Leading 42-37 with the ball and five minutes remaining, Air Force faced a third and one from its own 34. And after getting its butt kicked all night, the Nevada defense finally caught a break, then another one, and as all good things come in threes, it got another.
“Sometimes you got to be lucky,” coach Brian Polian said. “Stuff happens. The good part of is that we found a way to take advantage of it.”
The Falcons were flagged for illegal substitutions two consecutive times to cause a third and 11.
“We had a guy on the field that could not be on the field. We had a chance on the third down to convert still,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “The official was dead on.”
After the penalties, Air Force quarterback Karson Roberts hit Sam Gagliano in stride which would have given the Falcons a first down and likely end the game. Instead, Gagliano dropped the ball, forcing only Air Force’s third punt of the game.
And the breaks didn’t end there.
Nevada fumbled the punt but Randy Uzoma recovered the fumble and returned it to midfield where Fajardo marched the offense 50 yards in just more than two minutes, capped with a Fajardo two-yard keeper to put Nevada up for good 45-42.
With 1:30 remaining, Air Force marched into Nevada territory but a Charles Garrett interception at the Nevada 25 secured the Nevada win.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen five minutes at the end as wild as that,” Polian said. “It was just a wild ending but we found a way.”
Despite trailing 21-17 at the half, Nevada dominated Air Force in every offensive category. The Wolf Pack ran 58 plays to the Falcon’s 22, outgained Air Force 335 yards to 198 and held the ball for 20:51.
Air Force’s lead at the half was the direct result of three big first-half plays.
After a five-yard touchdown pass from Fajardo to Wimberly put Nevada up 7-0, Air Force quarterback Karson Roberts broke through the right side of the line for 60 yards to move down to the Nevada six. Jon Lee punched his way into the endzone on the next play to tie the game.
Fajardo’s knee was hit on the following drive and he limped off the field for the second time in as many games for the junior quarterback. Polian believed his quarterback was intentionally kicked by an Air Force defender and will look at the tape to determine if he will send the tape in the conference office or not.
“I just kind of tweaked it a bit so I just kind of panicked and I should have went down,” Fajardo said.
Fajardo limped off the field and didn’t give backup Tyler Stewart the chance to warm up.
Stewart, who completed 14 of 20 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns last week against Hawaii, was intercepted by Christian Spears on the next snap.
“I kind of screwed him there,” Fajardo said.
Outside of a botched fake punt attempt on the opening drive and a punt with 30 seconds left in the first half, it was the only other possession Nevada did not come away with points.
Anthony LaCoste tiptoed down the sideline from eight-yards out four plays later to put the Falcons in front.
A 26-yard field goal off the foot of Brent Zuzo closed the gap to four. Air Force’s Sam Gagliano responded with a 70-yard run down to the Nevada two before Broam Hart bulldozed his way into the endzone from the one to put the Falcons on top 21-10.
Fajardo led a crisp 15-play, 80-yard drive on the next possession that resulted in a perfectly thrown fade route over the safety’s fingertips on third and 19 to shrink the gap back down to four before the half.
Air Force and Nevada traded touchdown drives the entire second half of the defensive struggle before the wild final five minutes.
Fajardo finished with the best night of his career completing 38 of 54 passes for 389 yards, all were career bests. His three touchdown passes tied his career high.
Brandon Wimberly also had a career night hauling in 15 of Fajardo’s passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. His previous high for receptions in a game was 10 set last year against San Diego State.
The senior wide out has now caught a ball in nation-leading 45 consecutive games and he admitted he is not oblivious to the streak.
“I was on ESPN this morning so it was running through my head,” Wimberly said. “It’s good to get the ball, and get it out of the way actually, so I can actually focus on the game.”
Aaron Bradley also had a solid day outside grabbing 11 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown.
The Wolf Pack ran a gaudy 100 plays and racked up 599 yards of total offense. The Air Force offense had fun of its own gaining 453 yards on 62 plays.
Despite the defense, or lack there of, Saturday night, Polian refused to “apologize for the win.”
“Look I know it wasn’t pretty and everybody is going to rail on the defense for how many yards they gave up but we found a way to win,” Polian said.
Nevada improved to 3-2, 2-0 in the Mountain West Conference with the win and plays at San Diego State Friday. Air Force fell to 1-4, 0-4 in the MWC.
“I would rather come of an emotional win than an emotional loss,” Polian said. “But we got to come back down to earth in a hurry because we got a short week and we’re going on the road.”