Wolf Pack knocks off San Diego State
RENO — Jay Norvell now has his first signature victory as the Nevada Wolf Pack’s head coach.
The Wolf Pack rallied from deficits of 14 and nine points in the first half to beat the San Diego State Aztecs 28-24 Saturday night at Mackay Stadium in front of a crowd of 14,545. The victory gives the Wolf Pack, 5-4 overall and 3-2 in the Mountain West, its first two-game winning streak since Norvell took over as head coach before last season.
“I have a lot of respect for (San Diego State coach Rocky Long) and what he’s accomplished,” said Norvell, who now has an 8-13 record as Pack coach after starting 0-5. “For us to beat this team means an awful lot to us and our program.”
“This means the world to us,” Wolf Pack defensive lineman Korey Rush said. “To finally get them is just big.”
San Diego State, now 6-2, 3-1, saw its six-game winning streak come to an end. This is the first time the Wolf Pack has ended an opponent’s winning streak of six games or longer since a 34-31 overtime win late in the 2010 season that put an end to Boise State’s 24-game streak. The loss is also the Aztecs’ first in nearly two months, since a 31-10 loss to Stanford on Aug. 31.
“They are a top tier team in the Mountain West,” Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi said. “To not just go out and compete with them but to come out with the win is big for us.”
The Wolf Pack fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter and 25-14 at halftime. This is just the second time under Norvell that the Pack has won a game after trailing at halftime. The first time was in the final game of the 2017 season when the Pack beat UNLV 23-16 after trailing 13-9 at the half.
“We kept saying on our sideline, ‘They (the Aztecs) can’t win if they can’t score,’” Norvell said. “I love the way we responded. And once we got up on them, our defense and responded and showed the resiliency we needed.”
The Wolf Pack shut out the Aztecs in the second half, allowing just 136 total yards over the final 30 minutes.
“This shows how far we’ve come as a team,” Rush said. “In the past, you guys know as well as I that we would have lost this game. We would have done something stupid or they (San Diego State) would have had a Hail Mary to win. But good football teams win games like this and we are a good football team.”
San Diego State, which also lost for the first time this season in six decisions in games decided by seven points or less, had dominated the series with the Pack, winning the last three games in the rivalry and seven-of-10 overall.
That domination came to an end on Saturday.
The Wolf Pack didn’t put its first victory over San Diego State since 2014 (30-14) away until late in the fourth quarter. The Aztecs had the ball on first down at the Pack 41-yard line with 2:42 to go but four consecutive incomplete passes by Ryan Agnew gave the ball back to the Pack with 2:07 to play.
But while the Pack offense couldn’t put the game away, the special teams did. Quinton Conaway pinned the Aztecs back at their own 1-yard line with a 55-yard punt with just 58 seconds to go, forcing them to go the length of the field without any timeouts. The Aztecs did get to the Pack 40-yard line before the game ended on a desperation pass into the end zone that fell incomplete.
“That was just awesome,” Conaway said. “It’s just awesome to be able to help my teammates, guys who have worked so hard for so long.”
“That punt was outstanding,” Norvell said. “In a game like this field position is so critical.”
The Aztecs, which won the Mountain West title in 2012, 2015 and 2016, dominated the statistics, outgaining the Pack 456-297 and picking up more first downs (24-14). The Aztecs had more yards through the air (283-235) and also on the ground (173-62).
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” Norvell said. “If you end up on the right side of the score you take it and run.”
Gangi was 23-of-43 for 235 yards and two touchdowns as the Wolf Pack gained just 62 yards on the ground on 23 carries. Gangi, though, did his part to win the game, leading the Pack to a touchdown (a 2-yard run by Devonte Lee) and field goal (32 yarder by Ramiz Ahmed) on its first two possessions of the second half as the Pack wiped out the Aztecs’ 24-15 halftime lead. Gangi was 7-of-8 for 87 yards on the two drives combined.
“Those were two pretty good drives at the start of the third quarter,” Norvell said.
The Aztecs controlled the first dozen minutes of the game, taking a quick 14-0 lead after their first two drives. Agnew led the Aztecs on scoring drives of 75 and 80 yards, tossing touchdown passes to Chase Jasmin (two yards) and Kahale Warring (16 yards).
The Aztecs piled up 155 yards on 20 plays on the two scoring drives combined as the Wolf Pack defense struggled to get off the field. Agnew, who was just 7-of-11 for 86 yards through the air in a 16-13 win over San Jose State a week ago, was 8-of-10 for 117 yards after the Aztecs’ first two drives on Saturday.
Running back Chase Jasmin also hurt the Pack on the Aztecs’ first two drives, picking up 37 yards on nine carries.
“We didn’t start the game well,” Norvell said. “We were flat. San Diego state came out and was a little uncharacteristic of them, throwing the ball like they did. We were a step behind in the first half.”
Just 12 minutes into the game the Aztecs had a 14-0 lead and their offense had outgained the Wolf Pack 155-23, running off 20 plays to the Pack’s six. The first half, though, then changed dramatically on a Wolf Pack punt.
A Conaway punt pinned the Aztecs at their own 2-yard line with just under three minutes to go in the opening quarter. Two plays later the Pack got on the scoreboard with a safety as San Diego State’s Daishawn Dixon was called for holding in the end zone.
“We don’t win this game without those two punts,” said Rush, referring to Conaway’s punt that backed the Aztecs to their 2-yard line in the first quarter and 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. “Without those punts we don’t win. No doubt.”
The Wolf Pack’s good fortune continued as San Diego State’s John Baron then sent his free kick after the safety out of bounds, giving the Pack the ball at the 50-yard line. It took Gangi and the Pack just five plays to cover the 50 yards, cutting the Aztecs’ lead to just 14-9.
Gangi picked up 17 yards on the ground on a key 3rd-and-2 play down to the Aztecs’ 25-yard line to keep the drive alive. After a 15-yard penalty pushed the Pack back to the Aztecs’ 40-yard line, Gangi then hooked up with running back Toa Taua for the Pack’s first touchdown of the game. Taua tip-toed down the right sideline for the 40-yard score with nine seconds left in the first quarter.
The Pack then took its first lead of the game, 15-14 with 8:50 to go on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Gangi to wide receiver Brendan O’Leary-Orange, capping a 15-0 Pack run. O’Leary-Orange bobbled the ball twice before controlling it at about the 15-yard line. He then bounced off San Diego State safety Parker Baldwin before heading to the end zone. The 53-yard, six-play drive also featured an 18-yard run by Lee out of the wildcat formation on 3rd-and-2 from the Aztecs’ 45-yard line.
The Aztecs, though, then controlled the final 8:46 to take a 24-15 halftime lead.
Agnew led San Diego State on a 73-yard, 11-play drive that ended in a 26-yard Baron field goal and a 17-15 Aztecs’ lead. The drive featured two key completions by Agnew, 18 yards to Isiah Macklin down to the Wolf Pack 43-yard line and 15 yards to B.J. Bybee to the Wolf Pack 31 on a 3rd-and-13 play.
Agnew would complete 20-of-41 passes in the game for 283 yards and three touchdowns, setting career highs in all categories.
“When I looked at the state sheet and saw they threw 41 passes I couldn’t believe it,” Norvell said. “Maybe that’s a compliment to us. I don’t know.”
The Aztecs stretched the lead to 24-15 on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Agnew to Warring with 1:31 to go in the first half. A pass interference penalty on Pack linebacker Gabe Sewell gave the Aztecs a first down at the Wolf Pack 30-yard line on the third play of the drive, setting up the touchdown pass. Warring grabbed the ball between two Pack defenders at the 5-yard line before finding the end zone.
It took the Pack less than a quarter, though, to wipe out that nine-point halftime deficit in the third quarter.
Gangi came out firing after halftime, leading the Pack on an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive. He connected on three consecutive passes on the drive, 32 yards to McLane Mannix down to the Aztecs’ 38-yard line followed by a 23-yard toss to Taua to the 15-yard line and a 10-yarder to Elijah Cooks down to the 5-yard line.
Lee did the honors for the touchdown, running out of the wildcat once again and barreling over the left side for a 2-yard score as the Wolf Pack cut San Diego State’s lead to just 24-22 with 11:39 to go in the third quarter.
The Wolf Pack, now 3-2 at home this season, then regained the lead before the third quarter ended. Mannix returned a punt 21 yards to give the Pack the ball at the Aztecs’ 36-yard line. With all of the momentum now on the Pack’s side, Gangi found O’Leary-Orange for nine yards and then hit tight end Trae Carter-Wells for nine more yards on a pivotal 4th-and-3 pass from the San Diego State 20-yard line.
The drive, however, stalled at the 15-yard line as the Aztecs dropped Lee for a 2-yard loss on third down. Ahmed, though, then came on to kick a 32-yard field goal as the Pack took a 25-24 lead with 5:13 to go in the third quarter.
“So much about being a good team is being coachable,” Norvell said. “These last few weeks this team has been very coachable and it has shown (with a pair of victories, at Hawaii last week and again on Saturday against San Diego State).
“We feel very good about (the mini win streak),” Norvell said. “Both those teams (Hawaii and San Diego state) were undefeated (both were 3-0) in league.”
The Wolf Pack will now go into its bye week on a two-game winning streak before hosting Colorado State on Nov. 10 in the final home game of the year.