The Nevada Wolf Pack’s 98-year-old football rivalry with the University of California-Davis Aggies was never more heated, passionate and personal than it was in the first week of November in 1977.
“We’re going to be out for blood this week,” Wolf Pack linebacker Doug Drake told the Reno Gazette-Journal 36 years ago.
“We’re going to go out and cut loose on those guys,” linebacker Russ Musselman said.
The reason for the Wolf Pack’s passion was a NCAA decision that very same week that barred the Wolf Pack from the Division II playoffs. The Wolf Pack got the news just four days before their much anticipated showdown with the Aggies -- the Pack was 8-1 and Davis was 8-0 at the time -- and they didn’t think the timing of the announcement was a coincidence.
“I think someone in the Davis administration alerted the NCAA,” said Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault who got the news from the NCAA on his 31st birthday.
The Wolf Pack had a dozen players on its active roster that had transferred from another four-year school before the 1977 season. The strange NCAA rule allowed those players to play in 1977 but they weren’t eligible for the playoffs. The NCAA banned the Pack from the playoffs because it determined that the Wolf Pack would not be in position to even make the playoffs without the contribution of the ineligible players.
Ault, who knew of the rule all season long, was hoping the NCAA would rule that the Pack was good enough to qualify for the postseason even without the ineligible players.
“It’s like having a relative who has been sick for a long time and then finally dying,” Ault said after learning of the NCAA’s ruling.
Just four of the ineligible players -- defensive lineman Doug Betters, running back Stanley Wilson, linebacker Ron Atkinson and cornerback Greg Willis -- were starters.
“Even without those players we’d still be good,” offensive tackle Art Chandless said.
“We got screwed,” Willis said.
There was sort of a NCAA-against-Nevada feeling in the Silver State back in 1977.
“I think the NCAA is putting it to the Nevada schools,” running back Wayne Ferguson said. “Last year our whole school was put on probation because of Edgar (basketball player Edgar Jones). Then the NCAA was after (UNLV basketball coach) Jerry Tarkanian. And now us again.”
Davis athletic director Joe Singleton and head football coach Jim Sochor denied that they told the NCAA about the Wolf Pack’s ineligible players.
“That’s ridiculous,” Sochor said. “We had nothing to do with it.”
“Bull,” Singleton said. “We didn’t sic the NCAA on them. The NCAA already knew about the ineligible players. Nevada’s ineligible players are none of my business. I don’t even know who they are.”
The Pack wasn’t buying it. The game at Davis on Nov. 12, 1977 at Davis’ Toomey Field was now the biggest and most important game of the season for the Pack.
“If we can’t go (to the playoffs), we don’t want them to go,” Drake said. “I think it was Davis who raised the big stink.”
The Pack couldn’t wait to take the bus ride west to Davis to raise a little stink of their own.
“Just put it this way,” said quarterback Jeff Tisdel, who prepped at Sacramento’s Christian Brothers High. “We’ll be ready to play.”
Ault, in just his second season as the Pack coach, liked the fire exhibited by his team.
“It won’t be hard getting ready for this game,” he said.
Although Davis was undefeated, the Wolf Pack was ranked higher (No. 4 in the country compared to Davis’ No. 7 standing) in Division II. The Wolf Pack, led by Tisdel, had a high powered offense and was leading the nation in scoring (43 points a game) and total offense (529 yards a game). Davis had a stout defense, allowing just 7.6 points a game but they seldom blew anybody out.
The Pack was favored to win the game at Davis by at least a touchdown. The Wolf Pack, after all, had beaten Sacramento State 75-0 just two weeks before. Davis only beat Sac State 28-0. The Pack also beat San Francisco State 47-7. Davis slipped past San Francisco State just 21-7.
Sochor was perfectly happy giving the Wolf Pack the favorite’s role.
“On paper we’re the kind of team that looks like it should be in Division III because we have no athletic scholarships or spring practice,” Sochor said.
Sochor, it seemed, wanted the enraged Pack to come to Davis overconfident.
“It’s conceivable they (the Wolf Pack) could be the best Division II team in the country,” the 38-year-old Sochor said.
Ault couldn’t have agreed more. He already had ideas of the Wolf Pack winning its last two games -- against Davis and UNLV -- and finishing 10-1 on the year. “I think the NCAA will have to explain to a lot of people why a team that is 10-1 and one of the best teams in the country is not in the playoffs,” Ault said the week before the Davis game.
As far as Ault was concerned, the Davis game “is our playoffs” and the UNLV game “is our bowl game.” And he planned on winning them both, giving the Wolf Pack its first 10-win season in school history.
“The players can kiss their wives and girlfriends good-bye for the next two weeks,” Ault said. “We’re going to war.”
The Wolf Pack ran smack dab into a sneak attack.
A crowd of 12,800 -- still the largest home crowd in the 98-year history of Davis football -- showed up at Toomey Field on the night of Nov. 12, 1977. It was estimated that nearly 5,000 of those fans came from northern Nevada.
What they witnessed, though, was a cool, calm and collected Aggies team methodically slicing and dicing an angry and aggressive Wolf Pack team looking for what it thought to be revenge.
The Aggies jumped out to a 21-0 lead by halftime. Fred Wheeler exploded up the middle for a 15-yard touchdown run, Mike Johnson picked off a Tisdel pass and ran it back 31 yards for a score and quarterback Mike Moroski broke free for a 9-yard scoring run.
The Pack was never really in the game.
Tisdel did connect with Jeff Wright for a 19-yard scoring strike to cut the deficit to 21-7 in the third quarter. But Moroski answered right back, finding Calvin Ellison for a 28-yard touchdown pass and a 27-7 Davis lead. The Aggies would go on to win 37-21 (their 18th win in a row at Toomey Field) in a game that wasn’t as close as the score might indicate.
Moroski, who would play eight years in the NFL, completed 22-of-35 passes for 219 yards. He also scored on another 9-yard run. Tisdel, who would finish his Wolf Pack career after the UNLV game as the school’s all-time leading passer (6,098 yards, 59 touchdowns), was 13-of-39 for 203 yards.
Tisdel did toss three touchdown passes in the game -- two to Wright and one to Steve Senini -- but the Wolf Pack made the trip back to Davis knowing they had been outplayed, outcoached and out of ideas about spoiling Davis’ perfect season.
“They showed us what we can do with our stats,” Chandless said. “They kicked our butts.”
Davis sacked Tisdel eight times. The Pack quarterback answered media questions after the game with blood stains on the front of his Wolf Pack jersey thanks to a bloody nose.
“They were ready to play,” Tisdel said. “We weren’t. What else can I say?”
The Wolf Pack, Ault said, said a bit too much before the game.
“We underestimated them, starting with the coaches,” Ault said a month after the game. “It always starts at the top and we thought we could dominate them. You can’t fool your players. They had that feeling, too. It was a mistake.”
Ault, who will be honored at Mackay Stadium Saturday night when the Pack takes on Davis for the first time since 1989, admitted he didn’t handle the week of Nov. 6-12, 1977 well at all.
“I was too emotional,” said Ault, who had a 4-2-1 record in his career against Davis. “I started popping off. I should have kept my mouth shut and concentrated on Davis.”
Davis would go on to the Division II playoffs in 1977 and advance as far as the semifinals before losing at home to Lehigh to end up with an 11-1 record. The stunned Wolf Pack would also lose the following week at home against UNLV to finish 8-3 on the year.
The end to the 1977 season humbled a young Ault.
“It wasn’t the fault of my players,” he said after the 1977 season. “I learned as much football this last season as in all the others combined.”
The Wolf Pack, now in Division I-A, is a three-touchdown favorite this Saturday over Davis, which is now a Division I-AA school. The Wolf Pack of 2013, though, could serve itself well by learning a lesson from the 1977 Wolf Pack.
“That Davis game makes me sick,” Ault said weeks after the loss at Toomey Field. “We should have won. We had better personnel.”