It was easy to imagine this game going off the rails. After Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo ripped off a 60-yard run early in the second quarter, the second long scamper in which he found paydirt without being touched, fans in the Central Valley must have felt that all-too-familiar lurch. Here we go again. The offense is moving in fits and starts, Marteze Waller is MIA and the defense can't stop anyone. It would've been an easy assumption to make, except that something funny happened in Reno Saturday night.
Shades of last year's championship-caliber team showed up. Big blitzes got home. The defense created turnovers. The quarterback, as firmly entrenched in the starting role as he has been all season, proved that he could direct the high-octane offense. All of these things enabled the Bulldogs to erase the early deficit and never look back.
Brian Burrell had his best game of 2014 by far, considering the opponent and the stakes, throwing for 313 yards and running for 56 more while accounting for every Bulldogs touchdown in some way or another: Four passing TDs and one on the ground. He outdueled Cody Fajardo and led Fresno State to a huge 40-20 victory. He should feel vindicated.
Of course, it helps that the receiving corps had perhaps its best collective game of the year, as well. Josh Harper did some Josh Harper things (six catches, 65 yards and a great looking touchdown catch), but it was Greg Watson who led the 'Dogs with 89 yards and Aaron Peck who finished with two touchdown catches. Even Josh Quezada, who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time running east and west early, made Nevada pay on the screen game with a team-high seven catches before grinding out the clock after halftime. He finished with 119 yards rushing.
Fajardo, on the other hand, had a rough go of it once the defense found its footing, though he wasn't helped when the injury bug struck his offensive line early. When redshirt freshmen Joey Anglemire and Adam Khouri went down, they were replaced by two guards who, as Reno Gazette-Journal writer Dan Hinxman noted, were not with the team when fall camp began. If continuity along the line is paramount to offensive success, the Wolf Pack were severely hampered in that regard.
The senior finished with only 165 yards rushing and 126 yards passing. The former figure may sound like a lot, until you consider that he averaged just 2.5 yards on his other 20 attempts. He threw one of the ugliest interceptions you'll see all season, edging Burrell's own rough INT by virtue of the fact the latter, an ill-advised sidearm attempt, was tipped at the line of scrimmage and into Lenny Jones' mitts. Fajardo simply never saw Karl Mickelsen, who also had himself a game: A critical third down tackle in the first half, a fourth down sack and the pick.
Mickelsen, however, was hardly alone with regards to defensive heroics. Maurice Poyadue's first career sack forced a Fajardo fumble. Dalen Jones did what I suspect he does best, creating another turnover with a big hit on Jerico Richardson. Derron Smith flashed some of his NFL-caliber talent, most notably with a tough pass defense in the end zone. This was a team effort.
This is not to say, however, that the 'Dogs were suddenly infallible. Special teams hiccups are impossible to ignore, for one. Kody Kroening's first field goal attempt fell woefully short, and Dillon Root's kickoff fumble late in the first half was immediately erased by Mickelsen's big play. The play calling still contained the occasional head-scratcher, like bringing Brandon Connette and Nathan Madsen onto the field for a bizarre-looking fourth-and-short chance. There were some early drops, too, but mostly there was a lot to like.
The Wolf Pack still have a chance to secure the Fremont Cannon next week, though they will be left wondering what might have been. Senior defenders Brock Hekking and Jonathan McNeal had mostly quiet nights in their last game at Mackay Stadium, though junior Rykeem Yates did rack up two sacks. Don Jackson received only five carries for 30 yards, while James Butler finished with 4 yards on 11 attempts. They were shut out in the second half after trailing 28-20 at the break, the Bulldogs' adjustments frustrating the Wolf Pack offense like New Mexico and San Diego State before them.
Fresno State (5-6, 4-3 MWC) will return to Bulldog Stadium to face Hawaii next week. Nevada (6-5, 3-4) will travel to Las Vegas for their finale against the hated Rebels.