Brian Polian wants everyone to know once again that his Nevada Wolf Pack will take on a team that is better than its record would indicate.
“I can’t explain the 5-5,” said the Wolf Pack coach, referring to the Utah State Aggies’ record. “They’re better than that.”
The Aggies (5-5, 4-3), which will host the Wolf Pack (6-4, 4-2) Saturday afternoon (12:30 p.m.) in Logan, Utah, have indeed at times been better than a .500 record would suggest. They destroyed Boise State (52-26), Wyoming (58-27), Colorado State (33-18) and Fresno State (56-14). But the rollercoaster Aggies have also lost three of their last four games to fall to fourth place in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West. “They’ve been a little inconsistent lately,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack has been very consistent lately, winning its last three games. The Pack closed out its home schedule last week with an emotional 37-34 overtime win over San Jose State and now must close out the season away from Mackay Stadium with games at Utah State and San Diego State (Nov. 28). The Pack, which became bowl eligible by beating San Jose State, trails San Diego State by two games with two to play. Any Wolf Pack loss or San Diego State victory over the last two weeks will eliminate the Pack from the West Division title chase. “It’s a challenge that we’re ready for,” Wolf Pack running back Don Jackson said. “I love playing on the road. It’s the ‘us against the world’ factor and that plays to our advantage.”
The Wolf Pack and Aggies have not met since the Pack lost in Logan 21-17 in 2011 when both teams were in the Western Athletic Conference. Utah State and Nevada have been in the same conference for 18 of the last 24 years. They were both in the Big West from 1992-1999, the WAC from 2005-11 and the Mountain West the last three years. The Wolf Pack owns a 17-5 record against the Aggies in the 111-year-old rivalry (12-3 since 1992) and is also 9-3 in Logan.
Utah State, though, has the nation’s third-longest winning streak at home at 13 games. The Aggies have also won 22 of its last 24 games at home, including 10 Mountain West home games and 15 of the last 16. “We don’t game plan any less, we don’t practice any less and our preparation isn’t any less when we go on the road,” Utah State head coach Matt Wells said. “These last two games (losses at New Mexico on Nov. 7 and Air Force, 35-28, last week), we just didn’t make plays at the end.”
“I anticipate we’ll see a very motivated Utah State team,” said Polian, who would even up his career head coaching record (now 17-18) with a victory on Saturday.
There will be plenty at stake on Saturday in Logan. A victory will clinch second place for the Wolf Pack in the West Division and keep their championship dreams alive depending on what San Diego State does at UNLV on Saturday night. Utah State, which will close out its conference schedule on Saturday, also needs one more victory to become bowl eligible for the fifth consecutive season and to remain in the hunt for second place in the Mountain Division.
Utah State features a big-play offense that centers around quarterback Kent Myers and wide receiver Hunter Sharp. Myers, the Offensive Most Valuable Player in the Aggies’ 21-6 New Mexico Bowl win over UTEP last year, has passed for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns and has rushed for 343 yards and three touchdowns. Sharp has caught 46 passes for 595 yards and seven touchdowns. Myers (9-4 as a starter in his career) and Sharp connected 13 times for 193 yards and three touchdowns in a loss at Air Force last weekend. Myers, a 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore, also passed for 364 yards and four scores against Air Force. “They are unbelievable in terms of creating explosive plays,” Polian said. “Hunter Sharp is electric. He makes plays every week.”
The Aggies, though, have struggled to run the ball lately. Their leading rusher, Devante Mays, has just 655 yards this year. The Aggies also rushed for fewer than 100 yards in each of their last two losses at New Mexico (78 yards) and Air Force (75) without a rushing touchdown in either game. The Wolf Pack, by comparison, has two running backs that could go over 1,000 yards for the season on Saturday. James Butler is at 994 yards and Jackson is at 901. “When we run the ball well we win games,” Jackson said. “If we can be the heartbeat of the offense, most of the time we win that game.”
Utah State’s Wells is well aware of Jackson and Butler. “When I look at that team I see two real good backs,” Wells said. “They can throw the ball, too. But it’s about those two 1,000-yard running backs.”
In addition to creating big plays on offense the Aggies’ success this year also has hinged on big plays on defense. In their signature win this year over Boise State they forced eight turnovers. Since that game, however, the Aggies have forced just one turnover over the last four games (losing three of the games). “It’s hard to put your finger on why you get them (turnovers) and sometimes why there is a drought,” Wells said. “We’re not doing anything differently. They just haven’t come.”
Utah State’s defense is led by linebacker Nick Vigil, who leads the Mountain West with 118 tackles. The 6-2, 235-pound Vigil, also has 11.5 tackles for a loss. The Aggies also feature 6-5, 250-pound linebacker Kyler Fackrell, who has 63 tackles and 13 tackles for a loss. The Aggies’ defense is fourth in the Mountain West in points allowed (24.6 a game) and in yards allowed (341.8 a game). “Vigil might be the best linebacker in the league,” Polian said.
“They have a lot of guys (on defense) that have played a lot of football,” said Wolf Pack quarterback Tyler Stewart, who has a74 career record as a starter. “They know where they need to be on every play.”
The Wolf Pack, with two regular season games, a likely bowl game and a possible Mountain West title game remaining, is hoping to become just the second team in school history to finish a season with a winning streak of six games or longer. The 2010 team won its last seven in a row. No other Pack team won more than five in a row to close out a season. Polian, though, isn’t so sure the Pack has wrapped up a bowl invitation just yet.
“There was a time a couple weeks ago when I thought six (wins) would assure a bowl spot but I’m not sure that’s the case right now,” He said. “I really don’t know. There are so many moving parts. I’d just like to go win number seven and not have to worry about it. But, to be honest, we’re not talking about that right now.”