Brent Brennan just might be the Nevada Wolf Pack’s biggest fan.
“I feel like we are playing a very, very hot football team (Nevada) right now,” the San Jose State Spartans head coach said this week. “They are playing with a huge amount of confidence.”
The Wolf Pack (6-4, 4-2), riding a three-game winning streak, will take on the Spartans (1-9, 1-5) this afternoon (noon, ESPN3) at CEFCU (Citizens Equity First Credit Union) Stadium. The Pack has won eight of its last nine against the Spartans, including a 59-14 knockout last season at Mackay Stadium
“They are much improved even though their record doesn’t show it,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said.
The Wolf Pack, which finished 3-9 a year ago in Norvell’s first year, is also much improved and the record does show it. The Pack also qualified for a bowl game last week for the first time since 2015 with a 49-10 win over Colorado State.
Brennan, who has a 3-20 record in two seasons at San Jose State (Norvell is 9-13 in two seasons at Nevada), clearly considers the Wolf Pack one of the elite teams in the Mountain West.
“Watch them play defense,” Brennan said. “They are aggressive and run to the football. They are playing their tails off.”
Brennan, in particular, has been impressed with Wolf Pack linebacker Malik Reed. Reed has 12.5 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries this season and is a legitimate candidate for Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.
“Malik Reed is lightning off the edge,” Brennan said. “He is (former NFL defensive end) Dwight Freeney.”
Freeney, who played 16 seasons in the NFL, mainly with the Indianapolis Colts, played at 6-foot-1, 268 pounds. Reed is 6-2, 235.
“When I watch him, oh my goodness, he is a really good player,” Brennan said. “But they have good players everywhere.”
Brennan made it sound this week as if he hopes his struggling Spartans can someday become the next Wolf Pack.
“Their linebacker Lucas Weber shows up all over the tape,” Brennan said. “They use him as a blitzer. They use him in coverage. He’s a great space player. He’s great coming after the quarterback. This is a real dynamic defense we have to deal with.”
Brennan, though, is even more impressed with the Wolf Pack offense. The Pack averages 33.8 points and 433.8 yards a game.
“Their quarterback (Ty Gangi) is outstanding,” Brennan said. “He has really become a fantastic player.”
Gangi passed for 404 yards and four touchdowns against Colorado State. It’s his third career 400-yard game and the most yards for a Pack quarterback this year. Gangi is currently ninth in Wolf Pack history in attempts (878), completions (531) and yards (6,569) and 10th in touchdown passes (53) with three games left to play (two in regular season and one bowl game).
“Everything runs through their quarterback,” Brennan said. “He just continues to connect on the deep balls. He throws it accurately and he makes good decisions. He has been a great stabilizing force for them.”
The Spartans have struggled this season to stop any offense. San Jose State allows 37.4 points and 494.4 yards a game. Utah State shredded the Spartans for 804 yards and 33 first downs in a 62-24 victory just last week.
“I feel like everyone we play is high scoring,” Brennan said.
The Pack, which beat the Spartans 62-7 at San Jose State in 2009, should be no different on Saturday. The Wolf Pack leads its series with the Spartans 20-9-2 and has won eight of 15 games in San Jose State in the 119-year-old rivalry. The first time the Pack met the Spartans was 1899 in Reno (a 6-0 Pack win), in the Pack’s fourth season of football and 13th game.
“Their running backs are kind of by committee but their freshman (Toa Taua) is an awesome player,” Brennan said. “He’s going to be a great player in this conference for a long time.”
Taua has 665 yards and five touchdowns this year and is hoping to become the first freshman in Wolf Pack history to rush for 1,000 yards since Matt Milton in 2002 (1,108 yards). He had 83 yards on just 12 carries against Colorado State, including a 48-yard burst up the middle.
“(The offensive line) has been opening up holes left and right,” Taua said. “On my biggest run (the 48-yarder), that was one of the biggest holes I’ve seen in college.”
“Toa has really given us a dynamic we were missing last year,” Norvell said. “Last year we’d block a play and get a (running back) into the secondary and we wouldn’t make as many big plays. Toa is really explosive.”
“We recruited Toa also,” Brennan said. “We watched him play last year (at Lompoc, Calif., High School). What a good player he was. It’s obviously translated into the college game. You have to get a lot of people to the ball carrier anytime you play a back like that, a player who runs with his combination of speed and power.”
The Wolf Pack has outscored Hawaii, San Diego State and Colorado State by a combined 117-56 during its three-game winning streak. Gangi has completed 72-of-107 passes for 886 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception during the winning streak. It’s the first time he has gone three consecutive games without being intercepted since he became a starter late in the 2016 season.
“They (the Pack players) all believe in Ty,” said Norvell, who has won eight of his last 13 games as Pack coach. “Ty fully has this team. He gets it. He totally understands our system. He threw the ball around (against Colorado State) as well as he ever has.”
The Wolf Pack is a two-touchdown favorite this weekend, just as it was a week ago against Colorado State. The Spartans, whose lone victory this season was over UNLV (50-37) three weeks ago, haven’t had a winning season since 2012 when they were in the Western Athletic Conference and haven’t even won two games in a row since 2013. The Spartans have had just three winning seasons since 1992.
“You have to focus on every team as if they are the best team,” Wolf Pack running back Devonte Lee said.
San Jose State has been outscored 211-87 in the first half of games this season. The Pack led the Spartans 38-7 at halftime last year at Mackay Stadium.
“It’s a great feeling in our locker room right now,” Taua said with a smile. “It’s a great feeling just going out and executing what we’ve been working so hard on all week (in practice).”
The Wolf Pack still has a chance at a West Division title. The Pack trails Fresno State (8-1, 5-1) by a game and is tied with San Diego State (7-3, 4-2). There’s a legitimate chance all three teams could finish the season at 6-2 in conference. Fresno State must play San Diego State and San Jose State, both at home. The Pack finishes next week at UNLV (3-7, 1-5) and San Diego State plays at Fresno State before hosting Hawaii (6-5, 3-3).
“We’re not mathematically eliminated from the division title,” Norvell said. “We just want to continue to play hard and see what happens. We still have a lot to accomplish.”