Derek Kennard Jr.'s first career touchdown couldn't have come at a better time.
The senior playing his last game at Mackay Stadium helped Nevada upset Hawaii 24-14, ensured the Wolf Pack won't suffer their fifth straight losing season and may have saved Coach Chris Tormey's job.
Kennard Jr., son of the former NFL lineman of the same name, returned an interception 11 yards for the go-ahead touchdown as Nevada's defense came up big Saturday. They forced three turnovers and three quarterback sacks while keeping Hawaii's potent passing attack in check.
Kennard Jr. said he was "shocked" when Carl LaGrone tipped Timmy Chang's pass high in the air and the ball came down in his hands late in the third quarter.
"I knew what do with it right when I got the ball. At the same time, it was like, `Man, stuff like this never happens to me,'" the 6-1, 285-pound defensive tackle said about his first ever touchdown.
"I was blessed with soft hands," he said with a smile.
Andy Heiser passed for 169 yards and Damon Fine kicked four field goals for Nevada (6-5, 4-3 Western Athletic Conference), which snapped a three-game losing streak and is hoping for its first winning season since 1998.
Chang passed for 269 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown to Chad Owens, but threw two costly interceptions for Hawaii, (6-4, 5-2 WAC), including Kennard's return for a touchdown that put Nevada ahead for good 18-14 with 6:06 in the third quarter.
In their fourth year under Tormey, the Wolf Pack has steadily improved with records of 2-10, 3-8 and 5-7 last year. But after Nevada got off to a 5-2 start this year, including a big 28-17 upset at Washington, the losing streak ensued and Tormey was back on the hot seat.
"This was a game we had to have," Tormey told reporters after the game.
"There will be no losing season at Nevada this year," he said. "People can say what they want. This program has made progress."
Jorge Cordova, Nevada's star defensive end picked as the WAC's preseason defensive player of the year, said the players stand behind Tormey.
"People on the outside don't understand what is going on in here," Cordova said. "A coaching change, if you were going to ask the players, it would be out of the question. We've grown with these coaches."
Linebacker Daryl Towns had an interception and recovered a fumble for Nevada while LaGrone, Craig Bailey and J.D. Morschek each recorded sacks with help from Cordova.
"I thought they did a nice job of putting pressure up front. They played well today," Hawaii Coach June Jones said.
"We played with a lot of heart today but we didn't play well enough to win," he said. "We played well enough on defense, but not on the offensive side of the ball. We didn't execute on offense."
Talib Wise ran for 78 yards and Chance Kretschmer added 73 yards rushing and scored Nevada's only offensive touchdown on a 1-yard run in a game that saw both teams score consecutive touchdowns in a seesaw third quarter.
"It was just a sense of urgency we had," Wise said. "Nobody wants to lose. We were going out to play our game."
Trailing 6-0 at the half, Hawaii's Abraham Elimimian intercepted Heiser to set up a touchdown pass to Owens. Heiser fumbled on the next play from scrimmage and Travis LaBoy scooped up the ball and ran 16 yards to put Hawaii ahead 14-6 at 10:37 in the third quarter.
Nevada responded with an 80-yard drive capped by Kretschmer's 1-yard TD run at 6:17. Trailing 14-12, the Wolf Pack tried a 2-point conversion but LaBoy pressured Heiser into an incomplete pass.
On the next play from scrimmage, LaGrone Jr. tipped Chang's pass and Kennard returned the interception for the touchdown. But a 2-point pass failed again to leave Nevada ahead 18-14 with 6:06 left in the third.
On the next series, Hawaii's John West ran 19 yards before he was hit by Keone Kauo and fumbled to Towns at Hawaii's 31.
Nine plays later, Fine made a 25-yard field goal to make it 21-14 at 1:58 in the third. His fourth kick from 23 yards put Nevada ahead 24-14 with 11:08 left in the game.
Owens had 12 catches for 164 yards to tie Hawaii's single game record for receptions he already shares with Walter Murray and Craig Strutzmann. But Owens said it was a poor offensive performance.
"To get shut out in the first half is so disappointing," he said.