The Nevada Wolf Pack football team is thinking positive thoughts these days.
“I think we are in a real good place,” offensive lineman Kyle Roberts said.
“There’s a good feeling around the locker room, around campus and around the program,” defensive lineman Lenny Jones said. “It feels like we’re going up.”
All of that positive talk is one reason why the Wolf Pack this week preferred not to discuss its eight-game losing streak away from home as it prepares to play at San Jose State on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. CBS Sports Network) in its Mountain West opener.
“This game is more about getting our first Mountain West win of the year,” Roberts said.
“I’m not sure anyone has talked about getting a road win,” quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “This game is more about getting a Mountain West win. If it happens on the road, it happens on the road.”
The Wolf Pack’s road winless streak is a bit misleading since all eight losses away from Mackay Stadium have come against some of the tougher opponents on the Pack schedule (Arizona twice, UCLA, Florida State, Fresno State, Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State) in recent years. This week’s game at San Jose State, though, finds the Wolf Pack a four or five-point favorite in most sports books.
“There was a lot of good stuff to come out of the Arizona game (a 35-28 loss at Tucson two weeks ago) but the bottom line is we had a chance to win on the road and we didn’t do it,” said Brian Polian, who has a career record of 0-7 on the road as the Wolf Pack head coach. “If we want to win a Mountain West title we have to win on the road. Good football teams find a way and we have to go find a way.”
The Pack (2-1) has enjoyed a lot of success against the Spartans over the past eight decades. The Pack has won five in a row, 10 of 11 and 15 of 19 since 1940 against San Jose State in a rivalry that began in 1899. The game that symbolizes Nevada’s domination of San Jose State in recent years was in 2009 at Spartan Stadium when the Pack had four players go over 100 yards rushing, converted 11-of-12 third down plays and scored touchdowns on nine of its 10 drives in a 62-7 victory.
“We’re just going to take what they give us on offense,” Roberts said.
The Spartans, like in 2009, still have a tendency to give away huge chunks of rushing yards. San Jose State, which will wear all gold uniforms (helmets, jerseys, pants) on Saturday, is coming off a 24-7 loss at Minnesota when it allowed 380 rushing yards. The Spartans defense, it seems, is exactly what a struggling Wolf Pack ground game (just 2.7 yards a carry at Arizona) desperately needs to get healthy.
“This will be a pretty good litmus test for us,” Polian said. “It will be a good measuring stick of where we’re at. But we’re not going to bang our heads against the wall just to prove we can run it. We’ll take what’s there.”
Opponents are averaging 6.1 yards per carry on the ground against the Spartans.
“I think their numbers are a little bit skewed,” Polian said. “Don’t forget they gave up most of those yards on the road to Minnesota and Auburn (a 59-13 loss).”
The Spartans offense, which has scored just 34 points after the first quarter this season, also seems to be on life support. The Spartans average just 2.4 yards per carry on the ground and head coach Ron Caragher, who was quarterback Troy Aikman’s backup at UCLA in the late 1980s, announced this week that quarterback Blake Jurich (629 yards, five touchdowns) has lost his starting job and will be replaced by Joe Gray. Jurich, a 6-foot-4 senior, was intercepted twice and lost a fumble at Minnesota. Gray, a 6-2 junior, is just 6-of-10 this season for 67 yards and one interception.
“We’ll prepare for both,” Polian said.
Gray arguably outplayed Jurich in the spring, competing 17-of-20 passes for 192 yards in the Spartans spring game. Jurich, though, narrowly won the job this fall.
“Yeah, I’m excited,” Gray told the Spartans media this week. “But I’m just nice and calm about it. I just have to go out there and play football like I’ve been doing for 12 or 13 years now.”
The Wolf Pack rushed for 311 yards and beat San Jose State 38-16 last season at Mackay Stadium. San Jose State quarterback David Fales, a former Wolf Pack quarterback now with the Chicago Bears, passed for 326 yards and a touchdown. The Pack defense shut out the Spartans in the second half, sacked Fales three times and had 11 tackles for a loss.
“They have a hand-it-off offense,” Jones said. “We just have to play our keys and go tackle who has the ball.”
Fajardo, who signed with Nevada late in the 2010 recruiting season, received his first college offer from San Jose State and nearly signed with the Spartans. In his first game against the Spartans last year, Fajardo completed 20-of-27 passes for 171 yards and rushed for 104 yards.
“This is a big game for both teams,” Fajardo said. “It’s a Mountain West game. I know they are going to bring everything they have.”
The Wolf Pack has won its last four games in the Bay area, winning at San Jose State in 2009 and 2011, at California in 2012 and against Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco in January 2011. The Pack has also won its last six conference openers.
The Pack, though, has not won a game after a bye week since it beat Hawaii late in the 2011 season. It lost its last four regular season games after a bye week over the last two seasons. It also lost the 2012 New Mexico Bowl after a 14-day layoff and the 2011 Hawaii Bowl after a 21-day layoff.
“The bye week was good for us this time because anytime you play back-to-back games against Pac-12 teams (Washington State and Arizona) you are going to have some nicks and bruises,” Fajardo said.
Polian said safety Duran Workman, who missed the Arizona game because of a knee injury, will return against San Jose State. Cornerback Evan Favors, who missed the Arizona game because of a death in his family, will also play against San Jose State. Guard Jeremy Macauley, who missed the Arizona game because of a knee injury, will sit out the San Jose State game and will be replaced again by red-shirt freshman Joey Anglemire. Anglemire, who also replaced an injured Austin Corbett at tackle against Washington State, will be starting his third game in a row.
“Bye weeks are always a drag because you don’t get to play a game at the end of the week,” Roberts said. “But coming off a bye week, the energy is always high. It‘s exciting to have an opportunity to get back on the right track after a loss (at Arizona).”