RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack football team isn’t afraid of the Boise State Broncos.
“I don’t think for one second our football team looks at Boise and thinks they are invincible,” Wolf Pack head coach Brain Polian said this week.
Boise State, which comes to a sold-out Mackay Stadium (30,000) to meet the Wolf Pack tonight (7:35 p.m., CBS Sports Network), has won 13 of its last 14 games against Nevada. The Wolf Pack’s only victory over Boise State since 1998 was a 34-31 overtime decision in 2010.
“It’s been done before,” said Wolf Pack defensive end Brock Hekking of beating the Broncos. “They are not invincible. It can be done.”
The Broncos (3-2, 1-1 in the Mountain West), despite a 28-14 loss at Air Force last week in which they turned the ball over seven times, are a three-point favorite against the Wolf Pack (3-1, 1-0).
“We don’t care about the sports books,” Hekking said with a smile.
The Broncos, which lead the series against Nevada, 27-13, are clearly more vulnerable than invincible as they prepare for their last game against the Wolf Pack until the 2017 season. The loss to the Falcons last week is their biggest conference loss since a 27-7 setback to Fresno State in the Western Athletic Conference in 2005. The Broncos had lost just four Mountain West games by a combined seven points before last Saturday since joining the rebuilt conference in 2011. This will also be the first time Boise State will play the Wolf Pack coming off a loss since 1999.
“Nevada will be ready to play,” Boise State first-year head coach Bryan Harsin said this week. “I’m sure the fans in Nevada will welcome us with open arms like they always do. We‘re going to have to be at our best.”
Boise State, which has a record of 399-155-2 since joining Division IA (Football Bowl Subdivision) in 1996, has not lost consecutive games in the regular season since 2005. They have also not lost consecutive conference games since 1997 when they were in the Big West.
“We are not taking this team lightly, nor would there ever be a reason to,” Polian said. “I’m preparing for what I believe is a real good football team. What happened at Air Force is a little bit of an anomaly.”
The Wolf Pack, which has not played a home game since beating Washington State 24-13 on Sept. 5, knows better than to take the Broncos lightly. Boise State, after all, has scored 24 or more points in its last 17 meetings with the Wolf Pack and is the highest scoring team in the FBS since 2000 with an average of 39.89 points a game. They also have the highest winning percentage in conference play since 2000 at .909 (100-10).
“It’s going to be a battle,” Hekking said. “Boise State is very skilled. It’s going to be a true test.”
The Wolf Pack also has its concerns heading into this key Mountain West showdown. This is, after all, the first season since 2001 and just the second since 1980 the Pack has not hit the 30-point mark at least once over its first four games. The Pack has not beaten Boise State without scoring at least 30 points since 1991 (a 17-14 win at Mackay Stadium).
“I don’t know if concerned is the right work, said Polian, when asked about his offense. “I expect better. We want to score more points.”
The Wolf Pack scored just 14 points on offense last week in beating San Jose State 21-10.
“Is 14 points on offense good enough?” Polian said. “Clearly not.”
“We’ve sputtered a bit at times,“ quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “But anytime you are 3-1 and 1-0 in conference you are doing something right.”
The Wolf Pack will have a lot of intangibles working in its favor on Saturday. In addition to the sold out stadium, the game is the Pack’s homecoming and it will be the 300th in the program’s history at the current Mackay Stadium, which opened in 1966.
“Beating Boise would be huge,” Hekking said.
“I haven’t beaten Boise,” said Fajardo, a senior. “It is obviously one thing I’d like to click off my check list.”
It also took quarterback Colin Kaepernick until his senior year in 2010 to beat Boise State.
“I was on the sideline that night,” said Fajardo, red-shirt in 2010. “It was a special night for Kap and that team. We want a special night like that as well.”
“Since I’ve been here I’ve heard about that 2010 team getting their win (over Boise),” said senior linebacker Jonathan McNeal. “I know our seniors want to go out with a win over them, too.”
Boise State will come to Mackay Stadium a bit banged up physically and mentally. Starting quarterback Grant Hedrick was removed from the game in the third quarter a week ago at Air Force after throwing four interceptions. Starting running back Jay Ajayi also fumbled the ball away twice at Air Force.
The Broncos are also dealing with a rash of injuries.
that have affected their entire starting secondary as well as standout wide receiver Matt Miller. Starting defensive tackle Tyler Horn is also out for the year with an injury and offensive tackle Rees Odhiambo missed the Air Force game with an injury.
“I am sympathetic to all the injuries they have suffered,” Polian said.
Harsin said Hedrick will start on Saturday. Hedrick came off the bench last year after an injury to starter Joe Southwick on the Broncos’ first play from scrimmage to lead the Broncos over the Wolf Pack 34-17. Hedrick completed 18-of-21 passes for 150 yards and also rushed for 115 yards on just eight carries against the Pack last year.
“You don’t just put people to the wayside if they have a bad game,” Harsin said. “Grant is going to play better this week. We’re going to do a better job of coaching. The guys around him are going to play better. That’s the bottom line and that needs to happen. There’s not a controversy at the quarterback position.”
The 6-foot, 198-pound Hedrick has been intercepted nine times this season. His backup, red-shirt freshman Ryan Finley (6-4, 190), saw his first collegiate action last week at Air Force and completed 12-of-25 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns in a little more than a quarter’s worth of playing time.
“Grant is a tough guy,” Harsin said. “He’s mentally tough as well. I fully expect him to bounce back.”
The Broncos offense also goes through Ajayi, lightning quick wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes and Miller, if he’s healthy. The 6-3 Miller, who left the Air Force game with a left foot injury, already owns the Boise State school record for career catches (244) and is 14 yards short of Titus Young’s school record for receiving yards (3,063). The 6-foot, 216-pound Ajayi is third in the Mountain West in rushing with 557 yards. The 5-foot-6 Williams-Rhodes has caught 28 passes for 248 yards.
“He (Williams-Rhodes) is electric,” Polian said. “He’s one of the best guys I’ve seen running those bubble screens.”
Ajayi ran for 222 yards and three touchdowns last season against the Pack. The Broncos have had at least one player go over 100 yards rushing in seven of their last eight games against the Pack. Ian Johnson did it in 2006 (147 yards) and 2007 (205). Doug Martin did it three times, in 2009 (128), 2010 (152) and 2011 (126). D.J. Harper had 130 yards in 2012 and Ajayi (222) and Hedrick (115) did it in 2013.
“He’s not only big, he’s strong and he’s fast,” said Polian of Ajayi. “He also has a knack for breaking tackles. He makes plays not only in the running game but also in the passing game. We got a face full of him last year.”
This will be the first of what could be many meetings between the 39-year-old Polian and the 38-year-old Harsin. It might be the first of two meetings this season as both teams could meet again in the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 6. The Wolf Pack is currently on top of the West Division at 1-0 with San Diego State and Fresno State while Boise State is tied at 1-1 with Air Force in second place in the Mountain Division behind Wyoming (1-0).
Saturday night’s game will also be the first for the Wolf Pack between two head coaches who are under 40-years-old since Nov. 20, 1993 when 36-year-old Nevada coach Jeff Horton met 35-year-old John Bobo of Arkansas State. The Pack lost that afternoon at Arkansas State, 23-21, in Horton’s final game as Pack head coach.
“When you are in college football as a coach or a player you look at certain games and say, ‘That will be fun to play in or coach in,’” said Polian, who will turn 40-years-old on Dec. 22. “This is one of those games. I’m not afraid of it. Our players are not afraid of it. We’re going to play loose, fast and have some fun with it.”