Colorado State’s offensive outburst in the second and third quarters was just enough to hold off an improbable Nevada comeback and leave Reno with their first conference win of the season.
The Rams built a 31-3 lead behind the familiar Garrett Grayson-to-Rashard Higgins connection, lockdown coverage by the secondary and sound tackling from the entire defense. But late in the third quarter CSU’s offense stagnated, the defense looked tired and Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo found his rhythm.
Nevada scored 21 unanswered points to bring themselves back within one score, but DeAndre Elliot had one more big play left in him. He made a huge interception in the end zone with less than a minute on the clock to save the Rams from an almost-epic collapse.
“We are always happy (to win),” CSU quarterback Garrett Grayson said. “It wasn’t the way we wanted to win — it got a little ugly at the end — but at the end of day, it’s a conference win, so we are happy for where we are at.”
The Wolfpack tested CSU’s corners early by throwing at both Bernard Blake and DeAndre Elliot in their first offensive drive of the game. The result: three and out.
Nevada must have seen matchups that they thought they could exploit and quarterback Cody Fajardo continued to go at them, but Blake and Elliot were having none of it.
“We knew coming out this was going to be a challenge,” Blake said. “I had a mindset coming into the game that no matter who I was lined up against, I was going to give them my all. We were happy about the win, but we know you can’t have a fourth quarter like that.”
Steven Walker caught a wide-open one-yard touchdown for the first score of the game and the offense took off from there. The Rams were able build a big lead by capitalizing on repeated breakdowns in coverage.
The Wolfpack stayed with zone coverage for most of the game to avoid leaving any defensive back on an island with Rashard Higgins, but to no avail. The sophomore receiver had a career-high 194 receiving yards thanks in part to extremely wide-open 42- and 51-yard touchdown receptions.
But CSU, perhaps too used to playing from behind, was not quite sure what to do with the lead. They took their foot off of the pedal a little too early, allowing Nevada to fight their way back. Dee Hart’s nine-yard touchdown run with 4:48 in the third quarter would be the Rams’ last points of the night.
Despite Nevada’s best efforts though, Garrett Grayson’s surgeon-like performance through three quarters was just too much too overcome.
“It’s just something we need to learn from as an offense, we need to learn from as a team,” Grayson said. “We can’t just leave our defense out there to dry like we did.”
Some Nevada fans had already started filing out of Mackay Stadium by the time the Wolfpack began to fight back.
Wolfpack quarterback Cody Fajardo had ample time to throw, but had trouble finding open receivers in the first three quarters. He restored his team’s confidence by scampering in for a touchdown from 19 yards out late in the third quarter.
The Wolfpack looked rejuvenated, open targets suddenly became abundant and the CSU defense that had been air-tight for most of the game started to get picked apart.
The Rams caught a big break when a questionable offensive pass-interference call wiped out a 63-yard touchdown.
DeAndre Elliot made the most of the second chance by picking off Fajardo in the end zone to seal the win for CSU. It was not pretty in the fourth quarter, but the Rams are now 5-1 on the season and 1-1 in the conference with their hopes of winning the Mountain division still alive.
“Obviously, we had to hang on a little bit, but it’s another opportunity for us to teach, and I’m looking forward to learning some lessons from this,” CSU head coach Jim McElwain said. “And yet, you know what? We won and beat a very good football team, so I’ll take it.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Emmett McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @emccarthy22.