The Nevada Wolf Pack’s 15 seniors said good-bye to Mackay Stadium on Saturday night and the Wolf Pack bid farewell to a Mountain West championship.
The Wolf Pack fell to the Fresno State Bulldogs 40-20 in their final home game of the season, ending the program’s dream of winning its first conference title since capturing the Western Athletic Conference in 2010. The Pack dropped to 6-5 overall and 3-4 in the Mountain West, a game behind Fresno State (5-6, 4-3) and San Diego State (6-5, 4-3) in the race for the West Division title with one game left to play.
“We stunk in all three phases of the game, the fourth if you count coaches,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said.
The Wolf Pack will play at UNLV next Saturday while San Diego State hosts San Jose State and Fresno State hosts Hawaii. Fresno State would be awarded the West Division title if all three teams finish at 4-4 in league play because of its victories over San Diego State and Nevada this year. Fresno State also would win a tiebreaker with San Diego State.
“A blowout loss on Senior Night,” Wolf Pack senior quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “I’m embarrassed. I’m disgusted. It’s going to hurt, going out on Senior Night like this.”
The Wolf Pack, which ended up 3-3 at home this year, has lost three games in a row to Fresno State and has not beaten the Bulldogs since both teams left the WAC to join the Mountain West after the 20-11 season.
“They competed,” Fajardo said. “My hat is off to them. But we just didn’t show what Nevada football is all about. It’s disgusting.”
Fresno State dominated the Wolf Pack in the second half. The Bulldogs outscored the Pack 33-6 over the last three quarters after the Wolf Pack had taken a 14-7 lead. Fresno State also blanked the Pack 12-0 in the second half after the Wolf Pack had outscored opponents 135-55 in the fourth quarter going into the game.
“Offensively we didn’t do a thing to help the defense,” Polian said. “We got outplayed. I told the team in the locker room after the game, ‘This is the first time this year that I’ve been embarrassed.'”
Polian, now 10-13 in two seasons as the Wolf Pack’s head coach, took full blame for the one-sided loss.
“It starts with me,” Polian said. “Clearly, I didn’t do something right because we were not ready to play. I’m incredibly disgusted by it.”
The 20-point loss is Polian’s biggest at home since he became head coach. The second-year head coach is now 7-5 at Mackay Stadium with his biggest loss at home before Saturday being seven points, 31-24 to Colorado State earlier this year.
The last time the Wolf Pack lost by 20 or more points at home was a 38-7 setback to Boise State on Nov. 25, 2006.
“We had everything to play for,” Fajardo said. “And we didn’t play our best football. We just didn’t show up.”
Fresno State quarterback Brian Burrell completed 24-of-46 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns. The Bulldogs, which outgained the Pack 551-353, lost starting tailback Marteze Waller to a shoulder injury in the first quarter but backup Josh Quezada stepped in and gained 119 yards n 24 carries.
“I’m kind of speechless,” senior defensive end Brock Hekking said. “I’m heartbroken, disappointed.”
The Wolf Pack has not won its final home game of the year since a 56-3 win over Idaho in 2011.
“Does it hurt to lose on Senior Day?” Hekking said. “Absolutely. But we have to stay positive about this.”
Fresno State took a 28-20 lead after a wild first half that saw both teams combine for 48 points, 543 yards (290 by Fresno) and 25 first downs (15 by Fresno).
The quarterbacks dominated the opening half. Burrell completed 15-of-24 passes for 193 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 27 yards and another score. Fajardo rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns in the opening half and completed 6-of-11 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown.
Fajardo, though, would get just 23 rushing yards in the second half and finish with a career-high 165 yards on the ground on 22 carries. He also finished just 11-of-24 through the air for 126 yards.
“They started to put two guys on me and that made it a lot harder to run in the second half,” Fajardo said. “It got to the point where they knew we had to throw it to win and they just came after us.”
The Bulldogs scored first as Burrell connected for a 19-yard touchdown pass to Josh Harper for a 7-0 lead with 3:29 to go in the first quarter. Harper, who caught 17 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-23 win over Nevada last year, beat Pack cornerback Charles Garrett in the right corner of the end zone for the touchdown.
Fajardo then took matters into his own hands. The senior quarterback exploded for a pair of long touchdown runs as the Pack took a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.
It took the Pack just two plays and 33 seconds to answer Harper’s touchdown and tie the game at 7-7. Running back James Butler picked up 20 yards on first down and Fajardo broke free for a 55-yard touchdown run down the right side with 2:56 to go in the first quarter to even the score at 7-7.
Fajardo, whose top rushing game this year before Saturday was 133 yards against Hawaii, sliced through the confused Fresno State defense for a 60-yard touchdown run on the Pack’s next drive. The touchdown, made possible by a key block by wide receiver Richy Turner down the right side, capped a six-play, 82-yard drive and gave the Pack a 14-7 lead with 14:01 to go in the second quarter.
Fresno State would then dominate the final 44 minutes of the game.
Fajardo’s first half touchdown runs, though, are the Pack’s longest touchdown runs against Fresno State since Vai Taua went 65 yards for a score in a 52-14 win at Mackay stadium in 2009.
Both team’s offenses, though, were just warming up at this point.
Burrell, who came into the game with 1,769 passing yards and 16 touchdowns, guided the Bulldogs 81 yards in seven plays to tie the game at 14-14 with 12:23 to go in the second quarter. Burrell completed 5-of-6 passes for 77 yards on the drive, including the 13-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Aaron Peck in the right corner of the end zone. He also found Greg Watson for a 46-yard gain down to the Pack 13-yard line earlier in the drive.
Burrell and Watson hooked up for a 30-yard touchdown strike as the Bulldogs took a 21-14 lead with 9:06 to go in the half. Watson broke a tackle by the Pack’s Duran Workmam at about the 12-yard line before finding the end zone.
“We just let guys get wide open,” linebacker Jonathan McNeal said. “I don’t think it was the pressure of the game. We just made too many mistakes.”
The defense set up the Pack’s third touchdown of the game. Defensive end Lenny Jones picked off a Burrell pass that was tipped by defensive tackle Rykeem Yates near the line of scrimmage over the middle. Jones returned the interception 29 yards down to the Fresno 14. It took Fajardo just three plays to cover the 14 yards as he found running back Don Jackson down the middle on third down for a 14-yard touchdown pass. Brent Zuzo, though, missed the extra point as Fresno held a slim 21-20 lead with 2:06 to go in the half.
The Wolf Pack’s special teams then did its best to wipe out that one-point lead. McNeal forced a fumble by Fresno’s Dillon Root on the ensuing kickoff after Jackson’s touchdown catch. Nigel Haikins picked up the loose ball, giving the Pack the ball at the Fresno State 21-yard line with 1:57 to go in the half. Fajardo, though, was immediately intercepted by Fresno State senior linebacker Karl Mickelsen on first down, turning the ball back over to the Bulldogs.
“We had four turnovers and you can’t overcome four turnovers,” Polian said. “Everything that causes losing, we did. We turned it over. We had penalties. We had multiple busted assignments. We stunk. We laid an egg. It happens.”
Burrell seized the opportunity, moving the Bulldogs 54 yards in eight plays, capping off the drive himself with a 1-yard touchdown run for a 28-20 Bulldogs lead just 32 seconds before the half. The 6-foot-4 junior quarterback also picked up 15 yards on a first down run earlier in the drive down to the Pack 9-yard line.
A pair of Wolf Pack mistakes tacked on 10 more points to the Fresno State lead in the third quarter. Wide receiver Jerico Richardson fumbled the ball away after a 21-yard catch on the Pack‘s first play of the second half, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the Pack 44-yard line.
“We were all rah rah in the locker room at halftime,” Fajardo said. “And then we fumbled the ball away on our first play. That kind of took the life out of us.”
Burrell needed just five plays to cover the 44 yards as the Bulldogs took a 35-20 lead on a 26-yard touchdown pass over linebacker Jordan Dobrich down the middle to Peck.
The Pack mistakes then started to pile up.
Wide receiver Richy Turner then fumbled away a Fresno State punt, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the Pack 20-yard line with 9:56 to go in the third quarter. This time, though, the Pack defense kept the Bulldogs out of the end zone as Kody Koening kicked a 32-yard field goal for a 38-20 Fresno lead with 9:29 to go in the third quarter.
The Wolf Pack wasted another chance to cut into Fresno State’s lead later in the third quarter as Zuzo’s normally reliable leg betrayed him again. This time the sophomore kicker missed a 39-yard field goal with 5:15 to play. Zuzo had made 13-of-16 field goals and 34-of-35 extra points going into the game this season.
“Our kicking game stunk,” Polian said. “We missed a field goal. We missed an extra point.”
The Bulldogs upped their lead to 40-20 with 10:25 to play in the game when they trapped Fajardo in the end zone for a two-yard loss and a safety. The Wolf Pack’s drive began at their own 2-yard line after a 53-yard punt by Fresno State’s Garrett Swanson.
“In the second half we were just waiting for someone to make a big play and it never happened,” Hekking said. “We looked for someone to pick up the momentum and it just never happened.”
Both Hekking and McNeal promised a better effort next week at UNLV.
“People saw the look on our faces walking off the field and in the locker room,” Hekking said. “Nevada football is important to us. This is not the way we want to go out. We’re going to get the (Fremont) cannon back next week and go to a bowl game.”
“I guarantee next week we’re going to be right,” McNeal said.
Polian did his best late Saturday night to refocus his team.
“Now we’re going to play the biggest game of the year,” said Polian of the Battle for the Freemont Cannon on Saturday at UNLV. “We have to go try and get the cannon back.”
It will be a while, though, before the Wolf Pack forgets what the Bulldogs did to them on Senior Night.
“I’m frustrated with everybody right now, including the seniors,” Polian said. “Look, we weren’t the victim here. We were our own worse enemy.”