“We have talked to the team at length about not taking a FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) opponent for granted,” coach Brian Polian said this week as his Wolf Pack prepared to open its season Saturday afternoon (noon) at Mackay Stadium against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. “We’re going out of our way to make sure they know Southern Utah is a good football team.”
The Thunderbirds, of the Big Sky Conference, were 8-5 last season despite getting outscored (288-260) and outgained (4,554-3,904) on the year. They also lost in the first round of the FCS playoffs to Sam Houston State, 51-20. The Wolf Pack, 4-8 overall a year ago in the Football Bowl Subdivision Mountain West, was a member of the Big Sky Conference from 1979-91.
“They have some playmakers and some question marks,” Polian said. “They are no different than us.”
The Wolf Pack players have taken Polian’s words to heart.
“Our preparation is the same,” senior center Matt Galas said, “whether its UCLA in the Rose Bowl (last year’s season opener) or these guys at home.”
“I never look at the schedule and say, ‘This is an easy game’ or ‘This is a hard game,’” senior linebacker Jordan Dobrich said. “Those are the things that get you beat.”
The Wolf Pack, 14-3 against FCS teams, hasn’t lost to a FCS (formerly known as Division I-AA) school since a 37-27 loss to Boise State in 1994. Boise State didn’t join the FBS until 1996. The Pack’s other two losses to FCS teams were both to Weber State, in 1992 and 1993.
“I know if I was on a I-AA team, I’d be fired up to play a I-A school,” Pack senior quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “I’m sure they (Southern Utah) will come in here with a little chip on their shoulder. It will be like their Super Bowl.”
One of the Pack’s 14 victories against FCS schools was against Southern Utah in 2003 in the first night game ever played at the current Mackay Stadium. The original Mackay Stadium, at another location on campus, hosted several night games.
“I don’t get a sense that our guys are taking anything for granted,” said Polian, who beat FCS school UC Davis (36-7) last year for his first ever victory as a head coach. “Southern Utah came in here in 2003 and Nevada won 24-23, so we have a history with this team.”
The win over the Thunderbirds 11 years ago was one of the ugliest victories in recent Pack history.
The Pack’s Logan Carter blocked an extra point attempt by Southern Utah to preserve the victory with three minutes to play. Southern Utah had four punts of just 28, 11, 18 and 20 yards, turned the ball over four times, had to punt six times and also missed two field goals. The Pack turned the ball over three times, punted five times, missed one field goal and allowed a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Wolf Pack also lost 36 yards back to their own 4-yard line after snapping the ball over the head of punter Derek Jones on fourth down, setting up an easy Southern Utah touchdown.
The Wolf Pack, obviously, is hoping for a more efficient and mistake-free performance to kick off the 2014 season.
“For us, this game is about doing what we do and doing it well,” Polian said. “We want to play as solid a game as we can in all phases.”
The Wolf Pack, coming off its first season without a bowl appearance since 2004, is just happy to open the season.
“It’s almost like a breath of fresh air,” Galas said. “Last season was tough.”
Last season will serve as motivation for this season.
“Coming off a 4-8 season we have a lot of fire in our belly,” senior linebacker Jonathan McNeal said. “We want to prove that 4-8 season wasn’t us.”
“We’ve sat on 4-8 long enough,” Fajardo said.
Southern Utah’s defense will be led by 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end James Cowser. Cowser, who is on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top defensive player in FCS, had 19 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks last year. Thunderbirds linebacker Matt Holley, from Centennial High in Las Vegas, had 13.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks in 2013.
“I respect their toughness,” Polian said. “(Cowser) plays with a great motor and they get very creative in how they use him.”
Polian also respects new Southern Utah offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. Crowton, a former head coach at BYU (2001-04), has a long history as a quarterback guru and offensive coordinator in the NFL and in college football at schools like Maryland, LSU, Oregon and Boston College. Crowton, who beat the Pack in 2001 and lost to Nevada in 2002 as BYU’s head coach, spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League.
“The problem they present to us is a new coordinator,” Polian said. “That is the biggest wild card in our preparation. I expect them to spread it out on offense and go for more explosive plays than they did last year.”
The Wolf Pack is 10-3 in its last 13 home openers.
“I feel good about this team,” Polian said. “I was very pleased with our training camp. But, ultimately, we have to go out and win some games.”