“I know I’ve said it before but we are never going to apologize for a win,” head coach Brian Polian said. “The bottom line is wins are real hard to come by.”
Those were Polian’s same exact words a year ago after a lackluster home-opening 36-7 victory over UC Davis, the last time the Pack played a FCS team from the Big Sky Conference.
“I’m not kidding myself,” said Polian, who has a 5-8 record as head coach since taking over the Wolf Pack before the 2013 season. “I know what we did today won’t beat Washington State (the Pack’s next opponent this Friday at home). But it was the first game. I’m expecting a big leap from Week 1 to Week 2.”
The Wolf Pack is now 15-3 against FCS (formerly known as Division I-AA) opponents since moving to Division I-A in 1992. The nine-point win in front of 21,021 fans, though, is the Wolf Pack’s closest margin of victory over a FCS team since a 24-23 win over the same Thunderbirds in 2003.
“I’m not as disheartened as people might think,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack punted on its first six offensive possessions and led just 7-0 at halftime on a 1-yard touchdown run by freshman James Butler. The Pack ended up punting the ball away seven times in the first half and eight times overall in the game. A year ago against Davis they punted just three times.
“I don’t think the first half was as ugly as people think,” Polian said. “We moved the ball but we just couldn’t sustain drives. We were always just one play away from keeping drives alive.”
The second half was a vast improvement. The Wolf Pack scored three touchdowns in the final 30 minutes, on a 2-yard run by Don Jackson, an 11-yard run by quarterback Cody Fajardo and a 1-yard pass from Fajardo to Patrick Clifford, and jumped out to a commanding 28-6 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“It just takes patience,” said Fajardo, who completed 30-of-41 passes for 303 yards and one score and also ran for 68 yards and a touchdown. “In the first half we had some good drives but we needed four or five more plays on some of those drives to get in the end zone.”
“They wouldn’t let us throw the ball over their heads,” Polian said. “They tried to make us run the ball and dink and dunk short passes. They wanted to make us earn it.”
The Wolf Pack, though, dominated the Thunderbirds in every area but the scoreboard. The Pack piled up 547 yards and 30 first downs on offense and held Southern Utah to 380 and 16. The Wolf Pack offense also controlled the ball for 40:58, leaving the Pack defense to play just 19:02.
“This was just a warm-up,“ said Pack defensive end Brock Hekking, who had one sack. “We got our legs loose and got a game under our belt and got the bad taste out of our mouth (from last year’s 4-8 record).”
The Thunderbirds scored a couple late touchdowns, on a 39-yard pass from Aaron Cantu to Chris Robinson and an 85-yard interception return by Miles Killebrew to make the final score respectable.
Polian, though, wasn’t looking for any style points on Saturday.
“I’d rather be teaching off a victory than teaching off a loss,” Polian said
The Wolf Pack took control of the game in the third quarter.
Fajardo, playing his first game without a knee brace since last year’s Davis game, moved his teammates 85 yards on 12 plays on the Pack’s first drive of the third quarter. The drive saw Fajardo complete six of seven passes in a row and it ended with Jackson’s 2-yard score and a 14-0 lead. Jackson, who has taken over as the Pack’s starting tailback this year, finished with 110 yards on 22 carries.
“We responded very well in the second half,” Fajardo said.
“In the first half we didn’t finish drives,” Polian said. “We did a much better job of finishing in the second half, which is something we didn’t do a year ago.”
The Pack scored again on its second drive of the third quarter as Fajardo and friends covered 79 yards on 12 plays, culminating in Fajardo’s first scoring pass of the year, a one-yard toss to Clifford that gave the Pack a 21-6 lead. The drive also saw Fajardo pick up two crucial first downs on third down, connecting with wide receiver Jerico Richardson both times. Richardson, a sophomore, finished with a game-high 13 catches for 177 yards.
“He played great,” Polian said. “It’s no coincidence he played well because he had the best training camp of all our players,. The light bulb went on for him.”
Richardson had just three catches for 22 yards last season.
“It’s always fun to help contribute to the team,” Richardson said.
“I’m happy for Jerico,” Fajardo said. “It shows how much he has bought into the program. He made us better (on Saturday).”
The Thunderbirds, who finished 8-5 a year ago and qualified for the FCS playoffs, had cut the Pack’s lead to just 14-6 midway through the third quarter as Raysean Pringle broke loose on a busted play for a 71-yard touchdown run.
“That was a play we didn’t prepare for,” Polian said. “They were in the Wildcat formation and our safety took a bad angle. So, instead of tackling him for a 12-yard gain and living to fight another day, they took it to the house. That’s got to stop. That was a problem last year and we’re not going to accept that at all this year. The safety has to go put that guy on the ground.”
The Pack put the game away early in the fourth quarter as Fajardo capped an 85-yard, 10-play drive with an 11-yard touchdown run of his own, leaping over Thunderbird defenders near the goal line to get into the end zone.
“I feel like I did a better job today not taking unnecessary hits,” said Fajardo, who ended many of his 15 runs by sliding. “But on (the touchdown run) I guess there is just something competitive in my mind down near the end zone. I just wanted to get in.”
The touchdown was needed to hold off the Thunderbirds, who scored twice in the final 10-plus minutes. Chris Robinson’s 39-yard touchdown catch cut the Pack’s lead to 28-13 with 10:16 to go and Miles Killebrew’s interception return pulled the Thunderbirds to within 28-19 with 1:59 left.
Southern Utah, though, never got the ball back as Kendall Brock, who lost his starting tailback job this year to Jackson, recovered an on-side kick at the Thunderbird 43-yard line with 1:56 to go.
“That interception at the end is on me,” Polian said. “I own it. It’s not the offensive coordinator. And it’s not the quarterback’s fault. We were running the ball effectively. I heard the play called and my job is to tell them (the offensive coordinator and quarterback) to keep running.”
“I threw it right to him,” Fajardo said. “But I’m not as upset about the interception as I am about missing the tackle.”
Fajardo was pleased with his teammates’ effort despite the closer-than-anticipated final score.
“It was first-game jitters,” he said. “You are obviously going to have jitters and butterflies in your first game. It’s about how you learn from it. This was a good game to get a good taste in our mouth after last year and to get some confidence.”