Brian Polian gave his Nevada Wolf Pack football team less than 24 hours to wipe away any emotional scars left by the heartbreaking 51-46 loss to the Boise State Broncos last Saturday night.
“We made it a point with the team on Sunday to put Boise behind us,” the Wolf Pack head coach said this week
Polian will find out this Saturday night (7:35 p.m., CBS Sports Network), in another key Mountain West showdown with the Colorado State Rams at Mackay Stadium, just how well his team listened to him. The Rams, 4-1 overall and 0-1 in the Mountain West, have won three games in a row and are coming off impressive non-conference victories the last two weeks over Boston College (24-21) and Tulsa (42-17).
“It’s easy for people to recognize that Boise State is a high quality opponent,” Polian said. “But Colorado State is also really, really good.”
Colorado State, a team that has beaten Nevada 10 out of 12 times since the rivalry began in 1974, will take the Wolf Pack’s full attention.
“If we suffer from a Boise hangover, we’ll have problems against Colorado State,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack might have suffered from a Boise hangover a year ago. The Pack lost to Boise State last year 34-17 in Boise and then returned home the following week to lose to UNLV for the first time in nine years (27-22). The Wolf Pack, though, is 14-10 in the game following a loss to Boise since it first played the Broncos in 1971.
“It’s behind us,” said Polian of the loss to Boise State last week. “It was a tough pill to swallow because we didn’t play well but we have to move on.”
The Wolf Pack, 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the Mountain West, still has its sights set on winning the West Division and advancing to the conference title game despite the loss to the Broncos. Colorado State, which also lost to Boise, 37-24, earlier this year, is shooting for the Mountain Division title.
“We have to see how we respond to a tough loss,” Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo said.
Fajardo, who was intercepted four times by Boise State, had as much adversity to deal with this week as any of the Pack players. The four interceptions are the most by a Wolf Pack quarterback since Boise State picked off four Jeff Rowe passes in 2005.
“Don’t turn the ball over,” Fajardo said. “That’s the biggest thing we took out of the Boise game.”
Fajardo threw more interceptions last Saturday night than he threw all of last season (three). He had been picked off just once this year in four games going into the Boise game.
“The big thing is to not try and do anything different,” Fajardo said. “I’m not going to go out and try to do too much. I’m just going to execute the game plan and rally around my guys.”
Colorado State beat the Wolf Pack last season, 38-17, at Fort Collins, Colo., as Rams’ running back Kapri Bibbs ran for 312 yards and four touchdowns. The Rams outscored the Pack 32-10 in the second half. “We are sustaining and fighting and playing two solid halves of football better than we did a year ago,” Polian said. “This is an opportunity to show that we’ve matured and developed.”
Colorado State will likely pose as many challenges to the Wolf Pack as Boise State did a week ago. The Rams lead the Mountain West in scoring at 34 points a game and are third in the conference in points allowed at 22.6 a game. Colorado State also leads the Mountain West in total offense (500 yards a game) and in passing offense (317.2 yards a game) as well as third down percentage at 50 per cent (33-of-66).
Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain has a record of 16-15 since taking over the Rams’ program in 2012. He came to Colorado State after serving for four years as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama. McElwain also has had coaching stops at, among other places, Fresno State (2007) and the Oakland Raiders (2006). He also coached against the Wolf Pack from 1987-91 as an assistant at Eastern Washington, where he played quarterback from 1980-83.
“There was a lot of acceptance of mediocrity around here when I walked into this building,” McElwain said. “Nothing irritated me more than the lack of pursuit of excellence within the organization.”
McElwain’s Rams went 4-8 in his first season as coach in 2012. Polian’s Pack went 4-8 last year in his first season.
“I’m not ashamed to say there are a lot of similarities in the way (the Rams and Wolf Pack programs) have been built,” said Polian, who is 7-10 in his career at Nevada.
McElwain has been impressed with what he has seen from Polian’s Pack.
“Coach Polian is a fiery, competitive guy and gets his players to play that way,” McElwain said. “I have an unbelievable amount of respect for Coach (Chris) Ault and saw his teams play up close and personal way back in the 1980s in the Big Sky Conference and they (Polian and Ault) are very similar from an attitude standpoint.”
The Rams and Wolf Pack are also very similar in that they can both run and throw the ball with authority. Rams quarterback Garrett Grayson has passed for 1,497 yards and 13 touchdowns. Rams’ running back Dee Hart has gained 453 yards and scored four touchdowns. Hart came to Colorado State this year from Alabama where he had 172 yards on 43 carries over three seasons. The 5-foot-9 Hart had 139 yards against Colorado, 117 against Boston College and 143 against Tulsa this year. Boise State, though, held him to 16 yards in 10 carries.
“He was recruited to Alabama for a reason,” Polian said. “Coach Saban doesn’t make a lot of recruiting mistakes.”
Grayson, who was Fajardo’s roommate this summer at the Manning Passing Academy, completed 20-of-27 passes for 239 yards against the Wolf Pack last year. Grayson also passed for 434 yards against Boise this year.
“He’s not a guy that blows you away with his physical talent,” Polian said. “He’s accurate, he knows the offense, he knows where to go with the all. He’s not a tools guy. He’s just a very good quarterback.”
Grayson’s top target is wide receiver Rashard Higgins. Higgins has 34 catches for 582 yards and eight touchdowns this year. The 6-2, 188-pound sophomore caught four touchdown passes last week against Tulsa.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Polian said. “We’re going to have to make sure we know where he is on the football field at all times.”
Polian admitted that he is concerned about more than just a hangover this week. Boise State, after all, piled up 570 yards of offense last week against the Pack. It is the most yards the Pack has allowed since Colorado State also gained exactly 570 against the Pack last November.
“There are a bunch of things we need to get fixed,” Polian said. “We have to get them fixed and if we don’t Colorado State will expose them.”
Both teams know the importance of Saturday’s game. The Pack is chasing Fresno state (2-0 in league play) in the West Division while Boise State (2-1 in league play) will likely be the team to beat for Colorado State in the Mountain Division.
“The sense of urgency has really got to be there,” McElwain said. “This is a huge game.”
McElwain’s Rams this year completed the program’s first undefeated (4-0) non-conference schedule since 1994. The Rams are 2-1 on the road this year with wins at Colorado and Boston College and a loss at Boise.
“It ain’t a vacation,” McElwain said. “When you go on the road you are not in search of Wally World. You are actually there on a business trip.”
The Wolf Pack is 6-3 at Mackay Stadium under Polian the last two years. The Pack has never lost two games in a row at Mackay Stadium under Polian.
“We’re in the driver’s seat still,” Fajardo said. “We can go as far as we take ourselves.”