RENO—Question marks come with every team’s season opener. This year was no exception for Nevada entering the first contest of the year Thursday night at Mackay Stadium against UC Davis, an FCS foe.
The question gathering most attention was at quarterback. Junior Tyler Stewart earned the starting job in fall camp and was asked, at least on Thursday night, to fill the void left by Cody Fajardo.
Question answered, at least for a game.
Stewart was crisp with his decision making, and particularly precise with his arm in the first half, as Nevada won its opener, 31-17, in front of 21,483. It was the second-straight year the Pack topped an FCS opponent in the opener after besting Southern Utah a season ago.
“I loved (Stewart’s) composure. I loved his leadership,” Nevada third-year coach Brian Polian said. “I thought he was decisive. I thought he showed good pocket presence. I was very pleased. There’s not much to be upset about with Tyler.”
Stewart finished 13-of-20 passing for 163 yards and a touchdown. In the first half alone, Nevada’s signal caller completed 9-of-10 passes for 106 yards and a 2-yard touchdown toss to tight end Jarred Gipson that pushed the host’s early lead to 21-0 with 4:13 left in the first half.
“I have high expectations of myself and the offense so I mean it’s not any surprises I would say,” Stewart said. “I just try to go out there and play. I don’t think about trying to be perfect or what not.”
Question marks also loomed about Nevada’s young offensive line composed of two sophomores and three juniors. With the exception of two drive-stalling sacks allowed on Nevada’s first two possessions of the third quarter, The Union gave Stewart time to throw and running backs Don Jackson and James Butler holes to run through much of the night.
Jackson ran for 124 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns on just 13 touches. It was his fifth career 100-yard game. Butler ran for 65 yards on 14 touches as the Wolf Pack racked up 232 rushing yards as a team.
Polian was hesitant to praise the young front and said there are things to clean up, including a couple holding calls that led to stalled drives in the second half.
As sharp as the offense looked most of the night against a weak UC Davis team that finished last in the Big Sky a season ago, the defense was dominant.
Nevada’s defense, which will be asked to carry the load as a reminder of Chris Ault’s absence, held UC Davis to 327 total yards offense, 144 of which came in two fourth-quarter garbage time drives, on 74 plays (4.4 yards per play).
Polian was critical of his defensive unit for allowing a couple chunk plays on screen passes, saying it shouldn’t happen in man coverage, but overall was pleased with the defensive effort.
The Aggies were held to one first-half field goal and did not find the end zone until Ben Scott hooked up with wide out Ramon Vargos from five yards out on fourth down at the 6:56 mark in the fourth quarter. The touchdown cut Nevada’s lead to 24-10 but Stewart, not known for his legs, busted a 16-yard touchdown run 1:45 later to rebuttal, juking a defender to the turf.
“Oh my gosh. I can’t wait until we get to the film room,” Jackson laughed. “That’s going to be hilarious to see. I looked like a 13-year-old girl seeing *NSYNC or something.”
Stewart carried the ball nine times for 43 yards, including his fourth-quarter touchdown.
The junior led touchdown drives of 75 yards, 80 yards and 78 yards on Nevada’s first three possessions of the night, and season, as the Pack jumped to a 21-0 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Scott accounted for the final touchdown of the night, scrambling from two yards out with two seconds remaining.
It’s now on to No. 22 Arizona (1-0), which comes to Mackay Stadium next Saturday. The Wildcats snuck past the Wolf Pack 35-25 in Tucson last season.
“Lord knows we’re going to have to get better because we have a very, very good Pac-12 opponent, ranked Pac-12 opponent, coming in here next weekend,” Polian said.
Kickoff next Saturday is at 4 p.m.
Redshirt-freshman quarterback Hunter Fralick, a Spanish Springs product, made his Nevada debut late in the fourth quarter. Fralick was a couple feet tall on his first pass and missed his other two deep passes on the drive before turning the ball over on downs in UC Davis territory. The drive was hampered by a second-down holding call … Wide receivers Brayden Sanchez and Hasaan Henderson both left the game with injuries and did not return. Sanchez suffered an injury away from the ball in the first half with what Polian described as “a knee.” His status is unclear. Henderson was helped off after a brutal collision in the end zone running a slant route in the third quarter. Polian said the wide out took a shot to the ribs and couldn’t speculate as to his status but believes Henderson will be fine … Polian took particular notice of how UC Davis coach Ron Gould chose to end the game, calling three timeouts in the final minute before scoring a touchdown with two seconds left. “I can only imagine if I called all those timeouts, with the game at hand and no chance to win it and your quarterback gets killed,” Polian said. “That’s a half yard away from your quarterback taking a vicious shot in the last drive of a game that means nothing. I don’t necessarily agree with how the end of the game went down.”