Stefphon Jefferson has been waiting for Saturday night for over three years.
“Yes, definitely,” smiled the Nevada Wolf Pack running back. “Playing against Robbie Rouse always motivates me.”
Rouse, the best running back in Fresno State history, will be at Mackay Stadium Saturday night (7:30 p.m.) when the Bulldogs come to town to take on Jefferson and the Wolf Pack.
“They chose Robbie Rouse over me,” said Jefferson, who grew up in Visalia, Calif., dreaming of one day running the ball for nearby Fresno State.
This game is personal for Jefferson.
“They made their choice and they chose him,” Jefferson said. “So it’s kind of a motivating thing for me.”
Both Jefferson and Rouse played their high school senior seasons in 2008 and both were among the top running backs in the state of California. Jefferson rushed for 2,862 yards and 35 touchdowns for Diamante High in Visalia and Rouse ran for 2,632 yards and 37 touchdowns for James Madison High in San Diego.
“I didn’t know him back then,” Jefferson said. “I just knew he was a good running back.”
The Bulldogs recruited both Rouse and Jefferson but quickly made it known that they were going to sign Rouse to a Letter of Intent in February 2009.
“Once I found out they chose him over me I opened my mind to a lot of other schools,” Jefferson said. “And once I made my visit to Nevada I fell in love with it.”
Both Jefferson and Rouse enter Saturday’s Mountain West showdown (the Pack is 6-3 overall and 3-2 in league play and Fresno State is 7-3, 5-1) game as two of the top running backs in the nation.
Jefferson currently leads the nation with an average of 149 yards a game. His 1,341 total yards are second in the nation behind Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch, who has just one more yards). The 5-foot-11, 210-pounder also has 16 touchdowns this year to go along with seven 100-yard games.
Jefferson, who leads the nation with 271 carries in his first season as a starter, is also on pace to break the Wolf Pack’s single-season records for carries in a season (Frank Hawkins had 307 in 1980), yards (Chance Kretschmer had 1,732 when he led the nation in 2001) and rushing touchdowns (Colin Kaepernick had 20 in 2010).
Rouse is already the Bulldogs’ all-time leading rusher with a school-record 824 career carries and 4,258 yards. The 5-7, 190-pound Rouse, who played behind Ryan Mathews in 2009 and has started ever since, has 1,101 yards this year and 10 touchdowns and has 19 career 100-yard games (seven this year).
“It’s definitely a big challenge for me,” Jefferson said. “We’re both battling to become the best back in the nation.”
Jefferson has just one carry in his career against the Bulldogs and it didn’t go so well. He lost four yards on a carry in the third quarter of the Pack’s 45-38 win over the Bulldogs last year at Mackay Stadium.
“This is really the first time that I’m going to get to play a lot against them,” Jefferson said. “I’m excited.”
Rouse has already run the Pack ragged in his career.
He ran for 217 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-34 loss to the Pack in Fresno in 2010 and last year he ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns at Mackay Stadium. As a freshman in 2009 he had 19 yards on five carries. For his career he has run the ball 56 times for 408 yards and four touchdowns and has also caught four passes for 35 yards and another score against Nevada.
“We’ve seen Robbie for three years,” Pack head coach Chris Ault said. “He’s a quality running back.”
Jefferson couldn’t agree more.
“He’s shifty,” Jefferson said. “And he runs hard. When you watch him play, it gives you motivation because he proves that it doesn’t matter what size you are. If you run hard you can be a very good back.”
The Bulldogs-Wolf Pack match-up is also personal for the coaching staff.
The Bulldogs have three former Wolf Pack coaches on their staff in head coach Tim DeRuyter, tight ends coach Phil Earley and offensive line coach Cameron Norcross. DeRuyter was the Wolf Pack’s defensive coordinator in 2005-06, Norcross was a Pack assistant from 2001-11 and Earley was the Pack offensive coordinator from 2000-03.
Earley, who came from Idaho with Chris Tormey when Tormey was hired as the Pack head coach in 2000, coached with DeRuyter at Ohio in 2004. Norcross coached with DeRuyter in 2005-06 at Nevada.
“I was very grateful to Coach Ault for the opportunity to coach at Nevada,” said DeRuyter, who was the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M in 2010-11. “I think I left on good terms. I still communicate with him so I think everything is good.”
Ault isn’t the only current Pack coach who communicates with the Bulldogs staff. Current Wolf Pack defensive tackles coach Barry Sacks was the co-defensive coordinator with DeRuyter at Nevada in 2005 and 2006. Current Pack linebackers coach Ken Wilson coached linebackers under DeRuyter at Nevada and current Wolf Pack wide receivers coach Scott Baumgartner was also on the Pack staff with DeRuyter.
“We have some good friendships on that staff,” DeRuyter said. “So, to a certain extent, this game is a little more personal for some of our guys. But it’s like a brotherhood sort of thing. When you go out in your backyard and wrestle with your brother you still love them after the fact.”
The Wolf Pack needs to win its last three games against Fresno State, New Mexico and Boise State to have any chance at winning a Mountain West championship. Fresno State, Boise State, Air Force and San Diego State all have one fewer league loss than the Wolf Pack right now.
The Bulldogs will likely pose a serious challenge to the Pack defense, a unit that has allowed an average of 41 points a game over its last three games. In addition to Rouse, the Bulldogs also feature quarterback Derek Carr, who has passed for 3,070 yards and 30 touchdowns this year. Carr passed for 315 yards and three touchdowns last year against the Pack.
“They make you defend the entire field,” Ault said.
The Pack has not lost to Fresno State since 2007 (49-41 at Mackay Stadium) and has beaten the Bulldogs in five of the last seven meetings between the two schools after losing six games in a row from 1999-2004. A victory on Saturday will give the Pack its longest winning streak in the 89-year history of the rivalry. The Pack also won four in a row from 1923-26.
“It’s going to be a fun game to watch,” Jefferson said.