One of the smallest players on the roster came up with arguably the biggest play of the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 30-20 victory over the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors Saturday afternoon at Mackay Stadium.
“It was all about timing,” said Wolf Pack kicker Brent Zuzo of his perfectly executed on-side kick at the end of the first half. “I like that one. It was cool.”
Zuzo’s play — he recovered his own on-side kick — led to a field goal and changed the momentum after a lifeless Pack team fell behind 17-0 in front of a homecoming crowd of 19,992. “That was the pivotal sequence there at the end of the half,” Pack head coach Brian Polian said. “We were down 17-0 and we cut it to 17-10 going into halftime. That was crucial, a real big lift for the team.”
The Wolf Pack, now 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the Mountain West, scored their 10 first-half points in a span of just 19 seconds with under two minutes to go in the half. James Butler scored on a 1-yard run to cut Hawaii’s lead to 17-7 and then Zuzo performed his sleight of foot. The trick play was set up by two personal fouls on Hawaii that allowed the Pack to kick off from the Hawaii 35-yard line. The first foul was on Hawaii’s Jerrol Garcia-Williams on Zuzo’s extra point after Butler’s touchdown. The second penalty was called on Hawaii head coach Norm Chow for arguing Garcia-Williams’ penalty.
“I’ve been on the other end of something like that and it’s not pretty,” said Polian of the penalty on Chow. “So I felt bad for Norm Chow. Before that penalty we were just going to pooch kick it down inside the 20. But then when they threw the flag on Norm and pushed the kick up to the 35-yard line we decided to on-side kick it. The worst that could have happened was we give them the ball at their own 25, like a touchback.”
Zuzo’s first on-side kick went to the left side but Hawaii called timeout, forcing Zuzo to kick again.
“We had no idea what we were going to do then” Zuzo said with a smile. “I think we had four different kinds of kicks in mind. But it ended up working well.”
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Zuzo, who scored 12 points on Saturday on three field goals and three extra points, then looked like a basketball point guard moving the ball up court. The junior kicker simply kicked the ball straight up the middle, followed it along the way until it went the required 10 yards and fell on it at the 23. Hawaii seemed to be stunned by the play despite the fact that they knew an on-side kick was coming. “They didn’t quite understand what was going on,” Zuzo said of Hawaii (2-6, 0-4). “We don’t practice it often. It’s just something we have on the shelf and if we need it, we just grab it. It’s not one of our normal kicks.”
The play led to a 40-yard Zuzo field goal and seemed to ignite the entire team. Butler finished with 134 yards rushing and two touchdowns, defensive end Ian Seau had a career-high four sacks and the Pack defense intercepted Hawaii quarterback Max Wittek three times. The Wolf Pack outscored the Rainbow Warriors 30-3 over the final 31-plus minutes. “For a while there it was ugly,” said Polian, referring to Hawaii’s early 17-0 lead. “But everybody kept their poise and nobody panicked.”
“Nothing really changed in the second half except our effort and our focus,” said linebacker Jordan Dobrich, whose fourth-quarter interception led to the final Pack touchdown.
“We went into the locker room at halftime and just said, ‘This is not how we want the game to end,’” tight end Jarred Gipson of the 17-10 deficit at the break. We came out, put our foot on the gas and never let go.”
Zuzo’s on-side kick wasn’t the only pivotal game-changing moment for the Pack. Running back Don Jackson’s frustrations with the 17-0 deficit, his lack of production (he had five yards over his first seven carries) and a lack of intensity by his teammates prompted the senior to call an impromptu team meeting late in the first half. “Me and J.B. (Butler) were talking on the sideline about how we needed to get the guys up,” Jackson said. “We were back in the same old position when guys were just watching.”
Jackson gave his teammates a much-needed pep talk on the sideline. “Don’s best play today was when be put everybody together on the sideline,” Polian said. “Something like that has to come from the players and they responded.”
Jackson’s passionate speech and Zuzo’s play were all the momentum the Pack needed going into their halftime locker room. “It changed the whole tempo of the team,” Jackson said. “Guys got locked in and they were ready to play.”
The Wolf Pack dominated the second half thanks to Butler’s running and Wittek’s errant throws. Dobrich, cornerback Elijah Mitchell and safety Asauni Rufus all had interceptions and Seau also recovered a fumble (that he forced) in addition to his four sacks. “Ian was great,” Polian said. “He was in their backfield today. A big-time playmaker sometimes needs to make a play and he is a big-time playmaker.”
Seau’s biggest play came on Hawaii’s final play from the Pack 17-yard line with under 90 seconds left in the game. Seau sacked Wittek for a 5-yard loss, forced a fumble and then recovered the loose ball to secure the Pack victory. “That was a fantastic play,” Polian said.
Seau had just three sacks this season before Saturday. All four of his tackles on Saturday were his sacks. “We’ve played a lot of teams this year that just run the ball and run the ball,” Polian said. “And when they throw the ball it’s a lot of quick passes so there isn’t a lot of opportunities for Ian Seau to show up in the stat sheet. Ian Seau is a pass rusher. Today he got a chance to put his mark on the game.”
“I’m not saying I was excited to play Hawaii but I was just relieved that we were going to play a team that was going to do more than just run the ball,” Seau said.
Wittek, in his first season at Hawaii after transferring from USC, completed 27-of-40 passes for 291 yards despite getting sacked five times and getting intercepted three times. The 6-4, 240-pounder, though, wore a huge brace on his left knee (he missed last week’s 28-27 loss at New Mexico because of a knee injury) and was unable to escape any sort of a pass rush. “I was happy that we were playing a team that liked to throw drop-back passes,” Seau said.
The Wolf Pack and Rainbow Warriors traded field goals in the third quarter. A 29-yard field goal by Zuzo cut Hawaii’s lead to 17-13 with 7:43 to play in the third quarter and a 47-yarder by Rigoberto Sanchez gave Hawaii a 20-13 lead three minutes later.
The Wolf Pack then took over the game in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Tyler Stewart, who completed 12-of-23 passes for just 128 yards and an interception on the afternoon, orchestrated his best drive of the day starting near the end of the third quarter. The 12-play, 75-yard drive, which tied the game at 20-20, ended in a 5-yard Stewart scoring pass to tight end Jarred Gipson. Stewart also completed a key 21-yard pass to wide receiver Hasaan Henderson for a first down at the Hawaii 18-yard line on a 3rd-and-11 play to keep the drive alive.
The final 10 Pack points were set up by interceptions. Rufus picked off Wittek on a badly thrown pass down the middle, giving the Pack the ball at the Hawaii 38-yard line with just under 13 minutes to play. Rufus’ play set up a 30-yard field goal by Zuzo as the Pack took its first lead of the game, 23-20 with 9:01 left. Dobrich then stepped in front of a Wittek pass intended for wide receiver Dylan Collie down the middle with just under four minutes left. The interception was Dobrich’s first in his four seasons at Nevada and gave the Pack the ball at the Hawaii 21.
“Some of my friends had a running joke that I didn’t even have my first career interception yet,” Dobrich said. “So after I got it and got back to the sideline I thought about that, that it was no longer a joke. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.”
It took the Pack offense just four plays to find the end zone after Dobrich’s interception. Butler did the honors from a yard out to give the Pack a 30-20 lead with 2:20 to play. “I can’t say how proud I am of James Butler,” Polian said. “All of his yards were real tough yards. He was moving piles and creating yards after contact.”
Butler averaged 4.8 yards on his 28 carries, finishing with 134 yards. Jackson rebounded in the second half to finish with 61 yards on 20 carries. The Pack finished with 244 yards rushing with 168 coming after halftime. “I know we weren’t explosive on offense,” Polian said. “But we felt we could grind them down by running the ball.”
“We just wanted to play smash-mouth football,” the 5-9, 200-pound Butler said. “We wanted to run downhill and control the game.”
“He’s a monster,” Jackson said of Butler. “A monster. That’s all there is to say about it.”
The Pack defense also did its part, holding Hawaii to just 34 yards rushing on 24 carries. The five sacks on Wittek added up to minus-27 yards off Hawaii’s rushing total. “When you can make a team one dimensional, you have a chance,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack also was a bit one-dimensional with Stewart and the passing game struggling most of the day. Stewart was sacked twice and was intercepted once, leading to the first of Wittek’s two touchdown passes (29 and 9 yards) to wide receiver Devan Stubblefield. But Butler and Jackson decided that it was up to them to lead the way with their production and their words. “Every game we try to be the leaders of the offense,” Butler said. “When we start slow like we did, it’s up to us to pick everybody up and put everybody on our backs.”
Hawaii has now lost 22-of-23 road games since Chow became head coach at the start of the 2012 season. Chow’s overall record fell to 10-35 and his record in Mountain West games dipped to 4-24. The Pack, which now will enjoy a bye week before playing at Fresno State on Nov. 5, has now won five games in a row against Hawaii. “We need the bye week badly,” Polian said. “We’re banged up and we just need to take a breath.”