Brian Polian wasn’t looking for a work of art Saturday night.
“I told the team before the game that we just had to find a way to win,” the Nevada Wolf Pack coach said. “I knew it could be an ugly win but we just had to find a way to win.”
There was nothing ugly about it.
The Wolf Pack, playing its third-string quarterback, dominated the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors 31-9 in front of 23,240 fans at chilly Mackay Stadium. And, as far as the Wolf Pack was concerned, it was a thing of beauty.
“It’s only one win but I can’t tell you how proud I am of this football team,” said Polian, whose Wolf Pack improved to 2-2 overall and 1-0 in the Mountain West. “We’ve faced a lot of adversity this past month. We were down to our third quarterback, we had injuries all over the place and we just got trounced on the road (at Florida State) on national television. I know it’s just one win but it was a conference win at home. A lot of guys stepped up and did the job.”
Nobody stepped up more than quarterback Tyler Stewart. The red-shirt freshman was forced to start at quarterback because of starter Cody Fajardo’s lingering knee sprain and a season-ending injury last week to backup Devin Combs and he responded by completing 14-of-20 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns.
“He was baptized by fire last week at Florida State,” said Polian, who does not allow his freshmen or red-shirt freshmen players to talk to the media. “He clearly took that experience and built off it.”
A 68-yard pass to tight end Kolby Arendse on the Wolf Pack’s second drive of the game seemed to relax Stewart and the entire Wolf Pack offense. The Stewart-to-Arendse play gave the Pack a first down at the Hawaii 10-yard line and the two connected from five yards out for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead three plays later.
“It was just a well-executed play,” said Arendse of the 68-yard gain down the right sideline. “Tyler threw a great ball and I think he caught the defense off guard. I just wish I had a little more speed.”
Stewart and Arendse also hooked up for a 2-yard touchdown pass as the Wolf Pack took a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter. The short touchdown was set up by a 57-yard pass from Stewart to running back Chris Solomon down to the Hawaii 9-yard line.
Arendse finished the game with four catches for 77 yards and the two scores.
“The way Wim (wide receiver Brandon Wimberly) is Cody’s security blanket, Arendse might be Tyler’s,” smiled Polian.
“I’m real comfortable with Tyler back there,” Arendse said. “He’s very smart. He’s a thinker. It’s the small details about a play that make it work and Tyler was on it.”
Hawaii coach Norm Chow, who is now 3-12 overall and 1-8 in Mountain West play since taking over the Warriors in 2012, said his defense helped Stewart fell comfortable.
“We made some mistakes on defense early and gave that kid (Stewart) confidence,” said Chow, whose Warriors fell to 0-3, 0-1 this season. Chow is also now 0-8 on the road as Hawaii’s coach.
“I thought we were ready,” Chow said. “We came out ready to play. It’s about execution. I thought we could move the football on them. No excuses.”
The Wolf Pack defense turned in its best effort in quite some time. They held a Football Bowl Subdivision team to under 10 points for the first time since a 56-3 win over Idaho on Dec. 3, 2011.
“I loved every second of it, watching the defense,” smiled Arendse.
Defensive end Brock Hekking had three sacks, forced two fumbles and intercepted a pass.
“We’re going to nominate him for Mountain West Player of the Week,” Polian said. “I can’t imagine anyone had a better game than he did.”
Polian was pleased with his entire defense.
“I challenged the defense this week,” Polian said. “I told them, ‘Hey, you guys have to carry the day.’ And they were outstanding.”
Hawaii scored its fewest points against the Wolf Pack since a 26-7 Wolf Pack win in Honolulu in 1946.
“I felt going into the game that the defensive line was a matchup that we could win,” Polian said. “Brock (Hekking) gave us a ton of production. I loved his energy all week. He was ready for this. And that whole group played well.”
Stewart guided the Wolf Pack on a 14-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 21-yard field goal by Brent Zuzo for a 17-3 lead late in the second quarter.
The defense had a huge hand in the Wolf Pack’s last two touchdowns, in the third and fourth quarters. Hekking picked off a Sean Schroeder pass, giving Stewart and the offense the ball at the Hawaii 12-yard line. Stewart then connected with Wimberly five plays later for a 7-yard touchdown pass and a commanding 24-9 lead. The final Pack points belonged to the defense.
Hekking sacked Hawaii backup quarterback Jeremy Higgins and caused a fumble. Linebacker Alex Bertrando scooped up the ball at the 2-yard line and waltzed into the end zone for the touchdown and a 31-9 lead with 10:25 to go.
“We needed to step up as a defense,” Hekking said. “A lot of this game was on us. The biggest thing is we finished this game. We came out in the second half and finished. It means all our hard work is paying off.”
“Twice this year (at UCLA and Florida State) we came out after the half and stunk,” Polian said. “The defense was outstanding after the half this time.”
Polian said Stewart was outstanding the entire game given the circumstances.
“I’d love to tell you we sat him down and gave him a ‘Win one for the Gipper speech,’” Polian said. “But it wasn’t like that. We really didn’t think about that stuff. This is football. It’s about the next guy stepping up and doing the job.”
“I’m so proud of him,” Pack center Matt Galas said. “Before the game I was nervous for him but he came out and played a hell of a game. We all told him before the game that we were behind him and he responded.”
Polian praised offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich. The Wolf Pack kept it simple for Stewart, running the ball more than twice as much (44 times) as they threw it. The Pack also used former quarterback Hasaan Henderson as the quarterback in a couple of wildcat formations.
“Nick Rolovich deserves a lot of credit,” Polian said. “Nick called a smart game.”
Hekking said the victory might have jump-started the Pack’s season. The Wolf Pack will host Air Force next Saturday at Mackay Stadium.
“We’re ready for anything now,” Hekking said. “This showed that this team can finish, that we can win, that we can play great.”