Football: Top 20 Wolf Pack games of the WAC era |

Football: Top 20 Wolf Pack games of the WAC era

by Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack football team will never forget its 12 seasons in the Western Athletic Conference.

The dozen years (2000-11) were filled with amazing and historic moments that changed the Pack football program forever.

Chris Ault returned to the sidelines for his third term as head coach, artificial turf and lights were installed at Mackay Stadium, the program earned its first Top 25 rankings in over six decades, went to seven bowl games and won two league championships.

The final tally reads 79 wins and 71 losses overall with a 55-40 WAC record.

A look at the 20 greatest and most meaningful games during the era . . .

At quick glance this game appears to be a meaningless victory in a disappointing 2-10 season. But this game makes this list for three reasons. It was the Pack’s first victory in the WAC era and it was the first for Chris Tormey as Pack head coach. Those two reasons alone make it worthy of this list. But the biggest reason is what took place before the Pack even got to the stadium. That’s because they almost didn’t get to the stadium. The Wolf Pack team busses were stuck in traffic behind a 12-car pile-up caused by a sudden snowstorm on Interstate 80. The Pack, which stayed 50 miles away in Cheyenne, didn’t arrive for the game in Laramie until 20 minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. kickoff, delaying the start of the game one hour. It took them over three hours to travel the 50 miles. After understandably falling behind 21-7, the Pack scored 21 unanswered points, on two David Neill touchdown runs and a 4-yard TD pass from Neill to Scott Asai. Running back Marquis Starks, who replaced an injured Adrien Dugas in the second quarter, broke a 28-28 tie on a 16-yard TD run with 41 seconds to play for the improbable victory. Tormey, incidentally, was just hired by Wyoming as its defensive coordinator this week.

The wonders of electricity had finally arrived at Mackay Stadium. The biggest crowd in four seasons (25,256) showed up on an 85-degree late August evening for the first night home game in Wolf Pack history. Wolf Pack fans’ experience of going to a game at Mackay Stadium changed forever with this game. And the Thunderbirds gave the Pack all it could handle, taking a 17-14 lead in the third quarter. The game turned out to be one of the more entertaining in the WAC era as Logan Carter blocked an extra point attempt by Southern Utah’s Steve Pulver with 3:06 to play that would have tied the game at 24-24. Carter, a linebacker, had a marvelous game, recovering a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown for a 7-3 Pack lead and also picking off a pass in the third quarter. Thanks to this victory, the Pack would finish 6-6 in 2003 for its first non-losing season since 1998, though Tormey would lose his job after the year.

In just its second game ever against a school from the Big Ten Conference (they lost to Wisconsin in 1993) the Wolf Pack turned in an impressive all-around effort in beating the Wildcats. The Pack, playing in front of 16,176 fans at Mackay and a national television audience, built a 17-7 lead in the first quarter on a 25-yard Jeff Rowe touchdown pass to Robert Hubbard, a 32-yard Brett Jaekle field goal and a 3-yard Hubbard run. Rowe also connected with Mike McCoy on a 2-yard pass and a 24-14 lead in the second quarter. Joe Garcia then secured the victory with a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown off a Mike Kafka pass with 2:14 to play.

These two games are lumped together for obvious reasons. The scores were identical against the two WAC opponents, they took place in consecutive weeks and they represented the Wolf Pack defense’s first back-to-back shutouts since 1977 (and before that in 1943). The 2006 team had an marvelous defense, led by co-defensive coordinators Barry Sacks and Tim DeRuyter (now the head coach at Fresno State). The Pack dominated Utah State, holding the Aggies to 207 total yards. Joe Garcia and Ezra Butler had sacks and Garcia, Scott Garrison and Uche Unwanyu had interceptions. The key against Louisiana Tech was big plays as J.J. Milan and Matt Hines had sacks, Hines forced a fumble, and Joe Garcia and Josh Mauga had interceptions. Mauga also recovered a fumble. The Pack also stopped the Bulldogs on 4th downs from the 1 and 2-yard lines.

This was Colin Kaepernick’s return to Fresno where he was a high school standout a few miles away at Pitman High in Turlock, Calif. It also was Kaepernick’s way of showing the Bulldogs’ fans just exactly what they missed out on when coach Pat Hill allowed the 6-foot-6 quarterback to escape to northern Nevada. Kaepernick, a sophomore in 2008, rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 128 yards and another score in the Pack victory. The Wolf Pack never trailed in beating the Bulldogs for the first time since 2005. Vai Taua also had a huge game, rushing for 263 yards and a touchdown. Kaepernick gave the Pack a 24-14 lead on TD runs on 16 and two yards and a 36-yard scoring pass to Mike McCoy. Taua put the game away with a 25-yard scoring run for a 38-21 lead in the fourth quarter.

The Wolf Pack, with a sparkling 3-0 record after a huge win over the California Golden Bears the week before, were now heading out on the road for the first time in 2010. And they had to go to BYU, a place where they had never won and lost 52-7 nine years earlier. The Pack also had not won a non-league game on the road against someone other than UNLV since 2003. The Pack exorcized their road demons by beating BYU in a game in which they never trailed. But it wasn’t easy. Colin Kaepernick hit Courtney Randall for a 6-yard TD pass for a 7-0 lead, Vai Taua gave the Pack a 14-7 lead on a 1-yard run and Kaepernick made the score 21-7 Pack on a 4-yard run. The Pack, though, couldn’t shake the Cougars until a 29-yard field goal by Anthony Martinez gave them a 27-10 lead with 11:27 to play. The field goal capped off a 21-play, 75-yard drive that ate away just under nine minutes.

The Pack lost a football game but gained a legend. The 18,503 fans who were there saw the dawning of a new Pack era. Colin Kaepernick, getting his first extended playing time because of a second-quarter injury to Nick Graziano, was brilliant. The red-shirt freshman passed for 384 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 60 yards and another score. This was the game in which Kaepernick first exhibited his never-say-die spirit, leading the Pack to three touchdowns in the final 6:22 despite trailing 49-20. Pack football was never the same after this game.

This was the game that showed by just how much the Wolf Pack had passed Fresno State. Colin Kaepernick and the Pack blitzed the Bulldogs with 461 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. The Pack defense had six sacks by six different players. This was also the game that proved once and for all the pistol offense’s dominance on the ground. It’s one thing to pile up video game numbers against the likes of San Jose State, New Mexico State, UNLV and Idaho but to do it against Fresno showed just how dominant the Pack was on the ground. Luke Lippincott had three touchdown runs, Kaepernick and Vai Taua had two each. Taua had 179 yards, Lippincott 149 and Kaepernick had 95. The Pack didn’t even need to throw the ball to beat Fresno as Kaepernick was just 6-for-12 through the air for 45 yards.

Beating UNLV is always nice. But destroying them with four fourth-quarter touchdowns to break open a close game is even better. The Pack, leading just 35-28 after three quarters, blew the doors off the Rebels in the final 15 minutes. The game also featured one of the greatest Wolf Pack moments in this rivalry when running back Luke Lippincott tossed a 6-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Colin Kaepernick for a 49-28 lead with 6:59 to play. The game also featured the defining performance of Mike Ball’s rollercoaster Pack career. The freshman from Las Vegas ran for 184 yards and five touchdowns, including an 89-yard score. The Pack fumbled the ball away four times or they might have broken 90 points. When they weren’t busy giving the ball away, they were scoring touchdowns on all nine of their other drives. The pistol offense produced 773 total yards with 559 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. The Pack was 0-3 in 2009 going into this game and this victory was the first of 16 in a row at home.

The Wolf Pack had not beaten UNLV for five consecutive years, since 1999. Coach Chris Tormey was connected to four of those losses and Chris Ault even had one in 2003. A crowd of 23,457 at Mackay, though, saw the end to the Pack’s futility in the Fremont Cannon game. Robert Hubbard scored on a pair of 1-yard runs and Brett Jaekle had three field goals of under 30 yards for the Pack scoring. But the Pack tried its best to keep UNLV in the game, wasting numerous opportunities and fumbling the ball away twice. The Pack dominated the game, holding the ball for over 36 minutes but couldn’t find the end zone on a consistent basis. Jaekle also missed an extra point, an 18-yard field goal and had a 45-yard blocked. Roosevelt Cooks had a sack and Joe Garcia had a sack and forced a fumble as the Pack defense played a huge part in securing this rivalry-changing victory. Jeff Rowe passed for 265 yards and ran for 44 more. Caleb Spencer caught a dozen passes. It was one of the ugliest victories for the Pack in the history of this rivalry. But it was also the first of seven in a row for the Pack against UNLV, a streak that exists to this day.

The significance of this victory seems to grow with each passing season, with each Wolf Pack loss in the state of Hawaii. The Pack won the 2005 Hawaii Bowl over a very talented Central Florida team that featured future NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall, running back Kevin Smith and kicker Matt Prater. Marshall caught 11 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns against the Pack, Prater kicked three field goals and Smith ran for 202 yards and three scores in this wild overtime affair. The pack, though, also had great individual performances from Jeff Rowe (254 yards passing), Caleb Spencer (11 catches),, Robert Hubbard (126 yards rushing and three touchdowns) and B.J. Mitchell (178 yards rushing and two scores). Rowe scored on a 4-yard run in overtime for a 49-42 lead. The Pack then won the game when Prater missed an extra point after a Central Florida touchdown. The victory was the Pack’s first in a bowl game since the Jan. 1, 1948 Salad Bowl over North Texas. It is also now the Pack’s only victory in their last 10 games in the state of Hawaii (0-7 against Hawaii and 1-2 in the Hawaii Bowl).

Nick Graziano will unfairly go down in history as the Wolf Pack’s Wally Pipp. Pipp lost his New York Yankees’ starting job at first base to Lou Gehrig and was never heard from again and Graziano lost his starting quarterback job to Colin Kaepernick. But Graziano should be remembered first as the Pack quarterback who engineered the most exciting Pack victory in this heated rivalry. Graziano connected with Kyle Sammons on a beautiful 43-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline with 27 seconds to play to stun the Rebels in front of 25,278 fans at Mackay. UNLV had just tied the game at 20-20 with 62 seconds to play on a Travis Dixon-to-Ryan Wolfe 30-yard touchdown pass. Graziano, who would get hurt the following week and give way to Kaepernick, passed for  330 yards and three touchdowns, including a 90-yarder to Mike McCoy for a 10-3 lead.

One of the greatest games in college football history has to make this list even if it did turn out to be a Pack loss. Colin Kaepernick, making his first college start, showed that the previous week against Fresno State wasn’t a mirage or a fluke. The Pack quarterback wowed a national television audience, passing for 243 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 177 yards and two more touchdowns. Chris Ault’s pistol offense was now a national phenomenon for the first time thanks to Kaepernick. Luke Lippincott ran for 187 yards and four touchdowns. His 25-yard TD run gave the Pack a 51-44 lead in overtime. Kaepernick then tied it at 58-58 in the second OT on a 25-yard scoring run and Brett Jaekle’s 27-yard field goal gave the Pack a 61-58 lead in the third overtime. The fourth overtime saw Lippincott pull the Pack to within 69-67 on a 7-yard run but Kaepernick’s two-point conversion pass attempt failed, ending a game that nobody wished would end. This was the game that finally showed the Wolf Pack that it could play with Boise State after seven consecutive blowout losses.

The importance of this game usually gets overlooked when recalling the magical 2010 season. But a loss at Joe Aillet Stadium would have been a disaster for the Pack. With a WAC title and a Top 25 national ranking on the line just a week after a stunning victory over Boise State (see Great Game No. 1 below), Colin Kaepernick simply wouldn’t allow the Pack to lose to the Bulldogs. Playing in his final regular season game in a Pack uniform, Kaepernick rushed for 155 yards and three touchdowns and completed 13-of-17 passes for 159 yards in one of the more efficient all-around games in his career. He also turned in what is arguably the finest run of his career, going 28 yards for a brilliant touchdown on a 4th-and-9 play for a 28-17 lead with 13:43 left in the game. Vai Taua also rushed for 162 yards and two scores in his final regular season game and secured the victory with a 6-yard score with 10:15 to go, giving the Pack’s its second and final WAC championship.

The Pack didn’t play all that well against a mediocre Boston College team in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl but all that mattered is that they ended the season with a victory. After a 36-day lay-off the Pack was understandably a little rusty offensively, especially against a Boston College defense that featured linebackers Luke Kuechly and Mark Herzlich. So the defense saved the day and the landmark 13-1 season, holding the Eagles to just 185 total yards. Rishard Matthews was all the offense the Pack needed, hauling in a 27-yard scoring pass from Colin Kaepernick and returning a punt 72 yards for a touchdown. Anthony Martinez also kept the Eagles at arm’s distance with a pair of field goals. The entire evening, played before seemingly 41,000 Pack fans and 63 Boston College fans at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, was simply the greatest outdoor party in Wolf Pack history. The only thing that was missing was a Silver and Blue Boston Victory Party in the San Francisco bay after the game.

This is arguably the most overlooked great victory in Wolf Pack history. Beating BYU in front of 23,109 fans at Mackay proved that the Wolf Pack could indeed beat a big-time football school. Before this game the Pack had lost to one big-time school after another (Washington State, BYU, Oregon four times, Oregon State twice, California and Southern Mississippi) since athletic director Chris Ault pumped up the schedule in 1996. Things didn’t start out well on this sunny afternoon at Mackay either as running back Chance Kretschmer, the nation’s leading rusher in 2001, suffered a season-ending knee injury on his first carry on a late hit out of bounds. Pack quarterback Zac Threadgill, though, had the game of his life, throwing for 410 yards and four touchdowns. He connected with Nate Burleson 12 times for 213 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown for a stunning 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Threadgill also found Dan Bythwood, Erick Streelman and Tim Fleming for touchdowns as the Pack shocked the Cougars.

This is the game that set the stage and made all of the amazing events of 2010 possible. This is also the game that put the Pack on the national map in 2010. Colin Kaepernick, Vai Taua and friends simply dominated the Golden Bears in front of 28,809 fans at Mackay Stadium who witnessed the Pack’s first victory over the boys from Berkeley since 1903. Kaepernick ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns and Taua ran for 151 and one score as the Pack piled up 316 yards on the ground. Marlon Johnson had the play of the game, picking off a Kevin Riley pass and returning it 65 yards for a touchdown and a 31-21 lead. Taua’s 54-yard score put the Bears away, giving the Pack a 45-24 lead with just under eight minutes to play.

It’s one thing to beat a Pac-12 team at home with an amazing once-a-generation quarterback and a team that would go on to win 13 games and finish ranked No. 11 in the country. But it’s quite another to go on the road in front of 70,149 fans to do it with a team that would win just six games. This victory at Seattle came totally out of the blue and shocked the entire west coast. And the Pack did it with defense. Chris Handy returned an interception of a Cody Pickett pass 37 yards for a score to give the Pack a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The Pack blocked three field goals, two of the blocks by Chris Barry and one by Jorge Cordova. Cordova had an incredible 16 tackles, 4.5 sacks and also forced a fumble. Daryl Towns and Logan Carter each had 10 tackles. Derek Kennard had the eighth and final Pack sack of the day on the game’s final play. Quarterback Andy Heiser passed for 299 yards and three scores as the offense did just enough to beat the stunned Huskies.

OK, so it is only the second greatest Pack victory to occur on Nov. 26. But it was amazing night back in 2005 just the same. The significance of this victory is it was Chris Ault’s first huge victory during his third era as Pack coach and showed Pack fans a taste of things to come. This Pack victory came at a time when Fresno State was Boise State before Boise State. The Bulldogs were the non-BCS darlings of the nation in 2005 after putting on an incredible show in a 50-42 loss to the mighty USC Trojans just the week before. It turned out to be just the right time to play the Bulldogs. Fresno State, ranked 16th in the country and just days after accepting a spot in the Liberty Bowl, came to Mackay feeling pretty good about itself. The Pack jumped out to leads of 17-3 and 24-10 as Robert Hubbard scored on runs of six and 20 yards. But Fresno rallied to take a 27-24 lead early in the fourth quarter. The Pack, though, took a 31-27 lead on a 13-yard TD run by Hubbard with 8:31 to go. Hubbard, one of the more underrated Pack backs in history, had 146 yards. The stadium clock then refused to work the final six minutes. The Pack, playing before 17,765 fans, went ahead 38-27 on a 12-yard pass from Jeff Rowe to Nichiren Flowers with 1:27 to go. The stunning upset ended Fresno’s 12-game WAC winning streak and left the Liberty Bowl folks wondering why they didn’t wait another week or so before handing out invitations.

A crowd of 30,712 fans showed up to see history. And the Wolf Pack and Broncos didn’t disappoint anyone, including a stunned national television audience. Boise jumped out ahead 24-7 by halftime and seemed to be on its way to a perfect regular season and a possible berth in the BCS title game. But Colin Kaepernick, Rishard Matthews, Anthony Martinez and the Pack defense had other plans. Kaepernick scored on an 18-yard run to start the comeback, cutting Boise’s lead to 24-14. Matthews then turned in one of the greatest efforts in school history, going 44 yards on an end around to cut the deficit to 24-21 with 13 minutes to play. Martinez tied the game at 24-24 with a field goal and Kaepernick and Matthews combined on a 7-yard touchdown pass to send the game into overtime tied 31-31 with 13 seconds to play. Yes, of course, luck had a lot to do with it as Boise’s Kyle Brotzman missed a 26-yard field goal as time expired in regulation and a 29-yarder on overtime. But this was the moment the Pack had been waiting over a century for and they didn’t let it get away as Martinez won the game in OT with a 34-yarder.