8:00 PM ET, September 22, 2006
Mackay Stadium, Reno, NV
RENO, Nev. (AP) -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald expects Nevada quarterback Jeff Rowe to end up in the NFL but it was the Wolf Pack defense that came up big, forcing five turnovers and blocking a field goal en route to their first-ever victory over a Big Ten school.
Nevada cornerback Joe Garcia returned his second interception of the game 24 yards for a touchdown with 2:14 left Friday night to help hold off the Wildcats 31-21.
Rowe completed 17 of 22 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns and Robert Hubbard ran for a career-best 156 yards and two scores for the Wolf Pack (2-2), the defending co-champions of the Western Athletic Conference who are 12-2 at home since coach Chris Ault took over in 2004.
"It's a big step for us as a WAC team," Garcia said. "It says a lot about our program. It is a great feeling right now."
Freshman quarterback Mike Kafka ran for 111 yards on 12 carries, but completed only nine of 21 passes for 122 yards and threw three interceptions for Northwestern (2-2).
"I thought they a were very fast defense," Kafka said. "They did some things we game-planned for, and some things we didn't. But I think they are a very good defense."
It marked the first time a Big Ten school had ever played at Nevada, which also forced two fumbles. The only other time the Wolf Pack faced a Big Ten team was a 35-17 loss at Wisconsin in 1993.
Nevada, which plays at rival UNLV next week, beat Colorado State last week after losing on the road to Fresno State and Arizona State.
"You open 0-2 and you are just digging out every week," said Ault, the school's all-time winningest coach now in his third stint in the job.
"It takes an awful lot of attitude to dig out of that. It's a credit to our kids. That was two bowl teams we beat," he said.
Hubbard averaged 4.9 yards on 32 carries and caught a 25-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
"That was a yeoman's job," Ault said. "And you have to give some of the credit to the offensive front."
Rowe, a 6-foot-5 senior, completed 13 of his first 16 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns before the half and Northwestern turned the ball over three times in a 7-minute span in the first quarter as Nevada opened a 24-14 halftime lead.
"[Rowe's] an NFL-caliber player," Fitzgerald said. "He's capable of making big plays. He's a great talent, and he runs the offense extremely well."
Kafka led the Wildcats 55 yards on 10 consecutive running plays to get to Nevada's 15 on his opening drive of the second half, but nose tackle Matt Hines blocked Joel Howells' 32-yard field-goal attempt with 5:55 left in the third quarter.
Northwestern opened its next series on its own 6 after Zacary Whited's 67-yard punt. Kafka threw a pair of 17-yard passes to Shaun Herbert and Eric Peterman, then hit Herbert again for 21 yards before running 13 yards for a touchdown that made it 24-21 with 13:49 left in the game.
Later, on third-and-6 from the Nevada 43, Rowe scrambled toward the sideline before Deante Battle hit him and jarred the ball loose near the first-down marker. The Big Ten officials initially ruled Northwestern's Kevin Mims recovered, but after a review of the replay, overturned the call and gave Rowe a first down at Nevada's 49 with 5:02 remaining.
Nevada punted with 2:47 left, but Garcia stepped in front of Kafka's sideline throw to Ross Lane and raced to the end zone to seal the win.
Northwestern's only lead was 7-0 when Tyrell Sutton scored on a 3-yard run after Kafka hit Lane with a 39-yard pass on the opening drive kept alive by an interference call against Garcia on third-and-goal from the 2.
Garcia made up for it two series later when he intercepted Kafka's pass at Nevada's 17. Rowe then led the Wolf Pack on a five-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 25-yard TD pass he blooped to Hubbard while scrambling to his left under heavy pursuit from three defenders. That made it 7-7 with 5:28 left in the first quarter.
On the next play from scrimmage, Hines stripped the ball from Sutton, and J.J. Milan recovered the fumble at Northwestern's 20. But the Wolf Pack's drive sputtered and, after Nick Roach sacked Rowe for a 9-yard loss, Brett Jaekle made a 32-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead at 2:33.
Three plays into their next drive, the Wildcats turned the ball over again when Jeremy Engstrom intercepted Kafka and returned it 25 yards to the 5 before Hubbard ran 3 yards for a 17-7 lead at 1:02.
Northwestern cut it to 17-14 when Kafka sprinted 55 yards to set up Terrell Jordan's 2-yard touchdown run at 12:51 in the second quarter.
But Rowe finished off a 9-play, 80-yard drive with a 26-yard TD pass to Mike McCoy to make it 24-14 with 9:25 left in the half.
Northwestern's Brendan Smith returned an interception 35 yards to Nevada's 27 but the Wildcats were stopped there and Howells' 39-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left.