The University of Nevada, Reno’s record-breaking season had been predicated on offense heading into the No. 13 Wolf Pack’s matchup with Boston College Sunday in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.
When the game was over, however, veteran Nevada coach Chris Ault was quick to point out the difference in the Pack’s grinding 20-13 victory.
“The defense won the game,” Ault said of his defense, which heavily pressured Boston College freshman quarterback Chase Rettig, forced two interceptions and used a constantly shifting front line and an uncanny ability to seal all gaps to neutralize Boston College’s running game. Boston College finished with only 185 yards in total offense, clear proof that first-year defensive coordinator Andy Buh’s plan had been perfect for a tense, physical matchup with a foe from the ACC. “We played as well as we’ve played over the last couple of years," Ault added. "I’m really proud of our defense.”
Rishard Matthews, who had a breakout game in the Pack’s stunning 34-31 victory over then-No. 3 Boise State with 10 catches and a clutch, game-tying touchdown catch with 13 seconds left to force overtime against the Broncos on Nov. 26, continued to come up big when it mattered most for the Pack. Against Boston College, Matthews caught a touchdown pass and returned a punt for another score to lift the Pack to its most successful season ever.
The victory pushed Nevada’s record to 13-1, the program’s most wins ever at the Division I level. In a season of firsts, Boston College became the second BCS school to fall to the Pack. Then-No. 24 Cal lost to Nevada in September. In addition, Nevada’s No. 13 national ranking was its highest ever in the modern era.
Sunday’s victory also helped the Wolf Pack snap a four-game bowl losing skid.
“I’m real proud of them,” Ault, in his 26th season as Nevada’s coach, said. “You go 13-1 at this level and beat the caliber of teams we’ve beaten, it’s a special year. This will go down as probably the greatest football team to play at the University of Nevada.”
Senior quarterback Colin Kaepernick also enjoyed a record-setting night in a game played in front of a near-capacity crowd of more than 40,000 (including an estimated 25,000 Nevada fans) at AT&T Park, the home of baseball’s San Francisco Giants.
Kaepernick threw for 192 yards and a touchdown to top 3,000 yards passing for the season. Coupled with the more than 1,000 rushing yards Kaepernick accumulated, he joined Brad Smith and Vince Young as the only FBS quarterbacks to rush for at least 1,000 yards and pass for more than 3,000 in a single season.
Kaepernick’s play, particularly early in the game, proved critical for Nevada. Boston College entered the game as college football’s top-ranked rushing defense, and Ault’s game plan used a combination of Wing-T misdirection, power running from his well-known “pistol” offense as well as an effective mix of short and medium pass plays to keep the Eagles off-balance. Kaepernick, despite a fumble early in the game, played near-flawless first-half football, hitting 14 of his first 19 passes as Nevada relied on the pass first and the run second, clearly confusing the Eagles.
After a 30-yard touchdown run by Boston College’s Andre Williams, Kaepernick, scrambling to his left, found Matthews for a 27-yard score to tie the game. After a Boston College three-and-out, Matthews returned the Eagles’ punt for a 72-yard touchdown to give the Pack a 14-7 edge. It was Nevada’s first punt return for a touchdown since 2001.
“That’s one of the reasons they brought me here,” Matthews told the Reno Gazette-Journal about his proclivity for big plays. “I saw the outside was open … and it led me to the end zone.”
A 32-yard field goal by Anthony Martinez pushed the Pack’s lead to 17-7.
The two teams traded second-half field goals before the Eagles, aided by two pass interference penalties, moved to within 20-13 on a Nate Freese field goal with 3:52 to play. The Eagles had one last chance to force overtime, and quickly moved 32 yards on a completion from Rettig to Chris Pantale.
Two plays later, Khalid Wooten intercepted Rettig with a little more than two minutes to play, to seal the victory for Nevada.
Kaepernick, who took a knee on three straight plays before he was enveloped by Nevada fans who stormed the field following the final whistle, said Pack’s support was one of the keys to their victory.
“This was the best atmosphere we’ve been in,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal after. “It seemed like all 42,000 fans (paid attendance: 41,063) were from Nevada.”