RENO — As far as the Nevada Wolf Pack is concerned, last Saturday’s 28-19 season-opening victory over Southern Utah was merely a dress rehearsal.
The true opening night of the Wolf Pack’s season will be tonight (7:30 p.m., ESPN) at Mackay Stadium against the Washington State Cougars of the Pac-12 Conference.
“I honestly can’t wait for this game,” said Wolf Pack defensive end Brock Hekking with a smile. “This game has been marked on my calendar all year.”
“That’s just human nature,” Pack coach Brian Polian said. “I know I’m excited to play on the big stage, against a Pac-12 opponent on Friday night on ESPN. But it‘s just one game, win or lose.”
The Cougars, coached by former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach, lost to Rutgers 41-38 last Thursday night in their season opener. Leach, who is assisted by former Pack coaches Jim Mastro (running backs) and Ken Wilson (linebackers), now has a 9-17 record since taking over the Cougars program before the 2012 season.
“It’s obviously a big confidence game for us,” said Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo, who passed for 303 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 68 yards and another score against Southern Utah of the FCS Big Sky Conference. “But we can’t get too hyped up about it.”
The last time the Pack played a Pac-12 opponent it lost 58-20 at the Rose Bowl against UCLA on Aug. 31, 2013. The Pack has gone 3-14 against Pac-12 opponents since 1996 (no Pac-12 opponents were on the schedule from 1948-95). The three victories over Pac-12 teams since 1996 were over Washington in 2003 (28-17) and Cal in 2010 (52-31) and 2012 (31-24). Two of the 14 losses were against Washington State in 2002 (31-7) and 2005 (55-21).
“We know what it feels like to beat a Pac-12 team,” Fajardo said.
“It’s our job as seniors and veteran players to make sure our young guys get over that intimidation factor of playing a Pac-12 team,” Hekking said.
The game against the Cougars and Leach’s explosive, pass-happy spread offense promises to be a high-scoring affair. Cougars’ quarterback Connor Halliday set Pac-12 records last year for passing attempts (714) and completions (449) and also broke the Washington State record for yards (4,597) and tied the record for touchdowns (34 by Ryan Leaf in 1997).
“We have our hands full,” Polian said. “It will be a big test, no doubt.”
Leach beat the Wolf Pack 35-19 as Texas Tech’s head coach in 2008 at Mackay Stadium with quarterback Graham Harrell and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The Wolf Pack, who were led by sophomore quarterback Colin Kaepernick that night, had to settle for six field goal attempts by Brett Jaekle (he made four) in the loss.
“Both offenses were tops in the country at the time,” Leach remembered. “It was supposed to be a huge offensive shootout but it was a defensive game. Fortunately for us our defense played a little bit better than theirs did.”
Halliday, who completed 58-of-89 passes for 557 yards in a 62-38 loss against Oregon and tossed six touchdown passes in a 48-45 loss to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl, both last year, is now in his third year as the Cougars starter. The 6-foot-4, 201-pound senior from Spokane, Wash., was 40-of-56 for 532 yards and five scores last week against Rutgers.
“He can make all the throws,” Polian said. “He’s an impressive guy.”
Halliday is protected by a big (average 6-foot-5, 302 pounds) but young (no seniors) offensive line.
“They are taught that if they are going to lose on a play, to lose slow,” said Polian of the Cougars’ front. “That way, by the time you get past them, the ball is already gone.”
The Cougars, who also have former Wolf Pack linebacker Mike Bethea as a graduate assistant coach, attempted 756 passes and ran the ball just 243 times last year. Last week against Rutgers they had 56 passes and just 14 runs.
“Coach Leach has been on the cutting edge of offensive football for 20 years,” Polian said. “They’ll do what they do, no matter what the score is our the situation. Nobody can really stop it.”
The Wolf Pack defense seems to be looking forward to the challenge.
“When you go against a team that is passing the ball for 500 yards a game you want your defense to shut them out and you want to show what you got,” linebacker Matthew Lyons said.
Polian isn’t counting on the Pack defense to shut out the Cougars.
“When their offense is clicking, it’s hard to say you are going to hold them to 17 points,” he said. “You just have to avoid the 75-yard plays. You have to make them go 8, 10, 12 plays and earn it. You have to avoid the explosive plays.”
Southern Utah hurt the Pack with two explosive plays on offense last week, a 71-yard touchdown run by Raysean Pringle and a 39-yard scoring pass from Aaron Cantu to Chris Robinson.
“If they do catch a 15-yard route on you, you just have to stop them right there make sure that’s where the play ends,” Lyons said. “We have to eliminate the big plays.”
Halliday doesn’t expect the Pack defense to be all that aggressive. “They (the Wolf Pack defense) play off a lot and they don’t press too much,” Halliday said. “They are betting we can’t go 11 plays and score. They are betting I will throw a pick, we’ll get a penalty or drop a throw. They are saying we can’t be perfect for 11 plays and score. I think we can be.”
Polian is well aware the Pack’s best defense against the Cougars just might be its offense. The Wolf Pack controlled the ball for 41 of the 60 minutes against Southern Utah.
“We can’t go three-and-out,” Polian said. “We have to maintain drives, possess the football and move the chains and make sure our (defense) can catch their breath, We have to run the ball effectively like Rutgers did (215 yards on the ground) and keep their offense on the sideline.”
The last time the Wolf Pack was in an offensive shootout with a Pac-12 team was the 2012 New Mexico Bowl against Arizona. Arizona beat the Pack that day, 49-48, but Fajardo passed for 256 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 140 yards and a touchdown. The two teams, which will meet again next Saturday in Tucson, combined for 97 points, 1,237 yards and 70 first downs.
“We know they (Washington State) have a high-flying offense,” Fajardo said. “But as soon as you start thinking you have to score on every drive, that’s when you get in trouble. The game is on ESPN, it’s Friday night and it’s a whiteout game (fans are encouraged to wear white). Those are the things that make college football special. But we can’t get too pumped and try to do too much.”