RENO – It’s fair to say Nevada needed that one.
The 2016 season, stuffed with potential, was in jeopardy of completely derailing after losses in three of the previous four, including a head-scratching 38-17 loss at Hawaii last week.
The Wolf Pack (3-3, 1-1) didn’t dominate Fresno in Saturday’s Mountain West home opener in front of 22,411. It came down to a goal line stand with 30 seconds left after leading 21-6 at the half. But it escaped with a 27-22 win over the Bulldogs (1-5, 0-2).
“Before everybody starts focusing on the negative stuff that happened, we won the game,” fourth-year Nevada coach Brian Polian said. “Our defense bowed up and found a way to get a stop and we won the game … We blocked out all the negative stuff around us after a negative performance in Honolulu.
“At the end of the day, the don’t ask ‘how?’ They just ask ‘if? Did you win?’ And we found a way.”
Fresno marched down to the Nevada 4 with less than a minute left, setting up first and goal. Seemingly inexplicably, after running all over the Pack’s defense all night, the Bulldogs went to the air four straight times. Redshirt freshman Chason Virgil’s fourth down pass wasn’t near a receiver, harmlessly falling to the turf, salvaging Nevada’s season.
The Bulldogs entered averaging a conference-low 104.6 rushing yards per game. They won’t be in last place anymore. They ran for a season-high 255 yards on 48 carries (5.3 yards per carry) against Nevada’s struggling run defense.
“We got to stop the run better. We have to,” Polian said. “In college, you’ve got to stop the run. And we’ve got to do a better job.”
Fresno running back Dontel James accounted for 169 yards on 27 carries and one touchdown. His lone score with 5:08 remaining pulled the guests within 27-22. Virgil missed a wide open receiver on the two-point try that would’ve snuck Fresno within a field goal.
James Butler ran the ball three straight times on Nevada’s ensuing possession. A bad punt sent the Bulldogs up at their own 40 with 2:55 remaining, setting up Nevada’s goal line stand.
Butler finished with 175 yards on a career-high 37 carries.
The late buckle-up-and-hang on was set up by more struggles out of the locker room. Nevada was outscored 16-6 in the final two quarters and has now been outscored 93-44 in the third and fourth quarters this season.
“We run it. That’s who we are,” Polian said. “When you do that though, you can’t waste possessions with missed opportunities, short field goals, or not converting third and twos … I can’t tell you we played bad offensively in the second half.”
A trick play resulting in a 36-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Celis to Wyatt Demps put Nevada up 14-6 with 3:33 left in the first half. The touchdown was set up by a Fresno fumble.
Nevada won the turnover battle 2-1. It was the 17th straight time that the two teams met and the winner of the turnover battle, won the game.
Fresno punted on its next possession and Tyler Stewart engineered an 84-yard touchdown drive with 1:33 remaining.
The drive ended with a three-yard touchdown pass to Demps, who had the biggest game of his collegiate career.
He grabbed nine passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns.
His final touchdown grab proved to be the game winner. With a 21-16 lead following Fresno’s third field goal of the night, Nevada ran the ball 13 straight times to the Fresno 9.
Stewart then lofted a fade to Demps in the corner, where he made the athletic grab.
“How about 13 straight runs right down the field, eating up a ton of clock and finishing that drive with a touchdown?” Polian said. “That’s a great drive. That’s a man’s drive.”
The Pack took a 27-16 lead on the play. Brent Zuzo missed the PAT. He also missed a 24-yard field goal in the second quarter. He’s now just 4-of-8 for the season. Polian said he’s concerned about his senior kicker and he will “address it” starting Sunday.
He will also start addressing San Jose State.
Nevada will travel to play the Spartans (1-5, 0-1) next Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. kick.