Flashback Friday: Nevada Beats Boise

Purdue plays Nevada tomorrow in West Lafayette, and it has me reflecting on some of the good times watching Nevada football while an MA student in Reno. This is a repost of something I wrote following the Nevada upset of Boise State on November 27, 2010. It was a thrilling game fought on a frigid night in Reno, I participated in the camp out for tickets, tail-gaiting festivities, and rush of the field I describe below. To this day, it remains one of the most exciting sporting events I have ever attended.

Thousands of new fans were initiated into the Wolf Pack last night. On what will forever be remembered as Blue Friday in Reno. For twelve long years students and die-hards have remained loyal, yet disappointed as Nevada had consistently failed to defeat Boise State. Some of the more recent games were heart-wrenching shootouts, overtime thrillers that took the air of their chests. Yet, they continued to believe.

At the beginning of the season many Wolf Pack fans, young and old, circled this year’s Boise State game on their schedules. They skipped Thanksgiving trips home and focused on the hated Broncos. An early season upset of then-ranked-California intensified their fervor. A national ranking and aura of destiny surrounded the team and fans, building up their hopes.

Some of that hope was stolen by a devastating loss to Hawaii. The Pack’s weaknesses were exposed as they failed to complete a fourth quarter rally. However, not everyone gave up. The team went back to work, winning their next four games. With Boise State up next they stood at 10 – 1 with hope alive for a share of the WAC Title.

Immediately following the New Mexico State blowout excitement began to stir among students. The Boise State game was sold out since September. Standing-room-only-tickets disappeared from box office counters in a matter of hours.

Boise State ranked 4th in the country was the media darling. The Broncos had been a thorn in the side of the BCS for the last three years – winning 24 straight games. Nevada, ranked 19th, was an overlooked and unknown team to many. These feelings intensified and angered the fervor among Wolf Pack fans.

Nationally BCS officials and larger schools were frustrated. Boise State had played and beaten their opponents, but would not schedule difficult, truly tough competition. The Ohio State University President said Boise only played the little sisters of the athletic world and could not compete day-in-and-day-out in a power conference like the Big Ten or SEC. Some Nevada fans felt slighted being lumped in as a little sister and by the media’s assumption that Boise State was nearly guaranteed a win.

The Wolf Pack is full of a pride. Fans believed; they had faith. The first manifestation of what some might consider an irrational hope, appeared amidst gusty 30-degree weather and snow packed grass on a Sunday afternoon a week before the Boise State game, on the Reno campus. It was there that students dressed warm and set up tents. They were awaiting the student ticket give-away – which would begin at 8 A.M. Monday morning. The building did not open until 6 A.M. so to ensure tickets and early entrance the students camped.

The campsite was littered with students wrapped in blankets, some hiding in tents from the arctic air, some sitting in lawn chairs, and others laying on the snow-covered ground. Falling snow and swirling winds nipped at the students fingers and faces. The more prepared students brought propane heaters, generators, and grills. The compound resembled a World War I Russian refugee camp.

Anticipating the large turn out and cold conditions, the Nevada Athletic Department prepared well. The Student Union doors opened promptly at 6 A.M. Students were organized into lines and shuffled into a theater to be entertained and warm themselves up while they waited for the ticket office to open They ensured the campers were rewarded before the late comers, as the line had grown to well-over 500 in the hours before the doors opened.

Throughout the week the student excitement was contagious on campus and around town. Reno Mayor Bob Cashell announced the city would change the lights in the city’s famous “Little Biggest City in the World” arch to blue in support of the football team. Many of the prominent downtown casinos followed suit, leaving a blue hue in the Reno night sky and reinforcing the Athletic Department’s mantra “one community, one Pack.”

Tail-gaters and campers began taking over the University’s north parking lots on Thursday night. Miniature cities came to life early Friday morning. Tents, RVs, grills, fire pits, and stereos sizzled with energy. Periodic Wolf Pack chants broke out among the madness of intoxication and anticipation. Boise State paraphernalia and signs were burned in grills to the loud cheers of surrounding fans.

Die-hards dressed warm and began to line up in the frigid air to enter the stadium hours before the kick off. The student section was buzzing cheering and yelling obscenities as the teams warmed up on the field. The build up to the kick was electric. The addition of Senior Night only added to the fervor.

Nevada received the ball first and began driving. The Wolf Pack had scored on 10 of their previous 11 opening drives. The fans thought this game would be no different. Kaepernick and Taua were moving the ball, picking up yardage and first downs. Then the Broncos intercepted an overthrown pass on a spectacular defensive play. A little air floated out of the student’s sails, but the remained determined to urge the Wolf Pack on to a strong defensive stand.

The Broncos moved the ball swiftly, quickly amassing first downs, eating up big chunks of real-estate. Within no time they arrived in the red-zone poised to score. The defense held them to a field goal. A Pyrrhic victory for many fans.

The Wolf Pack needed to respond but could not. Their offense stalled and they had to punt. The offense showed little rhythm in the first quarter, but defense held. After 15 minutes it was 3 – 0 Boise State, but the second quarter would not be so kind.

The Broncos rolled off 14 unanswered points taking a commanding 17 – 0 lead in the second quarter. Boise State blocked a field goal and continued to have its way with the Wolf Pack offense. Finally the Wolf Pack got on the board scoring a touchdown with just under 6 minutes to go, but the Broncos quickly responded. It was 24 – 7 at halftime.

Commentators thought the game was over and Boise would sail on to another one of its trademark blowout wins. The spread was 14 and the Broncos had covered. Many fans and viewers in the eastern and central timezones turned off the game and went to bed. In the stands some fans began to question their team as well. Would this be just another disappointing loss? Do they have what it takes to comeback? Can they win the big game when it matters?

The Bronco got the ball to start the second half. Fans knew that the defense would have to step it up if they Wolf Pack were to climb back into it. They did, forcing a punt on Boise’s first possession. Nevada responded with a field goal, but it was blocked. The students thought to themselves that everything that could go wrong was going wrong.

The defense went back to work and forced another Boise State punt. A slight glimmer of hope was returning to the Wolf Pack faithful. And then crowd went ballistic as Colin Kaepernick scampered 18 yards for a touch down. Boise State still led 24 – 14 but the Wolf Pack defense had stepped up. They forced another punt and the third quarter ended without a Broncos score.

Nevada had the ball as the fourth quarter began and fans knew the desperately needed to score. Quickly they did, cutting the Boise lead to 3. The Wolf Pack were back in the game and a victory was no longer out of sight.

The stands were rocking. Wolf Pack cheers echoed throughout the stadium during timeouts. Boise State’s offense had lost its rhythm, punting on its first fourth quarter possession. Nevada responded pulling even with a field goal sending the stadium into a frenzy. The game was tied with 5 minutes remaining. The Wolf Pack had scored 13 unanswered points with stymie defense and hard-nosed running. The pressure was all on Boise State.

Calm and collected Kellen more threw a quick screen pass that went for 79 yards and a touch down. Just as the momentum turned to the Wolf Pack, the Broncos sucker punched the fans with a lightening quick strike. With just under 5 minutes to go, Nevada was down 7.

However, the Wolf Pack offense continued to roll grinding out first down after first down. The clock continued to tick as Nevada grew closer and closer to the goal line. On second and seven with less than 20 seconds remaining, Nevada scored a touch down to pull even. Fans rejoiced. The final result would be decided in overtime they thought.

But Titus Young’s 22 yard kickoff return with 13 seconds left set up a 54 yard Kellen Moore pass to the Nevada 9 yard line. Two seconds were left on the clock. The Broncos had a chance to win with 26 yard field goal. The Wolf Pack fans were silenced. They had come this close to lose yet again on a last second heartbreak. It was all too reminiscent of the 12 previous years of losing. But then Kyle Brotzman missed the kick. The stadium exploded with energy. They sang along with Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” The elated Nevada fans had a second chance. There would be overtime after all.

Boise State would get the first chance to score. Determined to silence the crowd, they quickly moved the ball. Driving towards the student section they had first and goal on the 8 yard line. Thanks to a tough Nevada defense the drive stalled into fourth and goal at 12. Brotzman came on to kick again, this time for 29 yards and redemption. The crowd intensely cheered trying to distract the already mentally weak kicker. He missed.

Elation filled Mackay Stadium. Victory was once again within grasp of Wolf Pack fans. The stadium was rocking. All they needed was a field goal. Nevada came out and running on the first play, gaining four yards. A pass sailed incomplete on their second play. On third down they gained another four yards. It was fourth and two on 17 yard line.

With the game hanging in the balance, Coach Ault sent out red-shirt freshman Anthony Martinez. He made a field goal earlier but also had one kick blocked. It was a 34 yard attempt. Brotzman had just missed two shorter attempts. An uneasy anticipation hung over Mackay Stadium for Wolf Pack and Bronco fans alike. Would Nevada win breaking Boise State’s 24 consecutive game win streak? Would the Wolf Pack finally out-dual their arch-nemesis for the first time in 12 years?

The crown was silent with nervous energy. The student section watched with their hands folded in prayer. The kick was up. The ball sailed high over the heads of students, their eyes following it between the uprights and into middle of the net. The Wolf Pack won!

Fan poured out of the stands onto the field, jumping the fences lining the field like a river over a failed dam. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blared from the stadium speakers. Students embraced and sung along. Grown men cried. Blue Friday had finally come and their years of faith were rewarded.

After the game Coach Ault called it the biggest win in Nevada history. It was the first time two top-25 teams had played in Mackay Stadium. It was the Wolf Pack’s first win over a top-10 team. Pollsters and East Coast fans awoke the next day to shocking headlines. Boise State was no longer a Cinderella story and BCS buster. ESPN said someone should call Reno 911. Stewart Mandel wrote “what happens in Reno doesn’t stay in Reno.” The Wolf Pack swelled as Reno was no longer the older step-sister to Las Vegas, but at the center of the national conversation.

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