Pack Tracks a decade of excellence
by CHAD HARTLEY ’03
Coming off back-to-back bowl game appearances and with the arc of the program firmly moving in an upward direction, the 2020 football season for the Nevada Wolf Pack was one full of anticipation and promise.
But the possibilities of the season have been challenged by the impacts of COVID-19 being felt across the globe. Sadly, the Pack won’t take to the field this year.
And that means the opportunities to celebrate at Mackay with some of the Pack’s greatest teams of the past is also up in the air.
Nevada was set to honor two of the most accomplished football teams in school history in 2020. The 1990 squad that played for the I-AA national championship (now Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS) celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall and the 2010 Wolf Pack “Dream Team,” which made history with its 13-1 overall record, No. 11 ranking and the unforgettable “Blue Friday” victory over then-No. 3 Boise State, is set for its 10th anniversary.
Here’s a look back at perhaps the two greatest teams in Wolf Pack Football history.
The 1990 team wasn’t necessarily predicted for greatness. The year before, Nevada had won seven games and missed out on the I-AA playoffs. But with a solid quarterback tandem of Fred Gatlin ’94 (general studies) and Chris Vargas ’95 (finance), a strong offensive line and some talented skill players, Nevada had plenty of potential offensively to go with a defense led by a solid secondary and a tough front seven, anchored by linebacker Matt Clafton ’93 (civil engineering).
It was a team that had the potential to be a playoff-caliber squad. It turned out to be so much more.
The Pack ripped off nine victories in a row to open the season, but a setback in early November at Boise State actually laid the foundation for the run to the championship game.
One of the shared narratives of the 1990 and 2010 Wolf Pack Football teams is their paths to glory went through rival Boise State. In 1990, that meant avenging the loss at the hands of the Broncos — the only blemish on an otherwise perfect regular season for the Wolf Pack. Nevada lost 30-14 in that game, but the defeat served as the proper motivation for the rest of the season, Vargas and offensive lineman Shahriar Pourdanesh ’93 (marketing) told the Nevada Appeal in 2010 ahead of the team’s 20-year reunion.
“That loss at Boise was shocking for us,” Vargas told the newspaper. “That Monday after that game it was like a ghost town. It was weird. Coach Ault wasn’t out there at practice right away. There was no sound. It was so quiet. I think we were all still shell-shocked. But after that loss to Boise we really practiced with a purpose the rest of the year. It jolted us a little and we never forgot that loss the rest of the year.”
“You know, sometimes a loss can help you, sometimes it helps you even more than if you would have won that game,” Pourdanesh said. “We were starting to feel too good about ourselves. They kicked us in the teeth. And we knew it was time to wake up.”
Nevada did just that. The 1990 team cruised in the regular season finale to finish at 10-1. Nevada beat Louisiana-Monroe in the opening round of the playoffs and then survived triple overtime against Furman in the quarterfinals to set up the rematch in the I-AA semifinals against Boise State. This time, Nevada would not come up short.
Running back Ray Whalen ’97 (criminal justice) had a career day, rushing for 245 yards and three touchdowns, scoring the decisive touchdown on an 8-yard run in triple overtime as Nevada exacted revenge with a 59-52 victory, one of the greatest games ever at Mackay Stadium.
The season would come to a disappointing end, however, a week later in Statesboro, Georgia, where the Pack fell to Georgia Southern in the national championship game.
“The 1990 team was a dominant, championship team that played with a forceful and unrelenting passion”
“The 1990 team was a dominant, championship team that played with a forceful and unrelenting passion,” said longtime head coach Chris Ault ’69 (physical education). “It planted the seed and lit the torch that eventually propelled Nevada football into the highest division of college football, the FBS.”
That seed sprouted a number of times over the ensuing 20 years, but the biggest bloom came in 2010, once again with Ault at the helm.
"The 2010 team is arguably the finest football team to ever wear the Silver & Blue."
“The 2010 team is arguably the finest football team to ever wear the Silver & Blue. It solidified Wolf Pack Football as a nationally relevant program and at the same time left our community, University and alumni with a season of memories that will no doubt stand the test of time,” the Hall of Fame coach said.
The 2010 Wolf Pack team entered the season with high expectations — the program had gone to bowl games for the previous five years and was an experienced squad led by a group of talented seniors, including quarterback Colin Kaepernick ’10 (management), running back Vai Taua ’10 (general studies), tight end Virgil Green ’10 (criminal justice) and defensive end Dontay Moch (attended 2006-11). All of them would later play in the NFL.
After wins against Eastern Washington and Colorado State to open the season, the Wolf Pack proved its worth with a week-three trouncing of No. 24 Cal, 52-31. Wins followed against Brigham Young University, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and San Jose State, and Nevada took a perfect 6-0 mark to Hawaii in mid-October. The result was devastating at the time as Nevada suffered its lone loss of the season with a 27-21 setback to the Rainbow Warriors.
But like 1990, that loss proved to be the motivation for the rest of the year, and again like 1990, the path would go through Boise State.
Nevada rebounded with four straight wins to set up the showdown against No. 4 Boise State on Nov. 26, 2010.
It was the day after Thanksgiving, and the comeback win was immediately known as “Blue Friday.” But it did not come easy. Nevada fell behind early and trailed by as many as 17 points in the second half. But the Pack rallied with a stingy defensive effort and a stellar performance by Kaepernick, who accounted for more than 300 yards of total offense and two touchdowns in the game. His lone touchdown pass was a 7-yarder to Rishard Matthews (attended 2010-14) with just 13 seconds left to tie the game.
But then, Boise State hit a big pass play on a Hail Mary, giving the Broncos a chance to win the game in regulation. The kick was off the mark and the game went to overtime. In the extra period, Boise State again missed a field goal, but Nevada’s Anthony Martinez ’14 (communication studies) did not. The Reno native drilled a 34-yarder to complete the greatest win in school history, 34-31.
The following week, Nevada clinched a share of the Western Athletic Conference title and more than 30,000 Pack fans invaded the Bay Area the following January to see Nevada complete the best season in school history with a 20-13 win over Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.