Christmas came a month early for the Utah State Aggies on Saturday.
The Nevada Wolf Pack stormed out to a 27-7 lead early in the third quarter only to give up 24 unanswered points in a stunning 31-27 loss to the Aggies in front of a delighted crowd of 18,922 at Maverik Stadium in Logan, Utah. The loss ended the Wolf Pack’s Mountain West championship hopes and snapped its three-game winning streak. The Wolf Pack is now 6-5 overall and 4-3 in the Mountain West. Utah State, which had lost three of its last four games before Saturday and appeared on its way to its fourth loss in the last five, becomes bowl eligible with the win and is now 6-5, 5-3.
The Wolf Pack, which will wrap up the regular season at West Division champion San Diego State next Saturday, invented a new way to lose a football game on Saturday. This is the first time the Wolf Pack has blown a lead of 20 or more points since it lost to Arizona 49-48 (the Pack led 21-0) in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl. The 27-7 lead on Saturday was the Pack’s first 20-point lead of the year and its first since a 28-6 lead against Southern Utah in the first game of the 2014 season.
The Wolf Pack seemed headed to the biggest victory in coach Brian Polian’s three seasons as head coach, especially after James Butler exploded for a 60-yard touchdown run for a seemingly comfortable 27-7 lead with 14:10 to play in the third quarter. Butler’s touchdown came on just the Pack’s second play of the second half and put him over 1,000 yards for the season. The Wolf Pack’s fortunes, though, turned sour immediately after Butler reached the end zone as Brent Zuzo’s extra point attempt was blocked.
The botched PAT was the first of many Wolf Pack mistakes the rest of the game.
The Pack built its 27-7 lead on defense (Utah State had just 78 yards in the first half) and an efficient offense. Linebacker Jordan Dobrich returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter. The Wolf Pack’s second interception, this time by linebacker Bryan Lane, led to a 2-yard scoring run by quarterback Tyler Stewart and a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter. Utah State seemingly couldn’t do anything right, even missing two short field goal attempts in the first quarter (29, 20 yards by Brock Warren)./
The Aggies, though, did get on the board with an electrifying 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Hunter Sharp, cutting the Pack lead to 14-7. But Butler capped an 11-play, 72-yard drive with a 33-yard touchdown with 2:16 to play to give the Pack a 21-7 halftime lead and his second score of the day, from 60 yards out, gave the Pack its 27-7 lead two plays into the third quarter.
All that remained to make the day perfect for the Pack, it seemed, was a UNLV victory over San Diego State late Saturday night, setting up a West Division title showdown for the Pack at San Diego State next Saturday. Utah State, though, spoiled the Pack fun with a lot of help from the Pack.
The Aggies went 75 yards for their first offensive touchdown of the day to cut the Pack lead to 27-14 on a 5-yard run by Devante Mays with 9:05 to play in the third quarter. The Aggies’ touchdown drive, though, nearly fell apart midway through the drive as quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who relieved starter Kent Meyers, fumbled the ball away after a hit by the Pack’s Ian Seau. Keeton, though, recovered the ball, setting up a 4th-and-1 at the Utah State 45. The Aggies picked up the all-important first down on an 8-yard run by Nick Vigil and also picked up two more first downs on the drive on a 6-yard run by Keeton and a 12-yard pass from Keeton to LaJuan Hunt, setting up Mays’ touchdown.
The Aggies scored again after a Wolf Pack punt to pull within 27-21 with 6:25 left in the third quarter. Mays, who shredded the Pack defense for 133 yards and two touchdowns, did the honors again, scoring from two yards out. He also had a key 35-yard run on the 68-yard drive and Keeton did his part with three straight completions, two for nine yards each to Sharp and one for 10 yards to Kennedy Williams.
The Pack offense, meanwhile, continued to flounder. The offense, which gained just 264 yards on the day, even wasted a golden opportunity created by the special teams. Utah State’s Andrew Rodriguez fumbled away yet another Pack punt, giving the ball back to the Pack (the fumble was recovered by the Pack’s Randy Uzoma) at its own 45. The Pack, offense, though, couldn’t do anything with the opportunity and had to punt once again.
It was a punt, oddly enough, by Utah State that turned out to be the most important play of the game. The Aggies, somewhat surprisingly, decided to punt on 4th-and-9 from the Wolf Pack 38 with just seven minutes to play and it paid off in a big way. The Aggies downed Aaron Dalton’s punt at the Wolf Pack 1-yard line. On the Pack’s first play from scrimmage, Stewart dropped the snap from center Nathan Goltry in the end zone. Utah State’s Kyrell Fackrell came up with the loose ball for an Aggies touchdown, giving Utah State a stunning 28-27 lead (after Jake Thompson’s extra point) with 6:55 to play.
The Pack then turned the ball over on downs as Jackson and Butler each failed to pick up a yard for a key first down at the Pack 44-yard line. Utah State, thanks to a 32-yard run by Mays, added a 42-yard field goal by Thompson for a 31-27 lead with 35 seconds to go. The Pack’s final drive ended in a lost fumble after three wild laterals on a short pass completion from Stewart to Hasaan Henderson.
The Wolf Pack’s 264 total yards on offense are its fewest since it had just 213 in a 16-3 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl to end last season. Stewart completed just 8-of-18 passes for 55 yards. More than half of Stewart’s completions (five) went to wide receiver Jerico Richardson for 42 yards. Butler finished with 139 yards on 17 carries and Jackson had 79 on 22 carries.
Utah State wasn’t much better on offense with 313 total yards. Keeton was 14-of-27 through the air for just 109 yards and one interception. Sharp caught seven passes for 51 yards but didn’t find the end zone (on offense). Keeton also scrambled 14 times for 52 important yards. Stewart, by comparison, had minus-8 yards on six carries.