Football: Defense leads Wolf Pack to win over Boston College in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Chris Ault uttered some unfamiliar words Sunday night that he hasn’t had a chance to say very often in recent years.
“We didn’t play very well on offense,” the Nevada Wolf Pack coach said after a 20-13 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl victory over the Boston College Eagles at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. “Our defense won this football game for us.”
The game was billed as a match-up between Boston College’s stingy defense, No. 1 in the nation against the run, against the Wolf Pack’s No. 3-ranked high-powered offense.
The Wolf Pack defense, though, turned that all around on Sunday night.
“Our defense was huge,” Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “When we (the offense) didn’t make plays, they did. And most of the night they were the ones making the plays.”
The Wolf Pack held Boston College to just one offensive touchdown, 64 rushing yards and just 185 total yards. They harassed Boston College freshman quarterback Chase Rettig all night long, intercepting him twice and sacking him three times.
It was arguably the best performance by a Wolf Pack defense in a postseason game since the 1996 Las Vegas Bowl victory (18-15) over Ball State when linebacker Mike Crawford had three sacks and an interception and forced a fumble.
“We just wanted it,” Pack linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “People were talking about how they were going to run all over us. We just wanted it.”
Rettig, who gave a gutsy performance, never really had a chance against the Pack. He completed just 14 of 34 passes for 121 yards. The Pack held the Eagles to just 3.6 yards per pass and 2.6 per running attempt.
Take away a 30-yard rushing touchdown by Andre Williams in the first quarter and, well, the Eagles’ offense would have been virtually invisible the entire game.
“We missed two tackles on that play,” said Ault of Williams’ stunning early run that gave Boston College a 7-0 lead. “When you miss tackles like that he’s going to end up scoring.”
The Pack defense was almost perfect the rest of the evening, holding the Eagles to just 59 total plays and possession time of 25:14. The Pack offense, despite it struggles, still had 73 plays and controlled the ball for 34:46.
The Pack defense held Boston College’s offense to just three plays of longer than 15 yards.
Williams, who finished with 70 yards rushing on 19 carries, got more than half of his yards (47) on two carries.
“We’ve been an up and down defense all year,” Ault said. “They found a way to play well (on Sunday) and they played well all four quarters.”
And it’s a good thing.
The Pack offense basically vanished after the first quarter when Kaepernick found wide receiver Rishard Matthews on a 27-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 7-7. The only other Pack touchdown came on a brilliant 72-yard punt return by Matthews in the first quarter as the Pack offense mustered only two field goals (32 and 27 yards by Anthony Martinez) over the final three quarters.
“They (Boston College’s defense) did a great job of mixing up their looks,” said Kaepernick, who passed for 192 yards and ran for 22. “Their linebackers were flying all over the place and it made it hard for us.”
“Our offensive front played inconsistently,” Ault said. “We didn’t give (Kaepernick) enough time to do what he needed to do.”
Rettig and Boston College offense could say the same. The Pack defense also mixed up its looks, moving its defensive lineman up and down the line. The Pack defense crowded the line of scrimmage all night and dared the young Rettig to throw the ball.
It was a daring strategy by the Pack defense, a unit that has struggled to control opposing passing games for the better part of the last decade. But the Pack was determined to force the Eagles into doing something they don’t like to do and that is throwing the football.
“We had a lot of missed opportunities,” Rettig said. “They stacked a lot of people in the box (near the line of scrimmage) and went with a lot of man coverage. We didn’t take advantage of that.”
For the Eagles, it really came down to one thing.
“We weren’t able to run the ball the way we like to run it,” Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said. “We just didn’t make any plays.”
It was the Pack defense that made most of the big plays.
Defensive end Brett Roy set the tone early, sacking Rettig on the Eagles’ second play from scrimmage. Kaelin Burnett, a backup linebacker with just one sack all year, had two against the Eagles in the second half with the game on the line. Free safety Marlon Johnson had a huge interception late in the third quarter and backup cornerback Khalid Wooten put the game away with another interception with two minutes to play.
Burnett’s second sack and Wooten’s interception came on back-to-back plays as the Eagles were driving to tie the game. Those two plays were the biggest reason the Pack was able to end its frustrating four-game losing streak in bowl games.
“We felt we could do some things to Boston College and hold their running game in check,” Ault said.
What a difference a year makes.
The Pack was blitzed in its bowl game last year in Hawaii, 45-10, by the SMU Mustangs.
Defensive coordinator Nigel Burton left the team a few days after the regular season ended to accept the head coaching job at Portland State, leaving an already struggling and chaotic Pack defense without a leader for the bowl game.
And it showed.
Ault then brought in former Pack linebacker Andy Buh to run the defense in February. Buh, the co-defensive coordinator for head coach Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford Cardinal in 2008 and 2009, almost immediately changed the culture around the Pack defense.
That culture was evident Sunday night. You could sense a new energy surrounding the Pack defense against the Eagles even when they made a mistake.
Burnett drilled Rettig with a helmet-to-helmet hit early in the second quarter on a vicious hit. He was flagged for a roughing the passer penalty but the message was sent.
That message was delivered by the Pack defense even when they weren’t in the game. Roy, taking a rare breather on the sideline in the fourth quarter, smoked Williams with a forearm as the Boston College running back ran out of bounds.
No penalty, fortunately for the Pack, was called on Roy but, once again, the message that nothing was going to be easy for the Eagles offense on this night, was clearly delivered.
“When Coach Buh came in the first day he told us he wanted competitors and players that ran to the ball and hit people,” Marshall said. “Coach Buh, he asked us, ‘Do you believe?'”
They believe now.