By Paul Andrew, Tribune…
In a game that most thought would be a blowout, the Nevada Wolf Pack barely defeated Division I-AA Southern Utah 24-23 Saturday.
A crowd of 25,256, experiencing the first night game in Mackay Stadium history, witnessed a Nevada victory in an evening filled with penalties, turnovers and questionable play-calling that almost cost the team the season opener.
Only a blocked extra point late in the fourth quarter kept the game from being tied and probably going into overtime. The resilient Thunderbirds, who were 1-10 last year, fought hard, giving the Wolf Pack a battle they didn’t anticipate. If not for two missed Southern Utah field goals and poor punting, the result easily could have been different.
About the only positive for Nevada was the play of running back Chance Kretschmer, who rushed for 170 yards on 26 carries. Kretschmer, the 2001 NCAA rushing leader, was playing his first game since reconstructive knee surgery that kept him out most of last season. As he did two years ago, “the Tonopah Tornado” was able to keep drives alive with his power running style, while showing no effects of his surgery.
The question of who will be Nevada’s starting quarterback still remains unanswered, though junior Andy Heiser drove the team for the winning touchdown in the second half. Both Heiser and starter Jeff Rowe were erratic most of the game and neither played like they can return this team to its winning ways.
Rowe, a sophomore from McQueen High School, started the game by fumbling the ball away in each of the first two series. Southern Utah took advantage of the first turnover by converting a 41-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
The Nevada defense accounted for the first Wolf Pack points of the season with a fumble recovery in the end zone by linebacker Logan Carter. After taking a 14-3 lead on a 10-yard pass from Rowe to Nichiren Flowers, the special teams gave up a 97-yard run to Southern Utah’s Tremaine Cox, which put the T-Birds right back in the game. SUU took a 17-14 halftime lead on a 9-yard pass from Casey Rehrer to Mike Culpepper.
After relieving Rowe midway through the 3rd quarter, Heiser found receiver Willie Johnson on a 22-yard touchdown pass to give the Pack a 21-17 lead. Kicker Damon Fine increased the lead to 24-17 with a 53-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. With less than 5 minutes to go, Southern Utah mounted a drive culminating with Rehrer’s 11-yard TD pass to Wes Patterson, putting the Thunderbirds within an extra point of the tie.
When Logan blocked the PAT, Pack fans gave a collective sigh of relief, realizing they were lucky to come away with the win.
The road gets extremely rough from here, with a visit next week to Eugene to play the University of Oregon. To have a chance against the Ducks, Nevada will have to improve all facets of its game, minimize mistakes and hope that Oregon comes in overconfident.
With erratic play the team showed in the opener and the WAC season opening less than three weeks from now, optimism for the season has been replaced by numerous questions and concerns about the chances for success this year.