The Nevada Wolf Pack football season is no longer in a seemingly never-ending downward spiral.
The smallest Mackay Stadium crowd of the season (20,737) was treated with the Wolf Pack’s first victory in almost two months, 38-16 over the San Jose State Spartans on Saturday night.
“I’m very happy for the kids,” Pack head coach Brian Polian said. “We’ve been through five weeks of adversity. The kids deserve some success, they deserve this victory.”
The Wolf Pack, which last tasted victory on Sept. 28 (45-42 over Air Force), ended its longest losing streak in 13 years at five games with the Mountain West victory. The Pack, 4-7 overall and 3-5 in the Mountain West with one game remaining, also kept San Jose State (5-5, 4-3) one victory away from bowl eligibility.
“I’ve been on teams at this point in the season, who have gone through what we’ve gone through, some teams would just flat hang it up,” Polian said. “This was a good effort.
“Look I know this was just one win. I know we still won’t have a winning record and I know the bowl streak is over. But this is a validation in what we’re doing. The last five weeks have been tough but this team went out and played their tails off.”
In addition to returning the Wolf Pack to the win column, the victory also marked the return to form of the Pack’s pistol offense. The offense, which had averaged just 20 points a game over the last four losses, scored 30 or more points for the first time since a 51-44 overtime loss at San Diego State on Oct. 4. The Pack, led by quarterback Cody Fajardo’s 104 rushing yards, also gained a season-high 311 yards on the ground.
The Wolf Pack defense also played a big part in the victory, holding an opponent under 27 points for the first time since a 31-9 win over Hawaii on Sept. 21. The Pack also sacked San Jose State quarterback David Fales five times and held the Spartans to 384 total yards. Defensive end Brock Hekking had two sacks and linebackers Matthew Lyons and Jonathan McNeal each had 15 tackles.
“To see the way everyone played with energy and passion, it was real fun,” defensive lineman Jordan Hanson said. “Anytime we play with energy, anytime we get all 11 hats to the ball, we play pretty well.”
“I saw relief after the game, I saw joy and they deserve it,” Polian said.
The Pack outscored the Spartans 17-0 in the second half, putting the game away with two third-quarter touchdowns.
Running back Don Jackson turned in arguably the most electrifying run of the season, weaving his way for 39 yards on a score with seven minutes left in the third quarter for a 28-16 lead. Fajardo then made it 35-16 with three minutes to go in the third quarter on a 17-yard touchdown run.
“I was very happy with the way we ran the ball,” Polian said. “We had 311 yards. I like the way the tailbacks ran it. I like the decisions Cody made and we blocked it well.”
Kendall Brock, who had two short touchdowns, had 85 yards on 17 carries and Jackson had 80 on 11 carries.
“We finished runs,” Polian said. “Our backs ran real well. We broke arm tackles and made five-yard runs into 20-yard runs. It was good to see.”
The Wolf Pack led 21-16 at the half despite three long field goals by San Jose State’s Austin Lopez. Lopez connected from 47, 44 and 50 yards to cut the Wolf Pack lead to 7-3 in the first quarter, 14-13 in the second quarter and 21-16 on the final play of the half.
While San Jose State was settling for field goals in the opening half for the most part, the Wolf Pack was scoring touchdowns.
Fajardo, who completed 20-of-27 passes for 171 yards, guided the Pack 75 yards on 12 plays on the game’s opening drive for a quick 7-0 Nevada lead. Brock carried the ball five times for 18 yards on the drive, including the 1-yard touchdown with 10:42 to go in the first quarter. Fajardo was 3-of-4 through the air for 38 yards and also ran the ball himself twice for 22 yards.
Brock scored his second 1-yard touchdown run for a 14-10 Wolf Pack lead early in the second quarter. The drive was keyed by a 12-yard pass from Fajardo to Richie Turner on a 3rd-and-7 pass to the Spartans 44-yard line. Fajardo also had a 12-yard run down to the San Jose State 25.
The Wolf Pack took a 21-13 lead on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Fajardo to Brandon Wimberly. Wimberly, who had 11 catches for 93 yards, outfought San Jose State’s Dasheon Frierson for the ball on the lob pass to the right corner of the end zone.
The scoring drive was also aided by a pass interference call on the Spartans’ Damon Ogburn Jr., who was attempting to cover Wimberly on a third down pass. Fajardo and Wimberly also hooked up on the drive for a 16-yard gain down to the San Jose State 3-yard line.
The Spartans did take a brief lead in the first half as Fales connected with Billy Freeman on a 5-yard scoring pass. The touchdown gave San Jose State a 10-7 lead and capped a 94-yard, eight-play drive. The drive, which is San Jose State’s longest of the season, also featured a 56-yard pass from Fales to a wide open Hansell Wilson to the Pack 21-yard line.
There wasn’t much defense being played in the first half. The Spartans and Wolf Pack combined to score points on seven of the 10 drives in the first half. The two teams also combined in the first half for 463 yards (the Pack had 247) and 25 first downs (the Pack had 13).
Fales, who was a red-shirt freshman at Nevada in 2009, completed 13-of-20 passes in the first half for 172 yards and finished 28-of-43 for 326 yards. But it was Lopez who kept the Spartans in the game in the first 30 minutes. The 6-foot, 170-pound sophomore now owns the Spartans’ school record with 19 field goals this season.
Lopez, though, nearly didn’t get an opportunity to kick his 50-yader at the end of the half. Wolf Pack cornerback Charles Garrett let a possible interception bounce out of his arms on a Fales pass intended for Thomas Tucker on the play before Lopez’s field goal.
The field goal, though, turned out to be the Spartans’ final points of the game.
The Wolf Pack, which has a bye this coming week, will complete its season with a game against BYU on Nov. 30 at Mackay Stadium.