The Nevada Wolf Pack football team turned back their clocks to 2010 on Saturday night.
The Wolf Pack beat the San Diego State Aztecs 30-14 at Mackay Stadium, taking a huge step toward its first conference championship since winning the Western Athletic Conference four years ago. The victory in front of a chilled crowd of 20,508 lifted the Wolf Pack into a first-place tie with the Aztecs in the West Division of the Mountain West at 3-2 in league play. The Pack has now won three games in a row for the first time since 2012 to improve to 6-3 overall while San Diego State fell to 4-4.
“Coming off last year when we were 4-8 and we were playing for nothing, it’s special to see the smiles in the locker room and the fact that we control our own destiny now is a good spot to be in,” Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said.
The victory also made the Wolf Pack bowl eligible for the ninth time in the last 10 years and was the Wolf Pack’s first over San Diego State since 1946. The Aztecs, which had won four games in a row over the Wolf Pack, beat the Pack in overtime in each of the last two years (51-44 last year and 39-38 in 2012).
“We try not to put too much emphasis on certain games,” Fajardo said. “But in the back out our minds we know what this game means.”
The win also means that if the Wolf Pack wins its final three regular season games it will win the West Division and earn a spot in the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 6.
“I don’t look at the big picture like that,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said. “All I know is we were 1-0 this week and that’s all I’m looking at. People who look at the big picture miss a punch that is coming right at their nose and we don’t want to do that.”
The Wolf Pack put the game against San Diego State away with two almost identical, explosive runs through the middle of the Aztecs’ defense by running backs James Butler and Don Jackson.
Butler broke free for a 43-yard touchdown run up the middle with 7:06 to play, giving the Pack a 23-14 lead with 7:06 to play. The 43-yard run was Butler’s fifth touchdown of the year and gave the freshman his first 100-yard rushing game in a Wolf Pack uniform.
Jackson sliced through the Aztecs for a 47-yard gain down to the Aztecs’ 2-yard line on the Pack’s next drive. The junior eventually scored a 1-yard touchdown on fourth down, giving the Pack a 30-14 lead with 1:40 to go.
“After he got his touchdown he came over to me and said, “OK, now you try to go get one,” said Jackson of Butler. “We compete but it’s all very positive. It’s never anything individual. It’s just about doing what we can do to help the team.”
“They are kind of like brothers,” said Fajardo of Jackson and Butler. “They feed off each other and help each other.”
The two running backs each went over 100 yards in the game. Jackson finished with 124 yards on 20 carries while Butler ended up with 103 on 15. It is the first time two Wolf Pack players rushed for 100 or more yards in the same game since Stefphon Jefferson (180 yards) and Cody Fajardo (140) did it in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl against Arizona.
The two Pack backs outplayed San Diego state running back Donnel Pumphrey, who finished the game with 85 yards on 13 carries and also fumbled the ball away twice. Pumphrey entered the game with 989 yards.
“To think we had two guys get over 100 yards and we held Pimphrey to 85, that speaks volumes to what (defensive coordinator) Scott Boone and our defense did,” Polian said. “To hold Pumphrey to 85 is a heck of a job.”
The Aztecs also held Fajardo to just four yards rushing on 10 carries. Fajardo entered the game as the Pack’s leading rusher this season with 585 yards. Fajardo also struggled through the air, completing just 10 of 24 passes for 109 yards, though his receivers dropped about a half dozen passes.
“(San Diego state) Coach (Rocky) Long said it all week,” Polian said. “He said our offense ran through Cody and he wasn’t going to let Cody beat him. He was going to make us beat him with other guys.”
Enter Jackson and Butler.
“I’m at a point in my career where I’m not in it for the numbers,” Fajardo said. “I’m not in it for the statistics. I’m in it for the wins. I’m in it for the Mountain West championships and I’m in it for the bowl games. If we had to run the ball to win this game, that’s what we were going to do.
“I could tell that Rocky Long didn‘t want me to run the ball. He kept me contained the whole night.”
The Wolf Pack outscored San Diego State 17-0 in the fourth quarter and has now outscored opponents 118-45 in the final quarter this year.
“We have a maturity about us that we don’t panic if we get down,” Polian said. “Nobody freaks out, including me.”
The first three points of the fourth quarter came on Brent Zuzo’s third field goal of the game, a 24-yarder with 11:42 to go in the fourth quarter that gave the Pack a 16-14 lead. The 45-yard drive was kept alive by a pass interference penalty on San Diego State cornerback J.J. Whittaker on the second play of the drive. Whittaker actually intercepted Fajardo’s pass at the San Diego State 32-yard line on the play but was whistled for the penalty after pushing Pack wide receiver Hasaan Henderson out of bounds.
The Wolf Pack found itself trailing at halftime for the fifth consecutive game.
The Aztecs led 14-10 at the intermission thanks to an acrobatic catch in the end zone just 1:15 before halftime by junior wide receiver Jemond Hazely on a 21-yard pass from quarterback Quinn Kaehler down the middle. The 6-foot-1 Hazely outfought Wolf Pack cornerback Charles Garrett, tipping the ball in the air and securing it before it hit the ground for the go-ahead touchdown.
Hazely’s first career touchdown capped a 77-yard, seven-play drive that saw Kaehler connect on four key completions, nine yards to fullback Adam Roberts, 18 yards to wide receiver Lloyd Mills, 19 yards to Roberts down the middle to the Wolf Pack 21-yard line and the touchdown to Hazely.
Kaehler completed 12-of-22 passes in the first half for143 yards. He finished the game 21-of-36 for 189 yards, throwing for just 56 yards in the second half.
“When we got ahead we knew they were throwing the ball,” said Pack linebacker Jonathan McNeal, who had 12 tackles, was in on a sack, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass. “We came out with the mindset in the second half that we were going to shut them out and that’s what we did.”
Fajardo’s lone touchdown pass of the first half had given the Wolf Pack a 10-7 lead early in the second half. The Pack quarterback found wide receiver Richy Turner on the right side at about the 15-yard line and Turner broke a tackle and found the end zone for the 20-yard touchdown with 14:06 to go in the second quarter.
The short (two plays, 20 yards) drive was set up by an interception by McNeal. McNeal picked off a Kaehler pass deep down the middle and returned the ball 20 yards to the Aztecs’ 20-yard line.
San Diego State opened the scoring on a 1-yard touchdown dive by Chase Price with 2:39 to go in the first quarter. The seven-play, 55-yard touchdown drive also featured a 23-yard pass from Kaehler to Mills down to the Wolf Pack 8-yard line.
Fajardo and the Pack, though, answered quickly, cutting the Aztecs’ lead to 7-3 on a 37-yard field goal by Zuzo with 22 seconds left in the first quarter. The drive was set up by a 55-yard kickoff return by Elijah Mitchell. Fajardo found Turner on the drive for a 25-yard completion but two drops, by Turner and wide receiver Jerico Richardson, forced the Wolf Pack to settle for Zuzo’s field goal.
The Wolf Pack sliced the Aztecs’ lead to 14-13 on their first drive on the third quarter. Fajardo drove the Pack 58 yards on 13 plays, setting up a 25-yard field goal by Zuzo with 9:32 to go in the third quarter.
The Wolf Pack converted a dangerous 4th-and-1 play (Butler gained six yards) from their own 44-yard line to keep the drive going.
“After we decided to go for it I told the guys as they went out on the field, ‘Now don’t make me look like a dope,’” Polian said. “I think going for it and making it gave us some confidence. That first drive in the second half I knew was going to be big. And we got some points out of it.”
The Pack also wasted two possible scoring opportunities later in the third quarter.
McNeal came up with his second huge defensive play, stripping the ball away from Pumphrey at the Wolf Pack 44-yard line after the Aztecs’ running back had broken free for a 10-yard gain. The Pack offense, though, couldn’t take advantage of the change in momentum as a holding penalty and a sack of Fajardo forced the Pack to punt.
A 13-yard San Diego State punt gave the Pack the ball at the Aztecs’ 45-yard line with 7:08 to play in the third quarter. Fajardo, though, threw a pass down the middle slightly behind Turner that was batted into the air by cornerback Malik Smith and intercepted by defensive lineman Dontrell Onuoha at the Aztecs’ 37-yard line.
“As long as we (the defense) were getting the ball back to our offense, we knew they would do great things eventually,” McNeal said.
“We just go into games trying to wear people down,” Jackson said. “That’s why at the end of the games, the runs pop. Stuff doesn’t always work at the beginning of games but you just have to stay with it and it should open up.”
The Wolf Pack has just three regular season games remaining. After a bye week this week, the Pack will play at Air Force on Nov. 15, host Fresno State at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 22 and travel to Las Vegas on Nov. 29 to take on UNLV in the Battle for the Fremont Cannon.