The Nevada Wolf Pack will be looking for some payback Thursday night (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Bulldog Stadium.
“Last yearn if we beat them, we probably would have been playing for the Mountain West championship,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said. “And they beat us thoroughly. I haven’t forgotten that. That game still bothers me a lot.”
Fresno State came to Mackay Stadium last Nov. 22 and beat the Wolf Pack 40-20. The Pack turned the ball over four times as Fresno State scored the last 19 points of the game. A Nevada victory that night in addition to a win over UNLV the following week (the Pack did win at UNLV, 49-27) would have given the Wolf Pack the West Division title and a spot in the conference title game last December. “All our games are important,” Pack defensive tackle Rykeem Yates said. “But there is something special about this one. Last year if we would have beaten those guys we would have gone to the championship game and we didn’t get it done.”
A West Division title will not be on the line Thursday night. Fresno is just 2-6 overall and 1-4 in conference play while the Pack is 4-4, 2-2 and needs a lot of help to catch first-place San Diego State (6-3, 5-0). The lack of a division title as the prize, though, doesn’t diminish the importance of beating Fresno State for the Wolf Pack. “I don’t like those guys at all,” said Yates, who graduated from Fresno’s Edison High. “I never did.”
The Wolf Pack has lost three consecutive games to the Bulldogs, turning the ball over nine times in the three losses combined. The Pack’s last win over the Bulldogs was 45-38 in 2011 in Reno in quarterback Cody Fajardo’s freshman year. The Pack hasn’t won at Fresno since quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s senior year in 2010 (35-34). “It bothers a lot of people in this program that we haven’t beaten them in a while,.” Wolf Pack quarterback Tyler Stewart said. “We want to get this one for our seniors.”
“Everyone wants to win this game,” Pack linebacker Matt Lyons said. “We had a big opportunity against them last year and didn’t get it.”
Fresno State, which leads the 92-year-old series with the Pack 27-18-1, is also looking forward to Thursday night. This is the 18th consecutive season that the Pack and Bulldogs have met (Fresno is 11-6 against the Pack since 1998). “We have a great rivalry,” said Fresno head coach Tim DeRuyter, who was the Wolf Pack’s defensive coordinator in 2005 and 2006. “Our guys look at Nevada as one of those red letter dates on the schedule.”
Fresno State, though, might be headed to its worst season in almost four decades. The Bulldogs are in jeopardy of winning fewer than four games in a season for the first time since it went 3-8 in 1978. DeRuyter, who is 3-0 against the Wolf Pack (Polian is 0-2 against Fresno), has lost 16 of his last 25 games to fall to 28-20 as the Bulldogs head coach since taking over the program in 2012. He started 19-4 at Fresno, winning 17-of-19 games at one point, but is stuck in the middle of a rebuilding season this year. The Bulldogs have had 29 players play in their first college game this year and their 19 first-time starters are the fourth most in Division I this season. “You can take it one of two ways,” DeRuyter said. “You can feel sorry for yourself and hang your head or you can further your resolve and get better and improve.”
The Bulldogs, DeRuyter said, haven’t thrown in the towel. “Guys are not giving in and not quitting,” he said. “We just haven’t been good enough to execute and finish things.”
Not much has gone right for the Bulldogs this year. On Monday, freshman wide receiver Chris Pryor, a walk-on player who hasn’t even played a game this year, was arrested less than an hour before practice for making criminal threats on social media. Earlier this year quarterback Zack Greenlee and linebacker Brandon Hughes were arrested on misdemeanor charges stemming from a house party. “When you look at our record and some of the things that have happened, you would think that our locker room is dead and everybody was mad at each other,” defensive lineman Todd Hunt said. “But we’re all just trying to stay positive.”
The Bulldogs’ only two victories this year have been against Abilene Christian (34-13 in the season opener) and UNLV (31-28 on Oct. 16) and their six losses have come by an average of 30.5 points. Fresno is also ranked 10th in the 12-team Mountain West in scoring (21.0 points a game), 12th in points allowed (40.9 a game), 11th on offense (296.8 yards a game) and 11th on defense (444.1 yards a game). A big reason for the Bulldogs’ problems this year have been injuries, especially at quarterback. The Bulldogs, who just two years ago had future Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, are on their fourth starting quarterback this year. Freshman Kilton Anderson, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound freshman, has started the last three games and will start against the Pack. Greenlee, a sophomore, has started three games while freshman Chason Virgil and junior Ford Childress both started one game each. “They’ve had a lot of injuries to their quarterbacks and as a coach I’m sympathetic to that,” Polian said.
Polian has had fewer starting quarterbacks (three) in his 33-game Pack head coaching career than DeRuyter has had to deal with in just the first eight games this year. Polian’s quarterback starters have been Fajardo (23 games), Stewart (nine) and Devin Combs (one). “When you get beat up at quarterback it can be difficult to deal with,” Polian said.
Anderson has completed 43-of-91 passes for 482 yards with four interceptions and just one touchdown. His best outing was against UNLV when he passed for 193 yards and ran for 78 yards and two scores. “He has a toughness about him,” said DeRuyter, who also has a pair of former Wolf Pack assistants (wide receivers coach Phil Earley and offensive line coach Cameron Norcross) on his staff. “He has resolve. If there are tough times he’s going to fight his way out.”
DeRuyter had a record of 20-6 over his first two seasons at Fresno State when Carr was his quarterback but has gone 8-14 since Carr has been with the Raiders the last two seasons. The lack of stability at quarterback is a big reason why the Fresno State offense centers around 5-11, 215-pound senior running back Marteze Waller. Waller, who had 46 yards on six carries against the Pack last year, has 660 yards and four touchdowns this year. “Waller is their best player,” Polian said. “He’s a great back. He’s a big guy, a physical runner. He’ll break more tackles than he makes people miss.”
The Pack has two runners with more yards than Waller this year. James Butler has 756 yards while Don Jackson has 674. “We know those two backs can hit any hole at any time and break a long run,” Fresno State defensive lineman Todd Hunt said of Butler and Jackson. “But I love challenges. So bring it on.”
The Wolf Pack’s challenge is to contain Waller and make Anderson throw the ball. “When you have quarterback issues like they have, you want to make them one dimensional,” Polian said. “You want to take Waller away and make them beat you by throwing the ball.” DeRuyter is well aware of what teams have tried to do against his Bulldogs. “We’ll try to throw the football,” he said. “When they take away your run game, you have to catch the ball and you have to make throws. We know we have to throw the football to get them to back off and not load the box (against the run). ”
Both the Pack and Bulldogs are coming off a bye week. The Pack, which needs two more victories to become bowl eligible, beat Hawaii 30-20 on Oct. 24 while Fresno lost to Air Force (42-14) the same day. The Wolf Pack on Thursday will be looking for its first two-game winning streak since it won three in a row from Oct. 18 through Nov. 1 last year. “We’ve bee a little too roller coaster, up and down,” said Stewart, who has passed for 1,402 yards and 11 touchdowns this year.
“If you want to be a real good team you have to play at a high level on a consistent basis and we haven’t done that,” Polian said.
The last time the Pack played at Fresno State there was 41,031 fans in the stands. Fresno State won that night at Bulldog Stadium, 41-23, to improve to 8-0 on the year as Carr passed for 487 yards and three touchdowns. The Wolf Pack is expecting a crowd on Thursday night a lot closer to the 25,604 that showed up for the Bulldogs’ last home game, a 31-28 win over UNLV on Oct. 16. “It’s a hostile environment,” Yates said. “At least it was the last time I went (in 2013). But they were winning then.”
“I like playing there,” Lyons said. “Their fans are crazy.”