The showdown: Nevada vs. Fresno State | NevadaAppeal.com

The showdown: Nevada vs. Fresno State

RENO – Championship games at Mackay Stadium in November have been few and far between for the Nevada football program since it went to Division I-A status back in 1992.

Nevada won or shared four straight Big West titles (1994-1997) under present coach Chris Ault and former coach Jeff Tisdel, but have only had one winning season since then, that coming in 1998 when Tisdel’s team went 6-5.

Nevada (7-3, 6-1) hopes to end that drought today (4 p.m., ESPN2) when it hosts Fresno State (8-2, 6-0) in a game that will give the winner a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship.

It’s also Senior Day at Nevada, as the Wolf Pack will say good-bye to 14 players, including starting veterans B.J. Mitchell, Tony Moll, Adam Kiefer, Nichiren Flowers and Craig Bailey, all of whom have been in the program four or five years.

“They are a terriffic team,” Ault said. “By all stretches of imagination, they should have beat USC. USC was fortunate to get a win. Playing host to a championship, we’re looking forward to it.

“They are the best team in the conference, a team that certainly presents a tremendous challenge for us.”

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Fresno State comes off a loss to No. 1 USC, 50-42, last weekend. Coach Pat Hill said his team will be ready to go, and there was plenty of resolve in his voice when he said it. He also has saved some newspaper clippings that had Nevada personnel saying that they beat themselves and that Fresno State didn’t beat them in last year’s 54-17 Bulldog win in Fresno.

“The Nevada game is the game we have to win (to have a share of the title),” said Hill, who said he won’t have any trouble getting up for Nevada after the USC loss. “It’s a big game for us. They know what’s at stake. It was a very tough game, but it’s time to move forward. They will be ready to go.

“We understand we have to go up there and win the game. I don’t care about the weather or anything else. It’s a big game for both schools. There is a lot on the line for both schools. It’s a tough place to play. We’re excited about going.”

And, the 16th-ranked Bulldogs present challenges on both sides of the ball.

The defense, led by defensive back Richard Marshall, defensive end Garrett McIntyre from South Lake Tahoe and linebacker Marcus Riley allows only 18.3 points per game. That stat is good for 17th in the nation.

“Defensively they are very sound,” Ault said. “They are definitely better than last year no question about it. If they aren’t the best, they are one of the two best in the conference. They get around the ball and are very sound.”

The offense, led by running backs Wendell Mathis (1,041 yards) and Bryson Sumlin (476 yards), and quarterback Paul Pinegar (2,359 yards, 22 TDs) scores 40 points a game.

“They do a great job on offense,” Ault said. “They are a power football team. Pinegar has had a good year. He does a great job of spreading the ball around.”

Nevada has the type of offense that can make things difficult for any defense, including Fresno State. Nevada moved the ball at will against Boise State, but shot itself in the foot in the red zone, going 1 for 7.

Jeff Rowe has passed for 2,482 yards and 19 touchdowns and B.J. Mitchell has rushed for 1,144 yards and 10 scores. Wide receivers Caleb Spencer and Flowers should be closer to full strength, and both are capable receivers.

“I think their quarterback is very, very good,” Hill said. “It’s a well conceived offense. The offensive line is experienced and tough. There isn’t one thing you have to do to stop them. We have to play good Bulldog defense. We have to play hard.”

Hill noted that the Pack seems comfortable with its 3-4 defense, which has been led by linebacker Roosevelt Cooks, defensive back Joe Garcia and outside linebacker Ezra Butler.

Hill said the difference between the 3-4 and 4-3 is the different ways it gives you to attack an offense; different ways to pressure the quarterback.

“It depends on how you game plan and how you match up,” Hill said.

Notes: Rowe is eighth in career passing yards (5,512) and seventh in completions (473). He has two 300-yard games this year, and save for last week, had passed for more than 200 yards in every game … Nevada has not been shut out in 302 games, dating back to its Division I-AA status. BYU has not been shut out in 372 games … Both of Fresno State’s losses came to Top 10 teams – Oregon (37-34 and USC (50-42). FSU has won 14 of its last 16 games … Fresno State’s special teams could play a huge impact on today’s game. The Bulldogs have great punt returners in Adam Jennings and Clifton Smith. Jennings also returns kickoffs. Also, FSU has blocked 60 punts and field goals/PATs since Hill arrived at Fresno State as head coach back in 1997 … The Bulldogs are 38-7 in November games since 1997.

Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281