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Oral history of the greatest comeback in college football history

Nevada
Nevada's 1991 team that pulled off the biggest comeback in college football history. (Nevada athletics)

The Wolf Pack football team entered its game against Weber State on Nov. 2, 1991 as the No. 1-ranked team in the country after beating rival Boise State, 17-14, the week prior to improve to 8-0. Weber State entered the game 5-2 and boasted future NFL quarterback Jamie Martin, who won the Walter Payton Award that season as the best player in Division I-AA. Nevada fell behind 49-14 before mounting the greatest comeback in NCAA history, a 35-point surge that netted Nevada a 55-49 victory, which remains the largest comeback in college football history (Michigan State tied the mark in a 2006 in a win over Northwestern).

On Saturday, Nevada hosts Weber State, its rival 28 seasons ago, at Mackay Stadium. It will be the third matchup between the teams since that 1991 thriller. Here is an oral history of the game I wrote on the 25th anniversary of the comeback with comments from Chris Ault, the Wolf Pack's Hall of Fame head coach; Chris Vargas, the quarterback known as “The Magic Man” who led the comeback; All-American linebacker Matt Clafton, a senior that season; future NFL offensive lineman Shar Pourdanesh, a junior on the team; and sophomore receiver Chris Singleton, who went on to a six-year MLB career.

***

Nevada opened the game without one of its star players.

Chris Ault: “Bryan Reeves was our star receiver and he missed curfew and I suspended him for the game and made him suit up but stay on the sideline. He was one of the best receivers to ever play at Nevada. He’s still one of my favorite players to this day. He was a lot of fun to be around and was a great, great player. When we announced at the team breakfast that he was suspended, you could see a little bit of not uneasiness but, ‘Oh, boy, we’re going to play a really good team over there.’”

Chris Vargas: “We were kind of shocked that he got suspended for the entire game. But you look at the depth of our receivers, we definitely missed having Bryan in there, but we knew we had guys like Joe King and Darrell King who could step up and make plays when they had to. Going into the game, I don’t think we looked at it like, ‘Oh, my, gosh, we’re playing Weber State.’ They weren’t a Boise State.”

Matt Clafton: “Weber State had been decent competition, but I don’t think we were overly worried or concerned about them. And the game was at Mackay Stadium and we didn’t lose at Mackay Stadium, so that cemented the case that it was just another home football game for us.”

Shar Pourdanesh: “We had a great team. Looking back on it, that was one of the best teams in Nevada history. We had a bunch of guys who played in the NFL. We had a great mix of talented players, of overachievers. It was a phenomenal team. We were all extremely confident going into that game.”

***

The Wolf Pack scored a touchdown on its opening drive to take a 7-0 lead, but Weber State responded with three touchdowns in a 4-minute, 33-second flurry to take a 21-7 lead 10 minutes into the contest.

Chris Ault: “Jamie Martin was a really good quarterback and they were a good team. We were good, too, but we went out and played really poorly in that first half. We were just flat – as flat as you could ever be.”

Matt Clafton: “The thing I remember about Jamie was he was a competitor. You could see it in the way he led his offense on the field, the way he carried himself. He’s one of the best I ever got the chance to play against.”

Chris Vargas: “I remember watching the first half and watching Jamie Martin throwing passes and that really felt like the invention of the back-shoulder throw. He threw it perfectly. He was really good.”

Shar Pourdanesh: “Weber State was no slouch. They had three great offensive players. They had an NFL quarterback. They had a tight end who played in the NFL, Alfred Pupunu. They had an All-American left tackle (Bruce Covernton) who played years in the CFL. They had a great running back (Geoff Mitchell). They had a high-powered offense.”

***

Fred Gatlin hit Singleton with a 64-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter to pull Nevada within 21-14, but Weber State blitzed the Wolf Pack with three more touchdowns in a span of 6:21, including two touchdowns in the final 2:22 of the half. Martin had 280 yards and three touchdowns in the first half.

Matt Clafton: “We had a great defense that year. I don’t know if it’s what we did wrong, but what Weber did right. If you go back and watch the film, you’re going to see Forey Duckett, Brock Marion, Reggie Robinson and Xavier Kairy as well as our linebackers all in great positions to make plays and this guy is threading the needle. I’m not saying we played the perfect game or perfect half, but it’s not like we were out of position and getting burnt left and right. They just played an incredible first half.”

Shar Pourdanesh: “We just started making stupid mistakes, me included, that didn’t enable our offense to score and their offense being the way they were, they were scoring a bunch of points.”

***

Late in the first half, Ault pulled Gatlin and put in Vargas, then a sophomore who earned “The Magic Man” nickname as a redshirt freshman after leading Nevada to some big comebacks, including two triple-overtime victories in the playoffs to get the Wolf Pack to the DI-AA title game. A perfect 45-yard spiral from Vargas was dropped near the goal line on his first series, spoiling a scoring chance.

Chris Singleton: “There was just something about Chris. He was so calm. When he was in the game, everybody relaxed. He made us all comfortable. He never panicked or rushed. He had a certain aura.”

Shar Pourdanesh: “Once he got in, he had that aura about him that was infectious.”

Chris Ault: “He was one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever had. We had Fred Gatlin, who was a good quarterback and certainly capable of winning a lot of games, which he did. But Varg, in terms of being a total quarterback and being able to throw the ball, was a better quarterback. He played his role, and that wasn’t necessarily to come in when you’re down 49-14, but to go in there and get the team back in stride and move the ball.”

Chris Vargas: “I was never really the rah-rah type of leader. I just wanted to lead by example and put my head down and try my best. I just felt the moment was never too big: take a deep breath, relax and have everything slow down. I talk with my kids about this. If you get hurt and you’re screaming and somebody comes to help you, do you want that person freaking out or do you want them calm and cool and to let you know everything is going to be all right? That’s how I felt in those situations. I didn’t want my teammates to worry. I wanted them to feel, ‘It’s OK. We’ve got this. Let’s just do what we practice.’”

***

Nevada walked to the locker rooms trailing 42-14 with Weber State set to receive the ball to open the second half. It was the largest halftime deficit the Wolf Pack had faced in years. The team expected an epic butt chewing from Ault.

Matt Clafton: “There aren’t a lot of times I remember walking into the locker room around Coach. A lot of times he was circling up with the offensive coordinator or talking to Varg or Gat. In that game, I remember walking into the locker room and Coach looking at me and saying, ‘Hey, Claf, we’ll be OK if we can just keep them from scoring.’ I remember that vividly. He was very calm.”

Chris Vargas: “I figured Coach was going to rip us a new one, but that was the most calm I’ve seen him at halftime. He was real matter of fact. I remember being so surprised he didn’t just tear us apart. A lot of times, even when we were winning at halftime and he didn’t think we were playing well, he would lay into us. He was a perfectionist. That's what made him such a good motivator and coach. You’d be, ‘We’re up 17 points, why is he yelling at us?’ But this time he was eerily calm.”

Chris Singleton: “He didn’t yell at us or anything. He was completely calm. He just said, ‘We’re not playing Nevada football. Let’s go play Nevada football.’ He didn’t even talk about the score or making a comeback or anything. We just weren’t playing well, and he wanted us to play up to our potential.”

Chris Ault: “I remember going into the locker room upset because I knew we were a better team, but I just said, ‘If nothing else but for the pride of this program we have to step up and claw our way back into this game.’ The coaching wasn’t any better than the playing up until that point. I just didn’t want us to embarrass ourselves. My thought was, ‘We’ve got to close the gap and see if we can get a chance.’”

***

Weber State opened the second half like it did the first: with a touchdown. The Wildcats drove 65 yards with Martin running in from 30 yards out to put Weber State up 49-14, its largest lead of the game at 35 points.

Chris Ault: “We go out there and let in the first touchdown, so it wasn’t like it was a great halftime talk.”

Matt Clafton: “It was a third-and-long situation and Jamie ended up scrambling and he takes off running and ends up in the northwest corner and I’m in a foot race trying to catch him and he had a little more on me than I could get and he ends up scoring the touchdown and I think to myself, ‘OK, we’re done.’”

Shar Pourdanesh: “They go down and score and it was, ‘Oh, God, the hole just got deeper.’ The feeling I recall having is, ‘I just want to get on the field. I know if we get on the field we’ll score. I just know it.’”

Chris Vargas: “They come out and take it right down the field like they did in the first half and it’s like, ‘Oh, great.’ I’m thinking, ‘Let’s just take it one play at a time, one snap at a time and try not to look at the big picture and get overwhelmed by the moment. Just score some points and make is respectable.’”

Shar Pourdanesh: “I remember the stadium being empty after that.”

Matt Clafton: “It was slim pickings in the stands."

Chris Ault: “I think the guys wanted me to put Bryan Reeves in the game. His buddies all went by him and they felt bad for him. I know deep down inside they all thought I’d put him in during the second half. But I wouldn’t have put him in if we were down 100-0. We were a championship program, and I felt it was important for them to understand we’re a team and everybody has to abide by the rules. Maybe some of the coaches thought, ‘In the second half, we’ll put him in,’ but that was never a thought for me.”

***

Vargas led a touchdown drive on the next series when he hit Darrell King on an 8-yard score. A blocked punt by future NFL player Brock Marion set up another score, an 11-yard pass to Joe King (the extra point was missed). That pulled Nevada within 49-27 entering the fourth, with Reeves’ backups doing the damage. Vargas then ran in a bootleg from 9 yards out to make it a 15-point game with 11:57 remaining.

Matt Clafton: “We started to inch our way back, and it’s kind of corny but we had that, ‘I think I can, I think I can’ mentality and that Mackay magic just started to brew itself up.”

Chris Singleton: “Football is a game of momentum and we had all of the momentum in the second half. You could feel the game turning and it was the same feeling we had in all of the comebacks the year before.”

Chris Ault: “You could feel it on the sideline that once the offense starting moving the ball, the defense had some key-timed takeaways after we’d score and you could feel the emotion and mood changing on the sideline. Whether they believed they could win or not was a different story. But they knew we were back in stride and the Wolf Pack football team that was really good was starting to play well.”

Chris Vargas: “I don’t think anybody thought we’d come back from down 35 points and win, but at some point when we were down by 21 or 14 points then you really started to believe it could be a possibility.”

***

Nevada running back Eric Smith blasted in from 3 yards out with 9:24 remaining to cut the deficit to 49-41. The Wolf Pack forced four Wildcats turnovers, including two interceptions of Martin, in the second half in addition to the blocked punt. Nevada recovered a fumble and drove 39 yards for another Smith touchdown, a 2-yard plunge, to make it 49-47 with 1:33 remaining, but a 2-point conversion attempt was batted down at the line of scrimmage. It appeared Nevada’s comeback would fall short. Then came a last-ditch onside kick.

Chris Vargas: “Forey Duckett recovers the onside kick and it just felt like, ‘You know what? The way this thing is going, we’re probably going to get this onside kick.’ You just felt the momentum going our way.”

Matt Clafton: “That’s a low-conversion play, probably a 5 percent play, but it was incredible. There was a pass interference that ended up getting called against Weber late in the game that could have gone against us, too. There was something magical about that game and magical about Mackay Stadium.”

***

On the second play after the onside kick, Vargas hit Singleton on a 45-yard post route to move the ball to the Weber State 3-yard line. Singleton caught eight passes for 225 yards, the third most in Wolf Pack history at the time.

Chris Singleton: “That’s the one play I remember the most from the game. It was just a post and Chris threw a great ball and that was the moment I knew we were going to win the game.”

Chris Ault: “He was as smooth as silk catching that ball.”

Chris Vargas: “It was a play where Chris runs the post on the outside and our tight end, Scott Benning, runs a 12-yard curl route in the middle. We ran that play a lot and the ball always went to Scott because he was always open. We break the huddle and I said, ‘Hey, Chris, if the safety cheats up, I’m going to you.’ Sure enough the free safety comes up and Chris gets behind him and makes a great catch to the 3-yard line.”

***

On the next play, Smith blasted in from 3 yards out over the left side to give Nevada a 55-49 lead with 1:02 remaining. Weber State then crossed midfield but Marion recovered a fumble with 17 seconds left to seal the 35-point comeback. Nevada scored the game’s final 41 points and the comeback took just 10 minutes, 21 seconds worth of time of possession. Vargas finished with 346 yards and two touchdowns, almost all in the second half.

Chris Ault: “Varg was spectacular.”

Chris Vargas: “What gets lost is how well the defense played in the second half after that first drive. The turnovers they got, the three-and-outs they got to give us the opportunity to go down there and score some points. I think that gets lost. People look at how many points we scored in the second half to come back and win, but we wouldn’t have had that opportunity if the defense didn’t play like it did.”

Shar Pourdanesh: “It was absolute mayhem after the game. The entire time you’re confident you can do it and you know you’re capable of doing it but everything had to come together, especially against a team like that. I’ve been involved with a lot of teams in the CFL and the NFL. I’ve never been around a team that was grittier than that one. That was a once-in-a-lifetime team, a fairy tale team. The mindset we had was, ‘We’re not going to be beat. We’re not going to lose. We believed that to the core of our soul.’”

Chris Vargas: “Pure euphoria. It was amazing. In the moment, you were so excited and really couldn’t put it into words. I still can’t to this day explain what it felt like in the moment. I sit back and think of what had to go right to make that comeback happen. The defense comes up with a ton of turnovers, the onside kick, all of the contributions by everybody on the offense. It had to be the perfect storm.”

***

The legend of that game has grown over time. The official attendance was 21,031 but that total had dwindled after the poor first half. Today, many more than that 21,031 claim to have been at the game.

Chris Ault: “If you talk to people in Reno they’ll tell you about 30,000 were there. They almost all left, and I couldn’t blame them. After the game is over and we won it and you go to the Quarterback Club the next week, people came up and said, ‘I was one of the few that stayed there.’ I was, like, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

Chris Vargas: “I still talk to a lot of people who say, ‘I was at that Weber State game.’ As many people who say that, you’d expect 40,000 people were there. I do remember a lot of people saying they left and walked over to ‘The Wal’ and had a beer and all of a sudden they heard the cannon go off and the cannon go off again and they ran back over and came back into the stadium to watch the end.”

Chris Singleton: “People ask me what my favorite memory was in college and that’s the game. It wasn’t anything in baseball or playing for a national title. It was that comeback. I’ll never forget the feeling we all had after that game. It felt like we did the impossible.”

Chris Ault: “We didn’t know right after the game that it was the greatest comeback in football history, including the NFL. I just knew those guys showed a lot of pride. There were so many heroes that day. You always tell your team to make a memory. That was a great football team and, oh boy, did they make a memory. Someday that record might be broken, but not any day soon. It was a special group and a special time in the program’s history. That game is a tribute to the character and the pride that team and those players had in their football and certainly the confidence they had in each other.”

***

Nevada beat Montana in double overtime the next game and finished the regular season 10-0. The top-seeded Wolf Pack beat McNeese State, 22-16, in the first round of the FCS playoffs before losing a heart-breaker to Youngstown State, 30-28, in the quarterfinal when a 27-yard field goal attempt by kicker Rick Schwendinger sailed wide left as time expired, ending the Wolf Pack's magical campaign. Nevada finished the season 12-1; Youngstown State went on to win the national championship. Nevada and Weber State have played twice since then, in 1992 and 1993 when the FCS Wildcats upset the FBS Wolf Pack on both matchups. Saturday marks their first battle since 1993.

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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