Joe Santoro: That time a Nevada Wolf Pack freshman QB beat Fresno

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong (12) delivers a pass during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against San Diego State on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong (12) delivers a pass during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against San Diego State on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

David Neill really had no idea what he was getting himself into 21 years ago when he walked into Fresno State’s Bulldog Stadium.

And that was probably a good thing.

“I felt confident because I was just an 18-year-old kid that didn’t know any better,” the former (1998-01) Wolf Pack quarterback said last week.

Neill, now a 39-year-old husband and father of two young boys in Santa Clarita, Calif., turned in one of the most memorable starting debuts in Wolf Pack history that memorable evening two decades ago. The youngster from Hart High in Newhall, Calif., not knowing any better, went out and became the first freshman quarterback in Wolf Pack history to beat the Fresno State Bulldogs at Bulldog Stadium.

“I had to grow up fast,” Neill said when his Pack career came to a close in 2001. “I was an 18-year-old kid and I was playing with 21 and 22-year-old guys. It causes you to mature and grow up real fast.”

Another Pack quarterback could experience that same sort of growth spurt this Saturday night in Fresno. Carson Strong will attempt to become just the second Wolf Pack freshman quarterback this Saturday night (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) to beat the Bulldogs in Fresno. Strong is a bit older than Neill was in 1998 (he is a seasoned redshirt freshman while Neill was a true, wide-eyed freshman) and he is more experienced. Strong has seven starts under his belt while Neill was making his first career start at Fresno back on Sept. 26, 1998.

“Coach (Jeff) Tisdel told me pretty early in the week (that he would start against the Bulldogs) so I took all of the first-team snaps (in practice),” said Neill, the warehouse manager for his family’s California Chrome Wheel company (“We do everything wheels and tires,” Neill said) in Valencia, Calif. “We had a good week of practice. A good game plan.”

And, as it turned out, a good quarterback. But nobody expected the wet-behind-the-ears, tall and lean (6-foot-5, 190 pounds) freshman from Hart High just north of Los Angeles to strut into Fresno and beat the Bulldogs of the Western Athletic Conference. Not with an 0-2 Wolf Pack football team of the Big West that was a 10-point underdog and was on its third starting quarterback in three games. Not with nearly 40,000 vocal and passionate Red Wave Fresno fanatics in the stands on the Bulldogs’ Homecoming night.

Strong this Saturday will be a seasoned veteran compared to what Neill was before that game in Fresno in 1998. Strong will have the benefit of seven starts (in addition to practicing all last season at Nevada) when he steps out onto the field this Saturday night. He started the season opener at Mackay Stadium and beat Purdue of the Big Ten, 34-31. He went to San Diego State two weeks ago and became the first Pack freshman quarterback to beat the Aztecs, 17-13.

Neill, on the other hand, was third on the Pack’s depth chart at quarterback behind Mo Jones and Erik Stidham when the 1998 season opened at Oregon State with a 48-6 loss. All Neill had on his resume 21 years ago at Fresno State was a solid second half performance (16-of-29 for 155 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) at Mackay Stadium in a 26-14 loss to Colorado State the previous week.

Neill was the Wolf Pack’s last chance to kick start the season before it was too late. The Pack was running out of quarterbacks. Neither Jones (against Oregon State) or Stidham (against Colorado State) had put up a single point on the scoreboard in the first half of their starts. It was now up to the freshman to save the season.

“I remember the week before the game (Pack tight end) Darin Higgins told me, “I’d go to war with you, kid.’” Neil said. “That still means a lot to me to this day.”

A Pack cornerback, senior Don Morgan, had some other words of advice for Neill during the week leading up to the Fresno State game. “Hey, freshman, no cleats in the field house,” said Morgan, passing by Neill as the freshman quarterback, still wearing his cleats from practice, did an interview with a newspaper reporter.

All of the confidence Neill built up during the week, though, started to disappear as the kickoff neared.

“If I recall correctly, we took the bus to the game,” Neill said last week. “Lots of time to think. As the game drew near I started to get really nervous. Suddenly it was real.”

And a little overwhelming for a youngster from Santa Clarita.

“I heard if you are not nervous, you are not ready to play,” Neill said 21 years ago, two days before the Fresno game. “But I don’t expect I’ll be sleeping too much (the night before the game).”

Starting a college game on the road at Fresno State was not where Neill thought he’d be in late September 1998, not a mere three games into his first college season less than a full calendar year since he passed for 3,053 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior for the Hart High Indians.

“I thought I’d come in and redshirt,” Neill remembered at the end of the 1998 season. “This year’s just been a shock.”

The shock and awe that was to become David Neill’s Wolf Pack career began in earnest on a late September night in Fresno in 1998. Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs both entered that same evening with 66 home runs with two days remaining in the major league baseball season. Neill entered the night wondering if he was indeed ready to lead a Division I-A college football team.

“During the warm-up I distinctly remember how sticky the ball felt coming out of my hands,” Neill said this week. “I really could sling it being at low elevation with humidity. Reno is so high and dry.”

Fresno State, coached by Pat Hill, was also 0-2 on that rainy evening in late September 1998. But the Bulldogs’ two losses were at Colorado and Texas Tech. The Bulldogs, no doubt, felt Nevada was going to kick start Fresno’s season. It was Fresno State’s Homecoming, after all. And the Bulldogs’ had revenge on their mind. The last time the Pack came to Bulldog Stadium before 1998, after all, it pounded the Bulldogs 62-35 in 1994 behind junior quarterback Mike Maxwell’s 443 yards.

“I know the kids here (at Fresno State) remember it (the 62-35 loss to Nevada) as a putting-it-in-your-face kind of deal,” said Fresno’s Hill the week before the 1998 rematch.

The Bulldogs, which needed a victory as much as the Pack, weren’t about to take it easy on a raw freshman quarterback from Nevada by way of Southern California. But Neill began to sling the sticky football fearlessly in the second quarter.

Trailing 7-0, Neill found wide receiver Trevor Insley for 25 and 17 yards and a pair of first downs. The first scoring drive of his career, and the first for the Pack in the first half of a game in 1998, ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Higgins with 6:45 to go in the second quarter.

Pack defensive tackle Jim Farley then gave the ball back to Neill and the offense two minutes later when he intercepted a pass by Fresno State’s Billy Volek at the Fresno 30-yard line. Neill, who completed 11 of his last 20 passes in the first half for 170 yards and two scores, immediately found wide receiver Geoff Noisy for a 26-yard gain. The touchdown was a 10-yard strike to Insley for a 14-7 Pack lead with 3:26 to go in the half. It was the Pack’s first lead of the season. The freshman was breathing life back into this Pack season.

A warm Central Valley rain picked up in the second half and neither team scored in the third quarter. Fresno State, though, cut the Pack lead to 14-10 on a 45-yard field goal by Jeff Hanna early in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs then took a 17-14 lead with just 6:28 to play on a nine-yard touchdown run by Jaime Kimbrough, capping off an impressive 94-yard, eight-play drive.

There was now no more time for Neill to feel nervous, young or skittish. The Pack needed a leader. The team was a mere six minutes way from a confidence-crushing 0-3 start. And to top it all off, a crowd of 39,447 wasn’t about to sit idly by and watch its Homecoming party destroyed, especially not against a team that was in Division I-AA just seven years earlier with a quarterback that was in high school the year before.

Starting from his own 11-yard line, Neill then went to work. Running back Chris Lemon picked up eight yards on first down and the freshman quarterback then found Noisy for 10 yards and Higgins for 20 for a pair of first downs. The Pack was now at its own 49-yard line with a little more than five minutes away from a long bus ride home. Neill then rolled to his right and saw the speedy Insley all by himself at the Fresno 10-yard line.

“I saw the corner jump up and I just saw him (Insley) open and I just threw it,” Neill said after the game.

Not knowing any better turned out to be a blessing for the young Neil.

“I didn’t tense up or anything,” said Neill back in 1998, referring to the throw to Insley.

The touchdown with 5:09 to play gave the Wolf Pack a stunning 20-17 lead. The night became even more magical for the Wolf Pack when cornerback Mack Carminer stole a Volek pass and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown and a 27-17 Pack lead with three minutes to play. Volek would later toss a 32-yard scoring pass to Saleem Mahdi with 1:46 to go to slice the Pack lead to an uncomfortable 27-24 advantage but the Pack put the game away by recovering Fresno’s on-side kick.

“When that clock struck zero and the scoreboard said 27-24 I felt such pride that we had accomplished what we set out to do as a team,” Neill said last week. “The offense played great. The defense held Fresno to 24 points, which was no easy task at all. But, mostly, we did it when no one thought we could.”

The Pack now had its starting quarterback, the successor in the 1990s to Fred Gatlin, Chris Vargas, John Dutton and Mike Maxwell. Although it would turn out to be a rollercoaster ride, with a change in conferences (Big West to WAC) and a change in coaches (Tisdel to Chris Tormey) coming after 1999, there would be no more experimenting at the most important position on the team for the next three-plus seasons. The lanky freshman had passed for 328 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in his first career start at Fresno as the Pack won for the first time in 1998.

“He (Neill) seems much like a leader,” said Noisy back in 1998. “I know back in high school he was the big leader on the team. But those skills have carried over to this team, too.”

Neill beat Fresno in 1998 on the same night McGwire pulled away from Sosa in the home run race with his 67th and 68th home runs of the season, on the way to a then major-league record of 70. Neill, it turn out, also hit a memorable home run in his first major college at-bat.

“My whole family was there to see it so that was extra special,” Neill said last week. “And after the game the whole team was very supportive of their skinny freshman quarterback.”

Neill’s performance was even more impressive considering Fresno State went on to win its next 17 games at Bulldog Stadium after losing to the Pack in 1998.

“I have a ton of respect for David Neill,” Hill said in 2001 the week before a 61-14 victory over the Pack at Mackay Stadium in Neill’s final home game at Nevada. “I remember when he came in and beat us at our place. I don’t think I will ever forget what he did to us that night. It wasn’t a fluke. They just came in and beat us. That was quite a performance by a true freshman.”

The performance turned a skinny freshman into a starting Division I quarterback almost overnight. Neill would start for four seasons at Nevada, experiencing tremendous highs and gut-wrenching lows (the Pack was 3-6 and 2-10 in his final two seasons with Tormey in the WAC after Fresno and others left the WAC to form the new Mountain West in 1999).

“I think he’s probably going to be the best quarterback at the University of Nevada,” Noisy said during the 1998 season. “I’ve seen him do things John Dutton didn’t do as a senior.”

Noisy wasn’t completely wrong. When Neill left Nevada after the 2001 season his name was at or near the top in numerous Wolf Pack passing categories.

He still holds the Nevada school records for career passing yards (10,901) and attempts (1,374). He is third in touchdown passes (73), second in completions (763) and third in total offense (11,145 yards).

Neill also still holds the NCAA record for passing yards by a freshman in one game with 611 against New Mexico State on Oct. 10, 1998 in his third career start. Those 611 yards are also still a Wolf Pack single-game record for any quarterback. When he left Nevada after the 2001 season his 763 completions were also a school record until Cody Fajardo (2011-14) broke it with 878.

Neill also set the NCAA record for pass efficiency (since broken) for quarterbacks with 25-49 attempts in a game when he was 20-of-26 for 480 yards and five touchdowns without an interception against Idaho on Oct. 24, 1998. His 18.5 yards for each of his 26 attempts against Idaho is also still a NCAA record for a quarterback in a game with a minimum of 25 attempts.

Neill’s 29 touchdown passes in 1998 set a NCAA record for freshmen that was equaled by Texas’ Colt McCoy in 2006 and broken by Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford in 2007 (36) and Jameis Winston of Florida State (40) in 2013. Neill, though, also threw for 3,249 yards in nine games as a freshman and still is the owner of the NCAA record for average passing yards per game for a season by a freshman at 361.

The confidence he gained at Fresno State made it all possible.

“That game was huge for me personally,” Neill said last week. “Not only did I realize I could play at that level but it convinced the team, too. I think it was a great win for the program. The Big West just beat a WAC team. It got our season back on track. And then we rolled UNLV (31-20 at UNLV) the next week, which is always sweet.”

Neill, who led the Pack to a 6-5 record in 1998 (Fresno finished 5-6 in 1998), continues to follow the Wolf Pack very closely from his southern California home with his wife Kelly (they met in Reno) and sons Tyler (8-years-old) and Andrew (7). He had a message to fellow Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong last week with this week’s game at Bulldog Stadium drawing near.

“Play your heart out and win the game,” said Neill, who never did beat the Bulldogs again after 1998. “But remember when you put a University of Nevada jersey on you become a member of the Wolf Pack family. The men you play with and the men who played before you are all brothers. The game is important now. But the (Wolf Pack) family lasts forever.”

It’s that sort of maturity that began on that memorable rainy night in Fresno.


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