Brian Polian couldn’t get to the Mountain West portion of the Nevada Wolf Pack’s football schedule fast enough.
“Yes, very much so,” the Wolf Pack’s rookie head coach said.
Polian’s Pack, 1-2 with road losses at UCLA and Florida State by a combined score of 120-27, will open Mountain West play at Mackay Stadium Saturday night (5:05 p.m.) against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii is 0-2 after losses to USC and Oregon State by a combined score of 63-27.
“I feel we look like a lot of the other teams in our conference,” Polian said. “It looks pretty evenly matched.”
That competitive balance is comforting for Polian as he prepares for his first conference game as a head coach. The Pack, after all, didn’t look anything like UCLA and Florida State, two Top 25 teams. The losses at the Rose Bowl ( UCLA) and Doak Campbell Stadium (Florida State) are the first time since 1934 that the Wolf Pack has opened with two losses by 30 points or more in the season’s first three games.
“Look, I’m not saying we’re going to win the conference,” said Polian, whose only victory is over UC Davis (36-7) of the Football Championship Subdivision. “As I look at our schedule of conference games, we can win three in a row or we can lose three in a row. But I think we can be competitive.”
The Mountain West this season is divided into two six-team divisions. The Wolf Pack and Hawaii are both in the West Division along with Fresno State, San Jose State, UNLV and San Diego State. The Mountain Division includes Boise State, Utah State, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado State and Air Force.
“This is our time to shine,” Wolf Pack defensive lineman Brock Hekking said. “This is our time to make our mark.”
The Wolf Pack failed to make its mark in its first season in the Mountain West last year. The Pack finished a disappointing 4-4 in league play in 2012, losing four of its last five games, and will bring a three-game losing streak in home conference games into the Hawaii game.
None of that, however, matters to the Wolf Pack now.
“The way we look at it, it’s a new season and we’re 0-0,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack went to Honolulu last season and destroyed the Warriors, 69-24. Pack running back Stefphon Jefferson rushed for 170 yards and tied a NCAA record by scoring seven touchdowns (six rushing). It was the biggest conference loss at home in Hawaii’s history and was the Wolf Pack’s first victory on the island since 1948.
“There’s no doubt they’ll come in here ready to play,” Hekking said. “Nobody wants to lose that bad. We’ve had our fair share of that (with the blowout losses at UCLA and Florida State). They are going to come in here and play hard for sure.”
Hawaii is just 3-11 since Norm Chow took over as head coach going into the 2012 season. The 67-year-old Chow, a former assistant coach at BYU, USC, UCLA, Utah and North Carolina State, dumped Hawaii’s run-and-shoot offense used by former coach June Jones, and has the Warriors running a pro set attack. The results have been mostly negative as Chow has yet to win a road game (0-7) as head coach.
“I have all the respect in the world for Norm Chow,” Polian said. “I remember going up against his USC teams when I was at Notre Dame. Now, he doesn’t have the same talent (as he had at USC) but he’s still creative and can do some interesting things.”
Hawaii is quarterbacked by senior Taylor Graham. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound former Illinois high school player, spent his first two seasons at Ohio State, playing in just one game. Graham has completed just 43 percent of his passes this season for 303 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.
All four of his interceptions came in a season-opening 30-13 loss to USC.
“He improved greatly his second game,” Polian said. “He didn’t turn the ball over once against Oregon State ( in a 33-14 loss) and we expect he will continue to show improvement against us.”
Graham will get some much-needed help this week with the expected return of veteran running back Joey Iosefa and wide receiver Billy Ray Stutzmann. Iosefa has 1,011 career rushing yards and missed the first two games of the season with a foot injury. Stutzmann, who has 126 career catches, also missed the first two games because of injuries suffered in an auto accident in August.
The Wolf Pack has also battled its share of injuries over its first three games. Quarterback Cody Fajardo missed the Florida State game because of a knee injury suffered against UC Davis and backup quarterback Devin Combs suffered a season-ending knee injury against Florida State. Running back Don Jackson, who won the starting job in the summer, hasn’t played since Week One at UCLA because of an ankle injury and his backup, Kendall Brock, missed last week with a knee injury.
The Wolf Pack played the second half against Florida State, for example, with its third-string quarterback (Tyler Stewart) and its fifth-string running back (Chris Solomon). Solomon, who ran for 108 yards on 26 carries against Florida State, is now the Pack’s starting tailback and Stewart will start Saturday if Fajardo can’t.
“We’re not using any of that as an excuse,” said Polian of the injuries. “This is football. It’s about the next man up stepping in and doing the job.”
Solomon did exactly that, going from fifth to first on the depth chart in one week.
“That was the best thing to come out of the Florida State game,” said Polian of Solomon’s emergence.
The last rookie Wolf Pack head coach to win a conference title was Jeff Tisdel, whose 1996 Pack won the Big West Conference.
“I don’t want to give the impression that I think we’re going to walk through conference play,” Polian said. “I understand how tough it is. By no stretch of the imagination are we taking the Mountain West lightly.”