The Nevada Wolf Pack football team used to see San Jose State on its schedule and smile. Those days, head coach Brian Polian said this week, are long gone.
“I don’t think we’re good enough to take anything for granted,” Polian said as he prepared his struggling Wolf Pack (3-3, 1-1) to take on the Spartans (1-5 0-2) tonight (7:30 p.m.) in San Jose.
The Spartans, though, usually find a way to brighten up even a dark and cloudy Wolf Pack football season. The Wolf Pack has won seven in a row, 12 of its last 13 since 2002 and 17 of its last 21 since 1941 against San Jose State.
But no opponent, even one which has had just three winning seasons since 1992 like the Spartans, is enough to make the Wolf Pack feel overly confident right now. Losses at Purdue and Hawaii, as well as less-than-impressive wins at home against Cal Poly and Fresno State, are enough to make the Pack wary of all opponents.
“We cannot stop improving,” Polian said. “There are a lot of things we can do better and we need to do better in all three phases. Our issues right now are about fundamentals and not so much the Xs and Os.”
The Wolf Pack made just enough plays to hold off Fresno State 27-22 last Saturday night at home, keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone on four consecutive plays from the 4-yard line in the final minute.
“That was a struggle,” Polian said. “There are a lot of areas where we need to improve off that game.”
Although it wasn’t pretty, the victory did allow the Pack to avoid its first three-game losing streak since 2013. “We had a sour taste coming back from Hawaii (a 38-17 loss two weeks ago),” running back James Butler said. “We really needed a win.”
San Jose State, like Fresno State a week ago (both teams are now 1-5, 0-2), comes at the just the right time for a Wolf Pack team looking for some positive momentum. The Spartans lost to Hawaii 34-17 last week at home and have a four-game losing streak. San Jose State, which hasn’t beaten the Wolf Pack since 2007 (27-24), has allowed 40 points a game while turning the ball over 14 times. The Spartans have allowed a Mountain West-high 29 sacks to opposing defenses as well as 475 yards a game to opposing offenses. Their only victory this year has come against Portland State, a struggling (2-4) FCS team from the Big Sky Conference.
Spartan head coach Ron Caragher has a record of just 16-27 in four seasons at San Jose State. During last week’s loss to Hawaii a sign reading “Fire Caragher” was spotted in the stands by the Bay area media.
Caragher addressed the issue of his job security this week by saying all he’s trying to do is make his team better, concentrate on one game at a time with the hope of being 1-0 at the end of every week. Polian, who has a career record of 21-23, has often said the same thing in his four years at Nevada.
“We’re pretty similar teams,” Polian said.
Caragher agreed the struggling Spartans and Wolf Pack are in similar situations heading into Saturday’s game.
“They (Nevada) are probably trying to find some traction as well,” Caragher said.
San Jose State is led by 6-foot-2 senior quarterback Kenny Potter, who has passed for 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns this year. A leg injury, which forced him to miss a 44-10 loss to Iowa State, though, has limited him to just 58 yards rushing on 50 carries this season. A year ago he ran for 415 yards and seven touchdowns and became the first San Jose State quarterback in 30 years to rush for 100 yards in a game when he had 116 in a 37-34 overtime loss at Mackay Stadium against the Wolf Pack.
“He made a lot of plays against us last year,” said Polian of Potter. “He’s most effective when he’s out on the edges and being creative. He’s a heck of a player. He’s not running around like he did last year but you have to make sure you account for him not only as a thrower but as a runner as well.”
Caragher, who’s a graduate of Bellarmine Prep in San Jose, defended his quarterback this week. Potter was intercepted three times last week by Hawaii and has been picked off six times this year in his five games.
“Kenny was frustrated (last week),” said Caragher, a former assistant at Kentucky and UCLA. “But it’s because of the competitor that he is. The guy is a champion. Yes, he made some costly throws last week that weren’t Kenny-like. But I know who Kenny is. I know what he’s about and the type of player he is. He’s our guy. He’s our quarterback.”
Caragher, who’s helped at San Jose State by former Pack assistants Phil Earley and Barry Sacks, admits Potter’s leg injury has hurt his quarterback’s ability to make plays. “He has not been able to run around and scramble like he used to,” Caragher said. “But we’re hoping Kenny will be back at his full self (against Nevada) and be able to hurt the defense with his legs.”
Potter isn’t the only weapon on San Jose State’s offense who concerns the Wolf Pack, Polian said. The Spartans’ ground game is led by Deontae Cooper (327 yards), Malik Robertson (190) and Zamore Zigler (311) and Potter’s top targets are Tim Crawley (20 catches, 245 yards), Justin Holmes (17-333), Billy Freeman (12-149) and Tre Hartley (20-346). Cooper is a former University of Washington running back who rushed for 166 yards against Oregon State in 2013.
The Spartans offense, though, is just 8-of-24 on third downs over its last two games and has nearly half its rushing production this season (409 of 988 yards and six of nine touchdowns) against Portland State. “We have to do a better job of protecting the football,” Caragher said.
“Our turnovers have come at costly times.”
The Wolf Pack offense showed signs of life last week as wide receiver Wyatt Demps caught nine passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns, running back James Butler gained 175 yards on 37 carries and quarterback Tyler Stewart was an efficient 13-of-20 for 127 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions. Stewart has been intercepted just once all year while San Jose quarterbacks (Potter and freshman Josh Love) have been intercepted 11 times.
“Tyler Stewart is completing 65 percent of his passes, has thrown eight touchdowns with just one interception,” Caragher said. “That’s pretty good. He is one of the most respected quarterbacks in the conference.”
The game at San Jose State could be pivotal to the Pack’s West Division title hopes, Polian said. The Pack is 0-3 on the road this season and has lost five in a row on the road dating back to last season. The Pack is also 2-7 on the road over the last two years.
The good news for the Wolf Pack is the trip to San Jose State is the shortest it will take this year, though Polian complained the Pack will travel the 250 or so miles to San Jose in a bus instead of a plane. The Pack has already gone to Notre Dame, Purdue and Hawaii this year and will head to Albuquerque and Las Vegas in November. San Jose State is also just 1-2 at home this year and has lost five of its last seven home games dating back to last year. The Spartans also average a Mountain West-low 15,363 fans a game at home. The Wolf Pack has also won its last three games (and five of its last six) in San Jose, including a 62-7 blowout in 2009 when four Pack players (Colin Kaepernick, Vai Taua, Luke Lippincott, Lampford Mark) each had more than 100 yards rushing.
“If you are going to have any kind of a season you have to find a way to win on the road, especially in conference,” Polian said. “That’s a point of emphasis for us. It’s not something we’re ignoring. We’re talking about it. We have to go play as good as we can in somebody else’s house if we want to win this week.”