The Nevada football team has six fifth-year seniors.
Their names are Malik Reed, Korey Rush, Asauni Rufus, Kalei Meyer, Lucas Weber and Trae Carter-Wells.
They are the lone holdovers from the last time Nevada had beaten San Diego State, a 2014 contest in which all six of those players were redshirting freshmen and didn’t see the field. A lot has changed since that game. Cody Fajardo quarterback Nevada that night. Brian Polian was the team’s head coach.
But the holdovers who were on the sideline that season remembered the feeling. They longed for it. The previous three years dealt them lopsided losses to SDSU, by 17 points in 2015, by 30 points in 2016 and by 19 points in 2017. This was their last chance to beat a top-tier Mountain West program, to bury those previous defeats and prove this team is different, is better, is worth watching. That this is a new Wolf Pack, one that can not only beat bad teams but also good ones.
“The young guys don’t understand how big a of a deal this is because they haven’t lost over and over to these guys,” Rush said after Nevada’s 28-24 upset of SDSU before 14,545 fans at Mackay Stadium on Saturday night. “We blew Boise, we blew Fresno, we could have won those. Getting this one was really big for us.”
How big? When asked where this win ranked during his five years at Nevada, Rush did not hesitate.
“No. 1,” he said with an incredulous look.
Fellow seniors like Reed and quarterback Ty Gangi agreed on the importance of the victory, which might be the biggest of the program since the 2010 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl victory over Boston College, and that’s not stretching it. The Wolf Pack might have fallen short against rivals Fresno State and Boise State earlier this month, but it put SDSU in the same bucket as far as importance of victory before the game. It then delivered.
“They’re a top-tier opponent in the Mountain West and always in the running for a Mountain West championship,” said Gangi, who threw for 235 yards and two scores while leading the offense to a turnover-free game. “It was nice to be able to not just compete with them this year but to come out with a win. It was a goal for us this year to come out with a win over a top-tier team in our conference.”
This was Nevada’s last chance to do so, and the victory put the Wolf Pack (5-4, 3-2) one win away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2015 while snapping SDSU (6-2, 3-1) six-game winning streak and knocking the Aztecs out of first place in the West Division.
“They’re a little new to the teams in this league," Reed said of his younger teammates, "so they don’t know how big it us. We’ve seen this team for five years. We beat them my redshirt year, but we haven’t beaten this team. They’re at the top and everybody’s been trying to beat them, knock them off the mountain. They probably don’t realize it right now, but we know how big this is.”
The Wolf Pack was out-played in many facets. It was out-rushed 173 yards to 62 yards. It was out-passed 283 yards to 235 yards. It was out-gained by 159 yards and nearly doubled up in first downs (14 to 24). But Nevada’s special teams were stellar – punter Quinton Conaway averaged 51.1 yards per attempt and pinned SDSU inside the 2-yard line twice, both being gigantic plays. The Wolf Pack also had a plus-two turnover margin, and the offense took advantage of some fortuitous field position.
In the end, it came down to Nevada’s defense being on the field for the final possession needing one stop to seal the win. It was the same situation it faced against Oregon State and Air Force, the Wolf Pack succeeding both times. The same was true Saturday when SDSU’s Hail Mary on the final play was batted down at the goal line.
“I think that just shows how far our team has come,” said Rush, who wore a boot for a sprained foot after the win. “I was walking down the sideline saying, ‘Winning teams win these games.’ That’s really a decision: ‘Are we going to be winners or we going to be losers?’ In the past, we would have lost the game, we would have done something stupid, probably would have given up a Hail Mary or something and said, ‘That’s Nevada.’ I’m glad we closed this game out and did what we were supposed to.”
Second-year head coach Jay Norvell summoned the name of his old coach, Wisconsin legend Barry Alvarez, when talking about the win. Alvarez used to tell his team, “It doesn’t have to be perfect.” You know you have a good team when you can beat a quality opponent, albeit one without its starting quarterback and star running back like the Aztecs were Saturday night, when playing less-than-optimal football. Nevada did that to SDSU, its grit, determination and ability to rise for the big plays knocking off the Aztecs.
Perhaps the only disappointment for Nevada was the crowd, which was announced at 14,545 – the lowest since Polian’s final home game in 2016 – but was more likely around 9,000. For a team that has fought hard, that has shown improvement and that Saturday night delivered its biggest win in several years, that has to be a disheartening for the players and coaches who poured themselves into this season.
“I just think this is a fun team to watch,” Norvell said when asked about barren stadium. “We can score, our kids are playing really hard. I think people will eventually come. I hope they come out for the Colorado State game (the final home game of the season) because these kids are playing for more stakes every time we win, and we want the stakes to keep rising. We appreciate the support that we have gotten and we encourage people to come out and support these kids. They’re working awfully hard.”
And that hard work is paying off, the Wolf Pack getting a much-needed bye this weekend before finishing the regular season with games against Colorado State, San Jose State and UNLV, who are a combined 6-19. An eight-win regular season is very much a possibility for this program that won just three games last year.
“That would be amazing,” Reed said. “We've never won eight games since I’ve been here. That would just set up our season for success and set the next team up for success and show you how great of a team we’ve been, No matter how many downfalls we’ve had throughout the year, this is a good football team that competes each and every weekend. An eight-win season would be great and set us up for a great bowl game, and I’m happy for each and every one of our guys.”
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.