. If we win our last two games we win the WAC. Nothing’s changed.”

Roy is more than happy to show his younger teammates the way to success.

“When it comes to leadership, I’m not a guy who likes to talk about it,” he said. “I do it by example. So look at me. I’m not down. I understand what happened last week. But I’m still focused. My energy is still here.”

The seniors made sure it was business as usual this week.

“We experienced some adversity,” senior defensive end Kaelin Burnett said. “But that’s all right. We just have to get over it and move on.

“We’re not going to change the things we do. We’re still going to practice hard and come out on Saturday and play hard.”

Burnett wouldn’t compare the week after the loss to Hawaii last year to this week.

“I don’t even remember that game,” he smiled. “But that’s what I do. After each game, I forget it  immediately and move on to the next game and focus on our next opponent.”

Roy, though, agreed that the mindset this week is the same as it was following the loss at Hawaii.

“It’s the same caliber of feeling for us,” Roy said. “Last year we lost our undefeated season with that loss. This year we lost our undefeated season in the WAC. This is just another humility point for us. We answered the challenge last year and we’ll do it again this year.”

The challenge this week is a Utah State team that has won four games in a row and features running back Robert Turbin, who leads the WAC with 125.7 rushing yards a game. The Aggies’ five losses have come by just a combined 25 points. They lost by four to Auburn and three to BYU.

“This is a huge game for us, probably the biggest game of the year,” Turbin said.  

The Aggies, thanks to Turbin, lead the WAC with 273.9 rushing yards a game (the Pack is second at 261.1).

“They are very explosive,” Ault said. “Their running game is the best we’ve seen since we played Boise.”

Turbin has 1,257 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns (19 rushing).

“Running the ball is what we do,” said the 5-foot-10, 216-pound Turbin, who had  208 yards and three touchdowns last week in a 49-42 win over Idaho. “That is our baby, that is our bread and butter. If we can’t run the ball we are going to have a lot of problems.”

Turbin, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, hasn’t fared all that well against the Pack in the past, rushing for eight yards on eight carries in 2008 and 36 yards on seven carries in 2009.

“It seems like every time we play Nevada they know how to shut our run game down,” Turbin said.

The Pack has won six games in a row against Utah State (seven in a row at Logan, Utah), including a wild affair last Oct. 30 at Mackay Stadium, 56-42. Ault is 9-0 in his career against the Aggies. The Pack owns a 17-4 lead in the one-sided rivalry which began in 1904.

Utah State, though, is looking to win six games for the first time since 1997. They are also one victory away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1997.

“Getting to 5-5 is a large step for this program,” said Gary Andersen, who is 13-21 as the Aggies head coach in three seasons. “It shows progress. It takes us to places we haven’t been in years. The step to get to number six will be a gigantic step.”

The Pack is also hoping to take a huge step toward its second consecutive WAC title on Saturday.

“We can still accomplish everything we set out to do this year,” Roy said.