Wolf Pack stuns Cougars
RENO — As far as the University of Nevada football program is concerned, wins don’t any bigger than its 31-28 upset of Brigham Young on Saturday afternoon.
Zack Threadgill passed for 410 yards and four touchdowns and Nate Burleson caught 12 balls for 215 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown catch and run in the first quarter and Nevada went on to take its first win over a ranked opponent since moving from Division I-AA to I-A in 1992.
“This was a breakthrough win for us because now these players believe. They know they can win a tough game against a quality opponent,” Nevada coach Chris Tormey said. “I think we’ll look back two or three years from now and we’ll look at this game and say to ourselves, ‘That was the day that we turned it around. That was the day our players started to believe and know that they could win.”‘
The Wolf Pack (1-1) had to win on a day when running back Chance Kretschmer, who led the NCAA in rushing last season, went out with a knee injury on his first carry of the game — an 8-yard gain in the first quarter that was followed by a late hit penalty out of bounds (BYU was penalized 13 times for 140 yards in the game). The extent of the injury wasn’t immediately known, although Tormey was somber about the prognosis afterward.
“It looks like Chance is going to be out indefinitely with that knee strain,” he said. “It doesn’t look good. It looks like an ACL, but we’ll be evaluating it.”
That didn’t prevent the Wolf Pack from taking a 31-14 halftime lead against BYU (2-1), which came into the game ranked No. 24 in the ESPN/USA Today poll. Freshman running back Matt Milton rushed for 94 yards on 21 carries and Threadgill threw for 325 yards and four touchdowns, two of which came in the final minute before the intermission.
“I thought Zack played lights-out today,” Tormey said of the senior quarterback, who was 28-of-37 with one interception. “This has to be a tremendous confidence builder for him. When the game’s on the line and we need a throw, he knows he can do it.”
After Damon Fine’s 41-yard field goal made it 3-0, the Wolf Pack struck again on their next possession when Burleson caught a short pass in the right flat, sped around a block from Tim Fleming and went 95 yards down the sideline. The scoring play was the third longest in Nevada history.
“After Tim made that block, I was like, ‘I’ve got to score. And after I did, it was like, ‘This is going to be a good day,'” Burleson said.
It wasn’t the original play, either.
“Zack changed the play,” Tormey said. “I think we were going to run it, but he changed it on the line of scrimmage and threw that bubble screen out to Nate.”
BYU answered with a 31-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Bret Engemann to Rodney Wilkerson to cut Nevada’s lead to 10-7 on the opening play of the second quarter.
The scoring exchange continued. Nevada scored on Threadgill’s 16-yard pass to Dan Bythwood on a third-down play. Then BYU’s Scott Jackson recovered a fumble at the Nevada 8 and capitalized when Reno Mahe swept his right end to score from 4 yards out on a fourth-down play.
Then came that pivotal final minute that saw the Wolf Pack catch some breaks.
Nevada faced a fourth-and-7 situation from the BYU 38, but picked up five yards on an offside penalty against the defense. Next, Threadgill found tight end Erick Streelman over the middle for an 18-yard gain for first down at the 15. Two plays later, Threadgill and Streelman hooked up on a 13-yard touchdown play with 48 seconds showing on the clock.
Two plays later, the Wolf Pack’s Ronnie Hardiman returned an interception 21 yards to the BYU 32. Threadgill hit Burleson with 25-yard pass to the 9 and then Fleming caught a 9-yard touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone as time expired to make it 31-14.
“Right at the end of the half was huge, huge,” BYU coach Gary Crowton said. “They’re playing at home. They have a veteran team. They are very poised, very confident. He’s (Tormey) a good coach. This is his third year with the team. They’re only going to get better.”
The Cougars, who rallied from a 17-7 deficit in the second quarter to defeat Hawaii last week, came back in the third quarter and scored on back-to-back possessions. Marcus Whalen, who rushed for 135 yards in the game, scored on a 30-yard touchdown run and then freshman quarterback Lance Pendleton, who came off the bench to start the third quarter, threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Gabriel Reid to make it 31-28.
“We had two turnovers in the third quarter and I think that really took the air out of our balloon. We ended up giving up two touchdowns and all of a sudden it was a three-point game,” Tormey said.
Nevada mounted one more drive that proved all-important. The Wolf Pack didn’t score any points, but their 15-play, 74-yard march took 8 minutes, 27 seconds off the clock. They survived four penalties for 35 yards, but converted a third-and-19 situation on a 26-yard hookup from Threadgill to Burleson.
“That long drive at the end was huge and that play was huge,” Tormey said. “That was two poised and pressure players stepping up and making a play in that situation.”
The Wolf Pack drove to the 2 before Threadgill’s fourth down pass to Burleson fell complete in the end zone with 2:18 left.
“We were thinking play action and try to get it to the tight end over the middle and they had it covered,” Tormey said. “My thought then was, ‘I’m sure glad the wind is blowing in their face and they’ve got a long ways to go.’ But I don’t think you second guess that call. We went for it all day long, so I think that was the right call.”
BYU came back with a 14-play drive to the Nevada 32 before time ran out on a 6-yard pass over the middle. Toby Christensen caught the ball at the 32, but was promptly tackled by Chris Handy as hundreds of Wolf Pack fans poured onto the field to celebrate.
“We believe in each other,” Threadgill said. “We came out ready to play. This is the result of a lot of hard work and I’m just proud of everybody on our team.”