“I understood what it was,” the Nevada Wolf Pack backup quarterback said. “Once I got in there I just wanted to make something good happen and get out of there with a win.”
The kid from Oakdale, Calif., did a bit more than just make something happen. As it turns out, he might have saved the Wolf Pack’s entire season from becoming a disaster.
“It was a lot of fun,” the 22-year-old said.
It was the stuff of legends.
The first time Combs made his presence felt in a Pack uniform was on the afternoon of Oct. 6 at Mackay Stadium. Fajardo had built a 21-7 lead on the Wyoming Cowboys but a sore hip and back acted up right before halftime and he couldn’t continue.
Combs, who hadn’t thrown a pass in a game since he led Modesto Junior College to an 8-3 record in 2010, was suddenly trusted with the Pack offense in the very first Mountain West league game in Mackay Stadium history.
It didn’t start well for the 6-foot-2, 215-pound quarterback.
That 21-7 lead that Fajardo handed off to Combs before halftime had turned into a 28-21 deficit late in the fourth quarter. The Pack offense was quickly drying up without Fajardo as Combs lost a fumble at the Wyoming 5-yard line with 7:24 to play and his 2-yard run on fourth down at the Wyoming 6-yard line a few minutes later came up two yards short of the first down. With just over a minute to play the Pack was still down by a touchdown and the end zone was 44 yards away.
Then came two bolts of lightning that would change Combs’ Pack career forever.
Combs found a streaking Richy Turner for a 44-yard touchdown pass to send the game into overtime, tied 28-28. And on his second play in overtime Combs found Aaron Bradley for a 24-yard touchdown for the improbable 35-28 victory.
In a span of three plays, Combs found the end zone twice and the Pack stole a victory from the stunned Cowboys. The following week at UNLV, with the Fremont Cannon on the line, he did it all over again.
This time the Pack found itself down 28-7 late in the second quarter and 31-14 at halftime. And on the Pack’s first drive of the third quarter Combs fumbled the ball away into the end zone.
Combs, though, as Pack fans learned, is just short for comeback. The next four Wolf Pack drives all ended in the end zone.
Combs connected with Turner for a 12-yard touchdown to cut UNLV’s lead to 31-21. He moved the Pack 61 yards on 11 plays, capped off by a 3-yard touchdown run by Stefphon Jefferson, to cut the Rebels lead to 31-28. He found tight end Zach Sudfeld on a 7-yard touchdown pass for a 35-31 lead and he scored himself on a 2-yard run to put the Pack up 42-31.
The Pack would beat the Rebels, 42-37, to move to 6-1 on the season and keep the cannon blue for the eighth consecutive year.
All thanks to Combs.
“It happened so quickly at the time,” said Combs of his wonderful six-quarter performance in the middle of the Pack’s season. “The hardest part was just coming in and trying to feel comfortable.”
After the victory over UNLV on Oct. 13, Fajardo’s hip and back healed and Combs did not play the final five regular season games as the Pack went 1-4. Combs did get in for a few plays in the 49-48 loss to Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl but he was just there to give Fajardo a brief rest.
Combs, though, accepted his customary spot back on the Pack bench over the final two months of the season with class.
“I just had to get back in my role,” he said. “Things didn’t really change for me as far as practice was concerned. Like always, I just practiced as if I was going to play and I made sure I stayed ready in case I was needed.”
The Combs-engineered victories over Wyoming and UNLV turned what could have been a disaster of a season at 5-8, with losses in seven of the last eight games, into the Pack’s seventh winning season in the last eight at 7-6.
Combs definitely left his mark on the 2012 season, even though he only played in five games. And three of those appearances he was on the field less than the Pack’s kicking tee. For the season he completed 25-of-39 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns with just one interceptions. He also ran the ball 34 times for 177 yards and one score.
His pass efficiency rating against Wyoming was a sparkling 188.57 and against UNLV it was 171.73. The only game in which a Pack quarterback had a higher pass efficiency rating than Combs’ two games against Wyoming and UNLV was Fajardo’s near-perfect 195.40 performance at Hawaii.
Combs, though, knows he’s not going into spring ball with an eye on Fajardo’s starting job.
“My only concern is to do my job as a member of this team,” Combs said. “It’s not about me. It’s about what’s best for this team and my role is as the backup.”
The six quarters of action against Wyoming and UNLV, though, did wonders for Combs’ confidence. Until the Wyoming game, after all, he had played just one season (2010) since his senior year at Oakdale High in 2007. He took two seasons off from football after high school before joining Modesto JC. He then sat out as a red-shirt at Nevada in 2011.
“The best thing about those two games (against Wyoming and UNLV) was that it made me feel like I finally contributed to the team,” Combs said. “It was nice to be able to show everyone that I can help us win. That part was nice. I could just feel that the guys trusted me more. That was a good feeling, to feel like I actually contributed during a game and played an active role in our success.”
There is a chance that Combs will never start another game in his Wolf Pack career. Fajardo, like Combs, will be a junior in 2013. That doesn’t mean, however, that Combs will look around this off-season for a new home where he could play full-time the next two seasons.
“I’m here,” he said without hesitation. “I like it here. I’m going to graduate next fall. I don’t want to go anywhere. This is where I want to be. I’m good here.”