Nevada Wolf Pack hosts Fresno State in Mountain West showdown

Nevada running back Don Jackson, top, gets flipped over by Air Force defensive back Weston Steelhammer in the third quarter of Air Force's 45-38 overtime victory in an NCAA college football game at Air Force Academy, Colo., on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Nevada running back Don Jackson, top, gets flipped over by Air Force defensive back Weston Steelhammer in the third quarter of Air Force's 45-38 overtime victory in an NCAA college football game at Air Force Academy, Colo., on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Fresno State Bulldogs want to coat Mackay Stadium Saturday night with a large splash of crimson.

“I’m hearing how they want to turn Reno red,” Nevada football coach Brian Polian said of the red-clad Bulldogs, who will meet the Wolf Pack Saturday night (7:30 p.m., ESPNU) at Mackay Stadium. “Our fans need to step up.”

The Bulldogs and Wolf Pack, tied atop the West Division of the Mountain West along with San Diego State with 3-3 league records, have definitely rekindled the Truckee Meadows vs. San Joaquin Valley rivalry this week.

“This is Fresno State,” Wolf Pack senior defensive Brock Hekking said. “There will always be a rivalry between Nevada and Fresno.”

The Bulldogs are asking their fans on their school web site this week to head to northern Nevada wearing red Fresno gear to “Paint Reno Red.”

“What a great testament it will be for the support we get to find that stadium up there half full of people in red,” Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter said this week.

Polian challenged Wolf Pack fans to make sure Mackay isn’t dressed in the opposing team’s colors, especially on national television.

“We need a great crowd,” Polian said. “We need all lifelong Pack fans to be in the stands.”

The Wolf Pack, 6-4 overall and coming off a 45-38 overtime loss at Air Force last week, has lost its last two games (41-23 last year at Fresno and 52-36 in 2012 in Reno) to Fresno State. The Pack has not beaten Fresno State (4-6 overall) since the two schools entered the Mountain West from the Western Athletic Conference together after the 2011 season.

“What Fresno said (“Paint Reno Red”), it’s going to be a challenge for our fans,” Wolf Pack senior quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “I hope they come out and show their support.”

The Wolf Pack, though, isn’t all that worried Mackay Stadium will look like a giant strawberry on Saturday night.

“That should ignite the city of Reno to paint it blue,” Hekking said. “I don’t want to look up in the stands and see red up there. I just want them up in their little corner all by themselves and I want the rest of the stadium to be silver and blue.”

Both the Wolf Pack and Bulldogs, however, know the game won’t be decided in the stands.

“A great crowd is a huge deal but it doesn’t matter if there are 25,000 people in the stands or 25,” Wolf Pack wide receiver Kendall Brock said. “Our offense and defense has to go out on the field and execute.”

The Wolf Pack and Bulldogs are faced with identical tasks with two games remaining in the regular season. That task is to win its final two games to capture a West Division championship and earn a spot in the Mountain West title game on Dec. 6.

“Our guys know we’ve got a two-game season,” said DeRuyter, whose Bulldogs also need to win their final two games to become bowl eligible. “Win and you advance. Lose and you’re out. It’s about having that focus on Nevada because that’s the Super Bowl to us right now.”

Polian, whose Wolf Pack is already bowl eligible, believes every game is a Super Bowl.

“He called this their Super Bowl,” Polian said. “So I imagine they will be keyed up to play. For us it’s a playoff game, too. But is this game our Super Bowl? Am I going to tell our players this game is more important than the Air Force game was last week? We left our hearts on the field last week. They are all important. They all matter. Our players know what’s at stake.

“Look, I coached with Kevin Sumlin (at Texas A&M in 2012) and I remember Kevin Sumlin telling me the week before we were going to play Alabama, “If you say the words ‘big game’ just one time I will punch you right in the head.’ You don’t have to tell your players it’s your Super Bowl. They know it.”

DeRuyter, who coached the Wolf Pack defense in 2005 and 2006 under head coach Chris Ault, went 20-6 in his first two years as Bulldogs head coach in 2012 and 2013 and won a pair of Mountain West championships. The Bulldogs, though, lost a ton of talent off their 2013 roster (namely quarterback Derek Carr and wide receivers Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse) and have struggled all season, even losing in overtime at UNLV. The Bulldogs have been streaky, losing their first three games (USC, Utah and Nebraska), then winning three in a row (Southern Utah, New Mexico and San Diego State) before suffering through another three-game slide (UNLV, Boise State, Wyoming). A 38-24 win over San Jose State two weeks ago kept their season alive.

“There’s definitely a buzz on our team,” DeRuyter said. “Through all the ups and downs, we are right where we want to be, playing for a championship in the month of November.”

Polian respects the two-time defending Mountain West champs.

“When you look at their record you might think they are not very good,” Polian said. “But this team has a lot of very good players. This is not Fresno State of last year. They are not going to throw it 50 or 60 times. You could have dared them to run it last year and they still were chucking it and I would have too, with a NFL quarterback (Carr). But this is still a dangerous team. But they are now a run-first team. There’s no doubt they are far more dedicated to the run.”

That dedication is based on the performance of 5-foot-11, 214-pound junior running back Marteze Waller. Waller, whose 3-yard touchdown run capped the Bulldogs’ 18-point win over the Pack last year, has run for 1,086 yards and nine touchdowns this year.

“He (Waller) is very talented,” Hekking said. “He runs their system very well. They might not have the same quarterback this year and the same wide receivers but they are still talented. Their talent has just switched positions.”

Brian Burrell, a strong and physical 6-4, 220-pound junior, has replaced Carr at quarterback. Burrell has passed for 1,769 yards and 16 touchdowns and has rushed for 257 yards and two scores.

“He’s a winner,” DeRuyter said. “The guys around him see how gutsy that guy is and they want to follow him. He’s a guy who puts all his personal comforts aside to get the job done. He’s a guy who says, ‘Doubt me and I’ll prove you wrong.’”

Burrell’s favorite target is Josh Harper. Harper, who was also one of Carr’s favorite targets, has caught 62 passes this year for 793 yards and six touchdowns. Last year against the Wolf Pack the 6-foot, 170-pound Harper caught an eye-opening 17 passes from Carr for 253 yards and two touchdowns. But that was when the Pack also had to worry about Adams and Burse.

“For us on defense, Waller, Harper and the quarterback are our points of emphasis,” Polian said.

The Bulldogs, though, have struggled this year because their defense has allowed 35.5 points and 491.1 yards a game. The Wolf Pack offense averages 30.7 points and 414.9 yards.

“Nevada is going to make plays,” DeRuyter said. “Fajardo is arguably the best quarterback in the league. They’ve got super weapons. We just have to limit the explosive plays.”

The Wolf Pack, which will be playing its final home game of the year, will honor 15 seniors (10 of which are starters) before the opening kickoff. Polian, though, doesn’t want Senior Night to distract his team from the task at hand.

“We have a game to play,“ Polian said. “That’s where our focus needs to be.”

The Wolf Pack lost its final home game the last two seasons (to BYU last year and Boise State in 2012). This will be the ninth time since the rivalry against Fresno State started in 1923 that the Wolf Pack has played its final home game of the year against the Bulldogs. The Pack is 5-2-1 in the first eight times the Bulldogs have helped them close the home season at the old and new (since 1966) Mackay Stadium.

“It’s obviously a big game for me,” said Brock, a senior who went to Clovis West High near Fresno. “Whenever the schedule comes out every year I always circle the Fresno game. I’ll have a lot of friends and family up here for the game and you can be sure they won’t be wearing red. They will all be wearing navy blue, not red.”

“We can’t let emotions take over,” Fajardo said. “I’m expecting to be on an emotional roller coaster but the last thing you want is to go out there emotionally and not do what you need to do.”

The Wolf Pack will have at least two and possibly three more games with this group of seniors after Saturday night. The Pack will close out its regular season at UNLV on Nov. 29 followed by a possible Mountain West title game on Dec. 6. A bowl game will cap off the season sometime in middle or late December.

“I’m not going to be in a reflective mood on Saturday because I want to play a bunch more games with these seniors,” Polian said. “This game just happens to be our last home game.”

It also just so happens to be the Pack’s most important final home game since a 34-31 overtime win over Boise State in 2010 that set up the school’s final WAC championship season.

“To have the stakes this high on Senior Night is great,” said Hekking, a senior. “It’s perfect. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”


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