The Nevada Wolf Pack’s defense simply refused to lose to the Fresno State Bulldogs once again.
The Wolf Pack defense forced four turnovers — three on interceptions by safety Dameon Baber — and scored a touchdown as the Wolf Pack beat the Bulldogs 30-16 Thursday night in front of a crowd of 25,476 at Bulldog Stadium. The victory stopped a three-game Wolf Pack losing streak to the Bulldogs and left the Pack just one victory short of qualifying for a bowl game for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons.
“This was a big game for us,” said Wolf Pack linebacker Matt Lyons, whose 30-yard return of a Fresno State fumble gave the Pack a quick 7-0 lead just five plays into the game. “I haven’t beaten them since I’ve been here.”
“This is a great feeling,” senior Lenny Jones said.
The Wolf Pack improved to 5-4 overall and 3-2 in the Mountain West and now has its first two-game winning streak since last November. Fresno State dropped to 2-7 overall and 1-5 in the Mountain West and will not qualify for a bowl game for the first time in head coach Tm DeRuyter’s four seasons. Fresno State, which beat the Pack 40-20 last season in Reno, has lost nine of its last 11 games dating back to the last two games of the 2014 season.
“This is kind of like a redemption,” said Pack wide receiver Hasaan Henderson, referring to last season’s disappointing loss to the Bulldogs with the West Division title on the line.
The defense, starting with Fresno State’s first offensive drive of the night, was the biggest reason for the Pack’s first victory over Fresno State since Chris Ault was head coach in 2011. The offense piled up plenty of yards (498) but it produced just two touchdowns and no long touchdown drives and had to settle for three Brent Zuzo field goals against the Mountain West’s worst defense. And both of the offense’s touchdowns came on long plays. Henderson caught a 73-yard scoring pass from quarterback Tyler Stewart for a 14-3 lead in the second quarter and James Butler busted loose for a 59-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to close the scoring.
The Wolf Pack ran for 292 yards but a huge chunk of that yardage (121 yards) came on just two runs, Butler’s 59-yarder and a 62-yard run by Don Jackson with the game already over in the final seconds. Stewart completed just 12-of-17 passes for 206 yards as the Pack was content to chew up the clock on the ground. Thanks to their two big runs, Jackson finished with 140 yards rushing on 21 carries and Butler had 122 on 18.
“Coach (Brian) Polian told the offense, ‘We need some explosive plays,'” Jones said.
The defense also listened to Polian and actually had more explosive plays than the offense, starting just two minutes into the game.
Lyons gave the Pack the lead (7-0) — a lead they would never relinquish — on the fifth play of the game. Defensive end Ian Seau sacked Fresno State quarterback Kilton Anderson and Lyons, who sacked Anderson himself on the previous play, picked the ball up and headed to the end zone. “Ian made a good play and I just picked the ball up,” Lyons said.
The Wolf Pack offense punted on its first two drives of the night and Stewart was intercepted on the third drive. The Pack had to settle for three Zuzo field goals (47, 30, 25 yards) in the second and third quarters and led just 17-16 (thanks to a missed extra point by Fresno’s Kody Kroening) at halftime. The Pack also led just 23-16 after three quarters as the offense had just one explosive play — Henderson’s 73-yard touchdown catch with nine minutes to go in the first half.
“The safety came over and I didn’t think he’d (Stewart) throw it,” Henderson said. “But he threw it and he put up a great ball and I just made the catch.”
The Wolf Pack defense made sure Fresno State stayed off the scoreboard in the second half. Baber, now tied for fifth place for the most interceptions in a season in school history with six, ended three consecutive Fresno State drives all by himself in the fourth quarter. Baber picked off Anderson with 11 minutes to go (just 13 seconds after Butler’s long touchdown) and then stole two passes from backup quarterback Zack Greenlee with 4:37 left and 3:19 left to secure the victory. Baber’s second interception came at the Wolf Pack 1-yard line and the third came at the Pack 11.
Baber’s memorable performance fell just one interception short of the Wolf Pack record of four interceptions in a game by Greg Grouwinkel in a 19-14 win over Portland State in 1974. His three interceptions, though, tied him with eight others for the Mountain West single-game record. The last time a Pack player had six in a season was Joe Garcia in 2006.
“Six interceptions,” smiled Jones. “That’s a freshman All-American.”
The Wolf Pack defense — and a ball-control Wolf Pack offense — dominated Fresno State in the second half. The Bulldogs had just four plays and eight total yards in the third quarter. Fresno State had the ball for just 6:49 of the entire second half (the Pack had it for 23:11). The Wolf Pack out gained the Bulldogs 335-73 in the second half.
“In the first half we beat ourselves with self-inflicted wounds,” Lyons said of the defense. “We just came out and played smarter in the second half.”
Anderson was just 12-of-26 for 88 yards through the air for Fresno. Fresno State running back Marteze Waller had 74 yards on 17 carries. The Wolf Pack shut out the Bulldogs 13-0 in the second half. Last year Fresno State blanked the Pack 12-0 in the second half on the way to a 40-20 victory in Reno.
The Pack, thanks to Thursday’s win, is now more than likely headed to a bowl game this year. The bigger prize — a West Division title and a spot in the Mountain West title game in December – is also still a possibility. The Wolf Pack trails San Diego State (5-0 in league play) by two games with three to play. The Pack will need to beat San Jose State (Nov. 14 in Reno) and Utah State (Nov. 21 on the road) and also needs San Diego State to lose to either Wyoming or UNLV (or both) the next two weeks to have a chance at a division title. The Wolf Pack plays at San Diego State in the regular season’s last game on Nov. 28.
“We have just one more month together,” Lyons said. “We want to make it special.”