As far as the Nevada Wolf Pack football team is concerned, the bowl season starts Saturday afternoon at Mackay Stadium.
“It’s going to be a big-game atmosphere with big-game excitement,“ said Wolf Pack linebacker Albert Rosette of the Pack’s regular season finale against Boise State at Mackay Stadium on Saturday (12:30 p.m.).
“The Boise game is always a big game for us, always has been and always will be,” Pack coach Chris Ault said.
Boise State is currently ranked No. 20 in the BCS standings and No. 25 by the Associated Press and the Broncos are a big reason why Saturday’s game will be broadcast nationally on ABC television. Boise State (9-2, 6-1) needs a victory to claim a share of the Mountain West championship along with Fresno State and San Diego State. The Pack (7-4, 4-3) needs a victory to finish in a tie with Air Force for fourth place.
“I’m going to do everything I can to send our seniors out with a win,” Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said, referring to the 16 seniors who will be playing the final home game of their Wolf Pack careers.
“I don’t really like those guys over there,” said senior wide receiver Brandon Wimberly, who played in the game against the Broncos in 2010. “But they’ve always been good and it’s always been a big game for us.”
“Boise is a great football team, arguably the best in the conference” said Ault, who has an 8-17 career record against the Broncos.
The Broncos, who have lost to Michigan State (17-13 on Aug. 31) and San Diego State (21-19 on Nov. 3) this season, were arguably the best team in the Western Athletic Conference two years ago when they made their most recent trip to Mackay Stadium. The Wolf Pack, though, pulled off the stunning upset of the then No. 3-ranked Broncos, 34-31, in overtime in what Ault and most everyone connected to the university called the greatest victory in school history.
“That was two years ago,” Ault said. “That’s out of our minds.”
It’s not out of the Broncos’ minds. The loss, after all, is arguably the worst in Boise State’s history and robbed them of a BCS bowl invitation and a possible spot in the national title game. The Broncos still remember the Wolf Pack fans storming the field immediately after Anthony Martinez’s game-winning field goal in overtime and a Boise media member reminded Boise head coach Chris Petersen this week of a photo that showed a Wolf Pack fan yelling at a Bronco player on the field.
“Situations like that are unfortunate,” Petersen said. “But it’s part of the game. And we don’t play their fans. We play the team on the field. So if we’re worried and paying attention to the fans then we’re worried and paying attention to the wrong thing.”
Two years has made a big difference in the makeup of both teams. The Broncos will start just two players (fullback Dan Paul and cornerback Jamar Taylor) on Saturday who started in the game at Nevada two seasons ago. The Pack has six players who started in 2010 and are likely going to start this weekend: safeties Duke Williams and Marlon Johnson, offensive linemen Jeff Nady and Chris Barker and Wimberly and tight end Zach Sudfeld. Both quarterbacks on Saturday — Boise’s Joe Southwick and Fajardo — will be making their first start in the rivalry.
Petersen, though, says the game with Nevada hasn’t lost any of its intensity and meaning despite the drastic overhaul of both team’s rosters. “We know what we’re going to get against these guys,” Petersen said of the Wolf Pack. “It’s just kids playing hard against each other. Our guys came back from the bye week this week focused and energized and that’s a credit to Nevada. Our guys know they have a big game on their hands.”
The Broncos will once again bring one of the top defenses in the nation to face the Wolf Pack. Boise State is ranked eighth in the nation in total defense, allowing just 293.3 yards a game. The Broncos are also fourth in the country against the pass and fifth in scoring defense, allowing just 14.4 points a game.
“Their defense is just outstanding,” Ault said. “They take care of business.”
“They are sound, they know their assignments and they just do their job,” said Fajardo, who has never taken a snap against the Broncos. “Anytime you have 11 guys playing together like they have on defense, it’s pretty hard to execute against that.”
The Wolf Pack, though, hasn’t had many problems executing against the Broncos in recent years. Even including last year’s 30-10 loss in Boise, the Wolf Pack has averaged 35.4 points against the Broncos over the last five games.
The Broncos, though, also haven’t had any problems scoring against the Pack. Boise has scored 30 or more points against Nevada in each of the last dozen meetings. The Broncos, in fact, have scored 24 or more points against the Pack in 27 of the rivalry’s 38 games.
“They are a power offense now,” said Ault of the Southwick-led Broncos. “They want to control the ball and they are eating a lot of clock. It’s a different offense than it was with Kellen (Moore, the Broncos’ quarterback from 2008-11), no question. But it’s still strong. And we’re different without Kap (Colin Kaepernick).”
The Broncos’ offense has slipped a bit from a year ago when Moore was around. They are averaging 14 fewer points per game (44-30) and almost 100 fewer yards (481-386) this season as compared to 2011.
The biggest difference from last year to this year is the absence of Moore and running back Doug Martin. Moore passed for 3,800 yards and 43 touchdowns last year and Martin rushed for 1,299 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. Southwick, by comparison, has passed for 2,267 yards and 15 scores and Martin’s replacement, D.J. Harper, has gained 935 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
“They still do a great job within their offense,” Ault said. “They ran a spread offense with Kellen and now they are more of a power offense. We still have to play our best football to be competitive with them.”
The Wolf Pack offense, though, presents as many problems to the Broncos as the Broncos offense does for the Pack.
“They have one of the best defenses in the country and I believe we have one of the best offenses in the country,” Rosette said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
The Wolf Pack is 10th in the nation in total offense at 509.5 yards a game and is 16th in the country in scoring at 38.5 points a game.
“Nevada has a very difficult offense to defend,” Petersen said. “It’s a hard offense to stop or even slow down.”
The Wolf Pack offense has had great success in the second half in recent years against the Broncos. Since Ault returned to the sidelines in 2004, the Pack has scored 220 points against the Broncos in eight games with 159 of those points (72 per cent) coming after halftime.
“That’s what running offenses can do,” Petersen said. “They just keep at it, keep at it and keep pounding it in there, hoping someone breaks a tackle. And before you know it, your guys get back on their heels and start pressing. You see it time and time again.”
The Wolf Pack, which accepted an invitation to play in the Dec. 15 New Mexico Bowl earlier this week, understands the meaning of Saturday’s game. The Pack can finish no higher than fourth in the Mountain West, which is their lowest conference finish since the 2004 team finished sixth in the WAC, but a win over Boise can make their season.
“It’s huge,” Sudfeld said. “Honestly, it really makes our season that much more successful if we can go out and beat them here on Senior Day.”
The Boise game is arguably the biggest game the Pack plays every year, even bigger than the Fremont Cannon game for the state’s bragging rights against UNLV. The Boise-Nevada game, after all, usually means a conference title for at least one of the teams — in 1990 it meant a berth in the Division I-AA national championship game — and one of the teams or both is usually ranked in the Top 25.
The rivalry, though, will be put on hold after this year when Boise State leaves for the Big East Conference, although there are rumors the Broncos are thinking of staying in the Mountain West. There are no Boise-Nevada games, however, currently on future schedules, giving extra meaning to Saturday‘s game.
“Being a senior in my last game in our stadium, playing Boise, this is a big deal for me,” said Rosette, who leads the Mountain West with 113 tackles this year. “It would really cap our season off if we beat Boise.”
Boise has owned the rivalry over the past decade or so, winning 11 of the last 12 meetings to take a 25-13 lead in the rivalry.
The Wolf Pack, though, seems ready for the challenge. They are, according to odds makers, a nine-point underdog, just like they were in 2010 against Boise.
“It can be a memory,” said Pack running back Stefphon Jefferson, who leads the Mountain West with 1,564 yards and is closing in on Chance Kretschmer’s 2001 school record of 1,732 yards. “It’s why you play college football, to make memories each and every day.”