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Wolf Pack turns back Thunderbirds

Dave Price

RENO — Forget that 1-10 record and 10 straight losses against I-AA opponents in 2002. Southern Utah was only a kick or two away from knocking off Nevada Saturday night.

Instead, quarterback Andy Heiser came off the bench in the second half to engineer two scoring drives and Nevada’s defense produced some big plays as the Wolf Pack rallied to pull out a 24-23 season-opening victory against Southern Utah before a crowd of 25,256 that witnessed the first-ever game under the lights at Mackay Stadium.

Sophomore linebacker Logan Carter recovered a fumble in the end zone for one touchdown and then helped preserve the victory when he blocked a PAT attempt that would have tied the score with 3:06 left to play.

It was a sloppy victory for the Wolf Pack, who travel to Eugene this coming Saturday to play Pacific-10 Conference foe Oregon. Nevada turned the ball over three times on fumbles, gave it away another time on a bad snap out of punt formation, failed to convert a fourth-and-1 play from the Southern Utah 10 in the third quarter and was flagged for 14 penalties.

But it was still a win. And even though Southern Utah won just one game last year, the team has been completely revamped by first-year coach Gary Andersen.

Down 17-14 early in the third quarter, Heiser came on in relief of starting quarterback Jeff Rowe and injected some life into the Wolf Pack offense. The junior directed a 13-play drive that took the ball to Southern Utah’s 10. The key play was Heiser’s 36-yard pass to Willie Johnson on a third-and-25 play to the Thunderbirds 30. However, the drive died on fourth-and-1 from the 10 when Chance Kretschmer was stacked up by the middle of Southern Utah’s defensive line for no gain.

The drive paid off, though, because the Wolf Pack defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing series and Southern Utah only got off a 20-yard punt.

The Wolf Pack only needed two plays to take the lead as Johnson took a wide receiver screen on the left side and ran for a 22-yard touchdown to put Nevada on top 21-17 with 2:42 remaining in the third period.

Southern Utah answered with a drive of its own. Quarterback Casey Rehrer scrambled for 26 yards on one play and scrambled 16 yards on another play to give the Thunderbirds first-and-goal on the 5. However, the junior had to leave the field after being hit on the latter run and was replaced by true freshman Ryan Zimmerman — and he faced a Wolf Pack defense that rose to the occasion.

After the Thunderbirds lost 5 yards on an illegal formation penalty, Daryl Towns and Ali Jones broke up a pass inside the 5 on second down and then Southern Utah’s Steve Price was limited to a 1-yard gain on a pass reception when he was leveled by Keone Kauo’s ferocious hit at the 6. Steve Pulver’s ensuing 23-yard field goal attempt went wide.

The Thunderbirds appeared to catch a break moments later with a fumble recovery at the 30, but Pulver missed another field goal attempt, this time from 44 yards out with 9:22 remaining.

The Wolf Pack responded with a drive of their own, ignited by Kretschmer’s 33-yard run, that culminated with Damon Fine’s 53-yard field goal with 5:35 to go. Fine’s field goal was the sixth longest in Nevada history.

Southern Utah came right back as Rehrer threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Wes Patterson that cut the Wolf Pack lead to 24-23. The snap on the PAT attempts was low, however, and Carter blocked the kick to preserve the one-point win.

Carter scored Nevada’s first touchdown recovered a fumble forced by P.J. Hoeper’s quarterback sack in the end zone in the first quarter. Carter also had a pass interception on the night.

Nichiren Flowers caught a 10-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to give the Wolf Pack a 14-3 lead, but Southern Utah scored twice within a two-minute span in the second quarter to take the lead.

First, Tremaine Cox returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Cox was making his debut for the Thunderbirds after playing as a freshman at Arizona and then spending one season with the community college program at Arizona Western.

Nevada turned the ball over on its errant punt formation snap, giving the Thunderbirds possession at the 4. Two plays later, Mike Culpepper caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Rehrer to make it 17-14. Culpepper is in his first season with the Thunderbirds after transferring from Utah.