RENO - Nevada coach Chris Ault admitted he was concerned about his young team's resiliency following a blowout loss at Boise State last weekend.
He shouldn't have been.
The error-free Wolf Pack ran for 236 yards and the defense recorded five sacks and forced two turnovers en route to a huge 38-28 win over Hawai'i Saturday afternoon before 11,723 fans at Mackay Stadium.
Nevada (5-3, 4-1) kept its bowl hopes alive with the triumph. The Pack, with three games left, are just one win away from becoming bowl eligible. Nevada last played in a bowl game after the 1996 season. Hawai'i (3-6, 3-4) is now out of bowl contention and will have its first nonwinning season since 2000.
"We didn't turn the ball over," Ault said. "That is what we wanted coming into the game. Nothing makes up for the Boise State game, but we played well and now we have two games on the road (New Mexico State and Utah State). We need to be in adverse situations and play well.
"We did what we had to win the game. Jeff (Rowe) did a great job of hanging onto the ball. The running backs ran well (B.J. Mitchell 150 yards and Robert Hubbard 88). I was really pleased with the offensive line. You have to be able to run the ball to win. You have to run the ball to beat Boise. You have to run the ball to win."
Nevada continually gashed the Hawai'i defense for big plays on the ground throughout the game, but the Pack was at its best at the outset of the second half and the last 6:46 of the contest when Nevada was able to run out the clock and protect the 10-point lead.
"They (Nevada) did a nice job today," Hawai'i coach June Jones said. "Their running backs are great. They made big plays at important times. They do a nice job with the stuff that they do. We had guys in position to defend. They (Mitchell and Hubbard) were a little tough to bring down.
"Turnovers caught up with us at the end of the game. We had opportunities early and we didn't capitalize on them."
The mistakes that Jones referred to both came in the fourth quarter. Trailing 24-21, Hawai'i turned the ball over on consecutive possessions, and the Pack converted both into touchdowns and a 38-21 lead.
Colt Brennan (29 of 43, 409 yards) flipped a shovel pass to Nate Ilaoa, who had the ball stripped by Nevada's Erics Clark. Ezra Butler recovered for Nevada at the Hawai'i 38.
Nevada sputtered on the first three plays of the drive, two incomplete passes and a 5-yard penalty. Hubbard broke off a 19-yard run on a draw play for a first down at the 24. Two running plays gained short yardage and Rowe (20 of 36 for 204 yards and 2 TDs) found Nichiren Flowers along the right sideline for 13 yards down to the 8. Two plays later, Mitchell scored on a 6-yard run. Brett Jaekle's PAT made it 31-21 with 11:34 left.
Two plays into Hawai'i's next possession, Nevada came up with another big defensive play. Brennan rolled right and tried to hit Ross Dickerson (5 for 110) near the right hash. Joe Garcia stepped in front of Dickerson for the interception at the Nevada 43, and he returned the ball 14 yards to the Hawai'i 43.
"I tried to fit the ball in there," said Brennan, who had played against Garcia in high school in Orange County down in Southern California. "It wasn't a very accurate throw. He was able to get underneath."
"We had good pressure (on Brennan)," Garcia said. "He threw it up there and whoever wanted it would get it. I wanted it."
Garcia said playing against Brennan in the past helped him in terms of seeing how he read the defense among other things.
"The defense played well," Ault said. "We got two turnovers worth 14 points. That was big. It's (the late blitz) part of our scheme. One guy goes or the other guy does (from the inside). Our defense played well in the third quarter."
Twice it appeared that Hawai'i had Nevada stopped on the ensuing drive, but the Pack converted two key third-down plays to keep the drive alive.
The first was an 11-yard pass to freshman Jack Darlington at the 32. On third-and-3, freshman Tommy Haug, who was lined up on the right side as a wingback, took a handoff from Rowe and bolted 19 yards down to the 6. After a 4-yard gain by Mitchell, Rowe scored on a keeper from the 2 with 8:07 left. Jaekle's PAT made it 38-21.
Against most teams that would be the game. Not Hawai'i. The Rainbow Warriors can score quickly and did just that on their next possession. Brennan capped an 87-yard drive with a 24-yard pass to Davone Bess on a third-and-10 play. Dan Kelly's extra point made it 38-28.
Bess finished with 12 catches for a career-best 171 yards. The previous week he tied a school record against Fresno State with 14 catches. He was the main recipient of Hawai'i's decision to pass the ball almost exclusively in the second half.
"The coaches did a real nice job with the play calling and Colt went through the right reads," Bess said. "Colt got the ball there."
"The first half we ran a little bit because Colt wasn't seeing some things," Jones said. "If we were going to win we knew we had to throw the ball."
And that proved to be tough at times. Brennan was sacked five times total, one each by Clark, Scott Garrison, Charles Wilson and Craig Bailey. Butler and Roosevelt Cooks were each credited with half a sack. Nevada's blitz package with a linebacker coming in late after the offensive linemen were engaged was effective at times.
That score, believe it or not, would be the last time Hawai'i's offense would get on the field. Nevada would run off 14 plays and drive 76 yards inside the Nevada 20. All 14 plays ended up being rushes, but one of those was going to be a pass but Rowe was sacked.
"That was the high point," Rowe said. "I was looking at the offensive line's eyes and knew that we could keep the ball for a while."
"We were unable to get first downs offensively," Brennan said. "They did a great job on that last drive."
Nevada's defense got off to a sluggish start in the first half, as Hawai'i mounted scoring drives of 92 and 99 yards, respectively, to take a 14-7 lead.
Ilaoa capped the first drive with a 3-yard run to make it 6-0, as Nevada blocked the extra point.
The Pack bounced back with a 76-yard drive capped by Jeff Rowe's 11-yard scoring pass to Caleb Spencer (5 for 68), who was wide open between the linebacker and cornerback. Nevada converted two third down plays along the way, a 23-yard pass to Spencer and a 5-yard run by Mitchell on a third-and-3 play down to the 11. Nevada scored two plays later. Brett Jaekle's extra point gave the Pack a 7-6 lead.
The Rainbow Warriors put together their second 90-yard plus drive early in the second quarter, going 99 yards on five plays after Nevada's Justin Bergendahl uncorked a 61-yard punt. Facing a fourth-and-2 from the Nevada 4. Brennan scrambled to the right and found Ross Dickerson in the right corner of the end zone. Brennan hooked up with Jordan Slye for a two-point conversion and a 14-7 lead.
The key play on the drive was an 87-yard pass play from Brennan to Dickerson down the middle, the fourth-longest in school history. Dickerson beat Garcia on the pattern and then broke away from Michael Samples near midfield. Sergio Villasenor tripped him up at the Nevada 12.
Garcia said he was steamed at himself for giving up that big play, and his interception more than atoned for the breakdown.
That seemed to wake the Pack up.
Nevada, thanks to an 11-yard completion to Nichiren Flowers and a 27-yard pass down the seam to tight end Anthony Pudewell, moved the ball down to the 3. A 5-yard delay of game and a 9-yard sack pushed the Pack back to the 16. Two plays later, Jaekle kicked a 27-yard field goal to make it 14-10 with 4:05 left.
Hawai'i went three and out on its next drive and had to punt. Kevin Stanley returned the punt 17 yards and another 15 was tacked on when Kevin Peoples was flagged for a late hit, giving the Pack a first down at the 38.
Moments later, Mitchell broke loose for a 30-yard TD run. Jaekle's PAT made it 17-14 with 2:11 left.
The late second-quarter score gave the Pack some momentum heading into halftime, and Nevada turned up the pressure when it took the second-half kickoff and put together a 10-play 60-yard drive that was capped by Rowe's 14-yard toss to Spencer, who made a sensational 1-handed grab to give Nevada a 10-point lead, 24-14. Rowe had to scramble hard to the right to get away from pressure and just barely got the ball away.
"He's an athlete," Rowe said. "He makes plays. He's someone you want on your side. When I first let the ball go I didn't think it would be that hard of a catch."
"That's was the best catch I've ever seen," Ault said. "He's been our best receiver this season."
And, big players make big plays in key situations.