Football: A look back at the Pack – Top 10 Defensive Plays |

Football: A look back at the Pack – Top 10 Defensive Plays

by Joe Santoro

The Top 10 Defensive Plays of the 2010 Wolf Pack football season . . .

10. Miller, Marshall put away pesky Eastern Washington

This one wasn’t supposed to be so difficult. The Wolf Pack opened its dream season against the Division I-AA Eastern Washington Eagles at Mackay Stadium on Sept. 2 and, well, the dream season almost began with a nightmare. The Pack found itself in a ballgame, leading the red-shirted Eagles, a team they used to destroy in the old Big Sky Conference days in the 1980s and 90s, just 35-24 early in the fourth quarter. Starting at their own 2-yard line with 11:31 to go, the Eagles moved to the 33-yard line after a silly personal foul on Pack safety Bubba Boudreaux and a 14-yard run by Taiwan Jones. The season-opening crowd was getting a little nervous. On first down from the 33, Eagle quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who would lead his team to the I-AA national title last Friday over Delaware, then connected with wide receiver Nicholas Edwards on a short pass. Edwards turned upfield and met Pack cornerback Doyle Miller, who promptly stripped Edwards of the football. Linebacker Brandon Marshall picked up the loose ball and returned it 16 yards to the 20-yard line. The Pack would score three plays later on a 3-yard run by Vai Taua to take a 42-24 lead with just over nine minutes away and safely tuck the game away (the final would be 49-24). Disaster averted.

9. Miller keeps hope alive against Boise

At the time it looked like a meaningless sack in what looked like a blowout loss. The Pack was still trailing the Boise State Broncos 24-7 late in the third quarter at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 26. The Western Athletic Conference title was slipping away. And then a little cornerback turned into Charles Mann, Doug Betters, Jorge Cordova and Henry Rolling all rolled into one. Doyle Miller, all 185 pounds of him, came on a blitz and sacked Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore on a 2nd-and-4 play for a 6-yard loss back to the Boise 28-yard line. The Broncos would punt a play later. It was the first time all night the Pack defense had done something pro-active, the first time they didn’t rely on the clock or a Boise dropped pass to keep the Broncos off the scoreboard. Yes, the Pack was still losing by 17. And, yes, just five minutes remained in the third quarter. But Miller’s play gave the entire team life. Miller’s sack seemed to fill the Pack with confidence on both sides of the ball. The Pack offense would go on to score three touchdowns and two field goals on its next five drives to win in overtime 34-31. If Miller doesn’t sack Moore, there might not have been 13 seconds left for the Pack to tie the game in regulation and send it into overtime. Miller’s sack came at just the right time if only to show that anything was still possible on this unforgettable evening.

8. Martin mauled by James-Michael

Doug Martin was ruining the best season in Wolf Pack football history.  The Boise State running back already had touchdown runs of 4 and 51 yards at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 26. And he would later grab a screen pass and ramble 79 yards for another score. At the moment in question, though, the Broncos were still ahead 24-21 with about 12 minutes left in the game. Facing a 3rd-and-1 at their own 42-yard line, the Broncos were looking to pick up a couple first downs and kill some clock. With just a yard to go, Martin was the logical choice. That’s exactly where the Broncos went and Pack linebacker James-Michael Johnson was waiting for him. Johnson nailed Martin for a 1-yard loss, forcing the Broncos to punt with just over 11 minutes to play. A first down by Martin on that play and, well, like Miller’s sack earlier, the Pack might not have had those extra 13 seconds to tie the game at the end of regulation. Martin would end up with 152 yards rushing and two touchdowns and three catches for 78 yards and another score. But on that one play he couldn’t escape Johnson. The Pack would go down and tie the game 24-24 on a 23-yard field goal by Anthony Martinez on the drive after Johnson’s big play on Martin.

7. Roy bags a young Cougar

The Wolf Pack needed a big play. The Brigham Young Cougars, with freshman Jake Heaps making his first career start, were somehow within two touchdowns (27-13) of the Pack in the fourth quarter in a game that the Pack dominated. Heaps, only the second true freshman (Drew Miller was the other) quarterback to start for BYU since 1964, was gaining confidence with each drive. And now the Cougars, after defensive end Vic So’oto picked off a Colin Kaepernick pass and returned it 14 yards to the Nevada 28-yard line with 4:22 to go, had the momentum. The LaVell Edwards Stadium crowd on Sept. 25, the biggest the Pack saw all season at 61,471, was now behind its young quarterback. Heaps, who would finish his season by throwing four touchdown pass in the New Mexico Bowl against UTEP, faced a do-or-die 4th-and-5 play from the Pack 23 with just under four minutes to play. Enter the Pack big play. Defensive end Brett Roy exploded through the BYU offensive line and brought the young quarterback down in a heap with a game-securing 10-yard sack. The Pack would kill off the final 3:48 in their first road game of the year to move to 4-0 on the season.

6. Wooten dials long distance against Aggies

The Wolf Pack didn’t need backup defensive back Khalid Wooten to turn in one of the more remarkable defensive plays in school history to beat the New Mexico State Aggies. The Pack, with most of northern Nevada staying home (just 10,906 were at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 20), were already comfortably ahead 45-6 early in the fourth quarter. But the few that were there (and remained through the fourth quarter) on that forgettable Saturday afternoon saw something special. New Mexico State quarterback Andrew Manley, facing a 4th-and-2 play from the Wolf Pack 17-yard line, had put together an impressive drive, moving his out-manned Aggies 12 plays and 65 yards into scoring position. Manley dropped back and fired a pass to the right side. The 20-year-old Wooten, a 6-foot sophomore from Rialto, Calif., stepped in front of Manley’s pass at the 10-yard line to end the Aggies’ drive. Most sophomore backup defensive backs would have been just happy to get the interception late in a 39-point game. Not Wooten, a former high school quarterback with underrated ball skills. Wooten exploded up the field, weaved his way through the stunned Aggies, used his blocking perfectly and, well, put himself in the Wolf Pack record book. His 90-yard interception return for a touchdown is the longest in the Chris Ault coaching era and the third longest interception return overall in school history behind Scott Nader’s 96-yarder against Cal State Hayward and Marion Motley’s 95-yarder against San Francisco in 1942. Tommy Kalmanir and Dick Trachok also combined for a 90-yarder in 1946 against Arizona State. The Pack would beat the Aggies 52-6 with Wooten’s SportsCenter play. Bigger things, though, were to come for the Pack and Wooten.

5. Duke shows true grit against Spartans

It was as if sophomore defensive back Duke Williams was experiencing his entire rollercoaster Wolf Pack career up to that point in one frustrating, this-can’t-be-happening-to-me drive. Williams, whose promising Pack career has been filled with equal parts potential, big plays and silly mistakes on and off the field, showed all three on one drive against the San Jose State Spartans on Oct. 9 at Mackay Stadium. San Jose State quarterback Jordan LaSecla, trailing the favored Pack just 21-13 early in the third quarter, scrambled 16 yards only to allow Williams to separate him from the football. LaSecla, though, fell on his own loose ball, leaving Williams to shake his head and giving the Spartans a first down at their own 41-yard line. That was the unlucky Williams. The silly-mistake Williams showed up three plays later. Williams was called for a 15-yard personal foul penalty after a harmless 2-yard LaSecla pass. That moved the Spartans to the Nevada 38-yard line. Williams, though, wasn’t finished on this exhausting drive. Enter Big Play Duke. Just four plays later, as La Secla dropped back on a 2nd-and-8 play from the Pack 18-yard line, Williams picked off a pass at the goal line and returned it 12 yards to end the drive and allow the Pack crowd of 20,636 to collectively exhale. The play turned the game around and killed the Spartans’ upset hopes. The Pack would score five plays into the following drive on a 73-yard run by Vai Tau for a 28-13 lead in a game they would win 35-13.

4. Johnson, Brown help keep cannon blue

The Wolf Pack and UNLV Rebels had traded touchdowns for much of the first half on Oct. 2 at Sam Boyd Stadium as 28,958 Silver State fans looked on. UNLV scored first, the Pack scored the next two touchdowns and the Rebels evened things at 14-14. Neither defense was stopping anyone. And after the Pack took a 21-14 lead UNLV had designs on going into its halftime locker room with the momentum and a 21-21 tie in this Fremont Cannon game. The Pack had other ideas. Rebel quarterback Omar Clayton connected with  mighty mite (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) wide receiver Michael Johnson for a 8-yard pass. Mr. Johnson, though, met the Pack’s Mr. Johnson. Pack linebacker James-Michael Johnson, who has six inches and 70 pounds on the little Rebel, forced a fumble and Thaddeus Brown recovered it near the sideline. Brown returned it 16 yards to the UNLV 27-yard line, setting up a game-changing touchdown. Like they did many times this year, Colin Kaepernick and Vai Taua took full advantage of the huge defensive play, teaming up for a Rebel-rupturing 22-yard scoring pass and a 28-14 lead at halftime. The blue cannon went back home to northern Nevada that night after a 44-26 Pack win.

3. Ryan leaves Ryan cryin’ in Fresno

Similar names. Very different results. The Fresno State Bulldogs were acting a little cocky on Nov. 13 at Bulldog Stadium. Fresno State, leading the Wolf Pack 17-14 in a key Western Athletic Conference game, had the ball with just 56 seconds to go before halftime at their own 29-yard line. It was not the time for the Bulldogs to act silly. But there they were, acting like a mischievous Bulldog whose owner had just left the gate open in the yard. Fresno quarterback Ryan Colburn, for some reason, attempted a dangerous pass to Rashad Evans on first down only to have Pack linebacker James-Michael Johnson break it up. It seemed like a needless risk right before the half. The Bulldogs, though, were obviously feeling frisky. Colburn dropped back to pass again on second down. And this time, the guy with the similar name, Pack defensive lineman Ryan Coulson, put a leash on the bold Bulldog. Coulson took matters into his own hands, literally, sacking Colburn, forcing him to fumble and then recovering the fumble himself. Coulson’s one-man show gave the Pack the ball at the Fresno 20-yard line with 44 seconds to go. Two plays later Vai Taua busted over the goal line from a yard out for a 21-17 Pack halftime lead, stunning the crowd of 37,116. The Wolf Pack would rally late for a 35-34 victory to keep their WAC title dreams alive. It wouldn’t have happened without Coulson’s play.

2. Wooten allows Pack to party in postseason

Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig had moved his Eagles from his own 10-yard line to the 45-yard line late in the fourth quarter of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Hoping to snap a four-game losing streak in bowl games, the Pack was clinging to a slim 20-13 lead. Rettig, who spent the majority of the game running for his life, had just completed a 32-yard pass to Chris Pantale. The freshman from San Clemente, Calif., was now faced with a 2nd-and-13 play with the clock ticking away. Rettig took the snap, dropped back and saw fellow freshman wide receiver Alex Amidon open near mid-field on the right side. Khalid Wooten saw the same thing. Wooten made an acrobatic catch of Rettig’s pass for his second interception of the year, ending the Eagles’ season. Wooten’s first pick this year the weekend before Thanksgiving went for 90 yards and a score. He returned this one just six yards but the return wasn’t important. The Pack killed the final 2:07 after Wooten’s interception to secure the 20-13 bowl win.

1. Johnson’s return kicks dream season into high gear

The Wolf Pack had started the season off 2-0 for the first time since 1995. But this was different. Those first two wins were against Eastern Washington and Colorado State. This was different. This was Cal, the so-called Wonder Team of the 1920s. The Pac-10 Cal Bears. The Wolf Pack, playing with an abundance of energy thanks to a sold-out Mackay Stadium crowd on Sept. 17, raced to a 21-7 lead. Cal, though, thanks to Shane Vereen’s third touchdown, had pulled to within 24-21 in the third quarter. And they kept coming. Starting at his own 38 with 11:02 to go in the third quarter, quarterback Kevin Riley moved his Bears to the Wolf Pack 37 on 2nd-and-10. The Pack defense was back on its heels. The offense was stuck in a rut. If Cal takes the lead here, well, who knows what would happen? This Pack team, after all, hadn’t ever trailed at any point this entire season. Marlon Johnson wasn’t about to let that happen. Johnson snared a Riley pass at his own 35-yard line, streaked up the left sideline and scored on a 65-yard return. If Mackay Stadium had a roof, it would have exploded and pieces of it would have been found in Fernley. The play gave the Pack a 31-21 lead with 8:41 to play in the third quarter and led to a program-boosting 52-31 victory. It was the victory that jump-started this incredible season. And Johnson’s play turned the game around. The win over Cal was likely the most important victory of the season because it showed that anything (a win over Boise, a WAC title, a bowl win) was possible.