RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack isn’t prepared to bid farewell to its senior class.
“I’m not ready to say good-bye,” Wolf Pack football coach Brian Polian said this week. “I haven’t gotten into that mode of looking back yet. We still have a lot of football left.”
The Wolf Pack (5-4, 3-2) will play its final game at Mackay Stadium this year on Saturday (1 p.m.) against the San Jose State Spartans (4-5, 3-2). The game will be the last at home for a dozen seniors, including starters Don Jackson, Ian Seau, Rykeem Yates, Lenny Jones, Matthew Lyons, Jordan Dobrich and Bryan Lane.
“When you are a freshman they tell you that this time comes fast,” Jones said. “I just want to go out and enjoy it.”
Jones, Lane, Dobrich and Yates are the last four players who were with the program in 2011, the Pack’s last season in the Western Athletic Conference. All four sat out the 2011 season and made their playing debuts in 2012 amd have the distinction of being the last players on the roster to actually see the field for former coach Chris Ault.
“Here it has just been a brotherhood,” Lane said. “Football is so much a part of you. When you wake up its football, when you get out of class its football. When you go to sleep you think about football. These guys mean so much to me.”
The last three games of the regular season — Saturday against San Jose State and Nov. 21 at Utah State and Nov. 28 at San Diego State — also have great meaning to the Wolf Pack. The winner on Saturday will earn the inside track on second place in the West Division of the Mountain West and will keep alive its dream of catching San Diego State (5-0 in league play) for first place.
“It’s going to be a great battle for second place,” San Jose State coach Ron Caragher said. “Both teams are on the cusp of bowl eligibility. There’s a lot on the line.”
The Wolf Pack is indeed just one victory shy of becoming bowl eligible for the 10th time in the last 11 years. Polian, as usual, won’t talk about any goals beyond the next game.
“We just want to be 1-0 at the end of the week,” he said. “That’s all we’re talking about. We haven’t even talked or thought about this being the last home game of the year. You can get emotionally hi-jacked by that. How good was Senior Day last year? We got thumped (40-20 by Fresno State). You have to win the game.”
The Wolf Pack has lost its final home game of the year in each of the last three seasons. It’s last win on Senior Day was in 2011 (over Idaho, 56-3) when Lane, Dobrich, Jones and Yates were all red-shirt freshmen.
“Those games (the last three on Senior Day) just didn’t go our way,” Jones said. “That had nothing to do with Senior Day.”
The Pack used to almost never lose on Senior Day, winning 18-of-19 at one point (1978-96).
Ault was 22-6 on Senior Day in his 28 seasons, including the program’s greatest win on Senior Day, 34-31 over Boise State in 2010. Polian, now in his third year, is looking for his first victory on Senior Day, having lost to BYU in 2013 (28-23) and Fresno State last year.
“I’ve definitely thought about it,” Jones said. “But with (at least) two more games after that it’s hard to feel the emotion of Senior Day.”
The Wolf Pack has beaten San Jose State three times in its final home game of the year (1899, 1993 and 1995). The Pack, though, has had great success against the Spartans no matter when the game is played. Nevada has won six in a row against San Jose State, 11 out of the last 12 and 16 of the last 20. The Pack owns an 18-8-2 lead in the 116-year-old rivalry.
“Nevada is an impressive team.” said Caragher, a former UCLA quarterback. “We respect them.”
The game against San Jose State comes after a stretch of just one game in 20 days (Oct. 25-Nov. 13) for the Wolf Pack.
“We’re going to have to play our best football of the year to win this game,” Polian said.
San Jose State is coming off a 17-16 loss to BYU last Friday. The Spartans went for two points after scoring a touchdown with 45 seconds to play but a halfback pass by Tyler Ervin missed the mark.
“I have an appreciation of the courage it took to make that call,” said Polian of Caragher’s decision to go for two.
“We put the ball into the hands of the most talented player (Ervin) on the field,” Caragher said. “I’d do it again.”
Ervin, a 5-foot-10, 177-pound senior, has rushed for 1,239 yards (second in the Mountain West to Wyoming’s Brian Hill at 1,327) and 12 touchdowns and has caught 34 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns. No player in the Football Bowl Subdivision has carried the ball more times than Ervin’s 272 touches (216 rushing attempts, 34 catches, 20 kickoff returns, two punt returns). His 1,944 all-purpose yards leads the Mountain West.
“First of all, you have to stop Ervin,” Polian said. “He’s their best player. He’s got breakaway speed and they find creative ways to get him the ball.”
Almost half (563 of 1,239) of Ervin’s yards this year came in just two games. He had an FBS season-high 300 against Fresno State in September and 263 against New Mexico in October.
“He’s incredible,” said Wolf Pack running back Don Jackson of Ervin. “He’ll get outside on you and then hit the gas pedal.”
“If you get three or four hats to the ball you can stop anybody,” Jones said.
Ervin had just 56 yards on 12 carries in a 21-10 loss to the Wolf Pack in San Jose last year. Jackson had 106 on 12 carries that same night for the Pack. The Wolf Pack also has allowed 100 or more yards to just three players this year — Arizona’s Nick Wilson (194), Texas A&M’s Tra Carson (137) and Wyoming’s Brian Hill (188). The last Mountain West player to rush for 100 or more yards against the Pack at Mackay Stadium was Fresno’s Josh Quezada (119) on Senior Day last year.
Ervin, though, isn’t the only Spartan that, Polian says, “has our attention.” San Jose State quarterback Kenny Potter, a 6-2, 212-pound junior from Long Beach City College, has passed for 1,061 yards and five touchdowns. Potter’s favorite target (since a season-ending knee injury to wide receiver Tyler Winston last month) is tight end Billy Freeman (6-3, 235 pounds). Freeman has 35 catches for 389 yards and four scores. “He just makes plays,” said Polian of Potter. “He’s a tough sucker. He’s a competitive dude.”
San Jose State, which has scored 237 points and allowed 238 this year, has beaten New Mexico (31-21), UNLV (33-27), Fresno State (49-23) and New Hampshire (43-13) while losing to BYU (17-16), San Diego State (30-7), Auburn (35-21), Oregon State (35-21) and Air Force (37-16).
“I feel like our team is getting better each week,” said Caragher, who’s 13-20 as the Spartans head coach while Polian is 16-18 at Nevada. “There’s no reason why our momentum should slow down.”
The Wolf Pack, coming off victories over Hawaii (30-20) and Fresno State (30-16), also has its own version of momentum. “We’re hoping to stack three (wins) together,” Jones said.
The Wolf Pack will have to win its final five regular season games to have any chance at a West Division title and that might not even be enough. San Diego State would clinch the division title before it even plays the Pack on Nov. 28 if it beats Wyoming on Saturday and UNLV on Nov. 21.
“Hopefully another team (San Diego State) loses one they’re not supposed to and we can sneak into that championship game (Dec. 5),” Jones said.
Victories in the last three games will give the Pack eight wins in a season for the first time since it went 13-1 in 2010.
“The next three weeks will show what type of grit we have,” Lane said.