'Battle-tested' Pack hosts San Jose State

San Jose State quarterback Nick Nash runs against UNLV at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Oct. 21, 2021. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

San Jose State quarterback Nick Nash runs against UNLV at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Oct. 21, 2021. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

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San Jose State Spartans coach Brent Brennan apparently is a big Nevada Wolf Pack football fan.
“Nevada is an excellent football team,” said Brennan, whose Spartans will take on the Wolf Pack Saturday night (7 p.m., FS2, 94.5-FM) at Mackay Stadium. “They have excellent players at every position.”
The Wolf Pack was a 10-point favorite this week in Nevada sports books to beat the defending Mountain West champions. Brennan’s comments this week, though, suggest that spread might be too small.
“They are incredibly hard to defend,” said Brennan, who guided the Spartans to a 30-20 victory last season over the Wolf Pack in Las Vegas. “This is such a challenging game in all three phases. This Nevada team is good at all of it.”
The Wolf Pack, 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Mountain West, has won four of its last five games, averaging 42.6 points a game over those five games. The Pack will also take an eight-game winning streak at Mackay Stadium into Saturday’s home game. San Jose State (5-4, 3-2) has lost nine consecutive games at Mackay (allowing an average of 41 points a game) and is just 2-13-2 in Reno since the rivalry began in 1899.
“Jay Norvell is an excellent coach,” said Brennan of the Pack head coach. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good he is. He’s one of the best coaches in the country but he doesn’t get that kind of love.”
Just two Pack coaches, Chris Tormey in 2000 and Clarence Leon “Brick” Mitchell in 1934, have ever lost to San Jose State in a game played in Reno. Mitchell’s Pack lost to the Spartans 10-0 and scored just 15 points all season in nine games.
Scoring points likely won’t be a problem for the Pack on Saturday. The Pack is led by quarterback Carson Strong, who has thrown for 2,883 yards and 24 touchdowns this year and leads the Mountain West at 360.4 yards a game. He has also thrown at least one touchdown in his last 22 games. He’s only faced San Jose State once in his career, throwing one touchdown last year.
“There’s no question Carson Strong is an NFL player,” said Brennan, whose defense held Strong to 260 yards last year and shut out the Pack in the second half at Sam Boyd Stadium. “He has a great ability to diagnose the defense and deliver the ball accurately.”
The Spartans, which went 7-0 against Mountain West opponents last year and beat Boise State 34-20 for the league title, beat the Wolf Pack last year with big plays. Quarterback Nick Starkel found wide receiver Jermaine Braddock for a 33-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and in the third quarter Shamar Garrett returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and running back Tyler Nevens went 69 yards for another score.
“We have to do a better job of eliminating explosive plays,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack wasted a 20-7 lead against San Jose State last year.
“This is a team that beat us a year ago in a game that really was an important game. And it stung.”
The Wolf Pack has already avenged one of its two losses last year, whipping Hawaii 34-17 at Mackay Stadium last month.
“Sometimes lessons learned are hard lessons,” Norvell said. “We learned some lessons from that game (the loss to San Jose State). But we’re just a more mature group of guys now. We’ve been battle-tested.”
Many of the same faces will be on the field Saturday that were present a year ago when the two teams met in Las Vegas. Last season, after all, did not count as a year of eligibility because of COVID-19 restrictions and most players returned this season.
“The biggest carryover is that a lot of the guys are the same,” Brennan said. “We didn’t have the natural transition of people graduating. So we’re looking at a lot of similar personnel and so are they on our side.”
The Spartans feature a familiar face on their coaching staff. Eric Scott, a Norvell assistant from 2017-20, is now San Jose State’s wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. Nevens, who had 184 yards on just a dozen carries against the Pack last year, is back and leads San Jose State with 583 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Tight end Derrick Deese Jr., who caught a 5-yard scoring pass against the Pack last year, leads the Spartans with 35 catches for 627 yards and three scores this year.
The big difference in the Spartans this year, though, is that Nick Nash has taken over for an injured Nick Starkel at quarterback. Starkel, who threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns against Nevada last year, played the first four games this year, throwing for 992 yards and six touchdowns. Nash, who began the year at wide receiver, has thrown for 938 yards and six scores, completing just 70-of-125 passes. Strong, for example, has thrown for eight touchdowns and 893 yards, completing 86-of-110 passes, over just his last two games against Fresno State and UNLV. He had just as many touchdowns in one game (six against New Mexico State) as Nash has thrown in five games.
Brennan, though, is well aware that Nash has saved the Spartans’ season after Starkel’s injury. “He’s an extremely competitive player,” Brennan said, “like hyper competitive.”
Nash has thrown just one touchdown pass over his last three games. The last two games, in victories over UNLV (27-20) and Wyoming (27-21), he ran for almost as many yards (233) as he threw (363).
“It was awesome to see him get out and attack the field like he did,” said Brennan of Nash’s 112 rushing yards on 11 carries last week against Wyoming. “I’m also excited to see the progress he’s making as a thrower. I think we’re going to see great things from him.”
There is also a chance the Wolf Pack will see Starkel on Saturday. Brennan has been purposely vague the last month on when his starting quarterback would return to the field.
“We don’t talk about injuries here,” Brennan said last month.
This week, though, Brennan did say, “I absolutely hope he’s available sometime soon. You will absolutely see him before the season is over.”
Without Starkel, the Spartans just might not be able to keep up with the high-scoring Wolf Pack. Nevada leads the Mountain West with 37.6 points a game while San Jose State is 10th at 21.1 points a game. The Wolf Pack is also third at 456.6 yards a game while the Spartans are eighth at 351 a game. Nevada has scored 32 or more points in six of eight games while San Jose State has scored 32 or more just twice in nine games and just 81 points over its last four Mountain West games with Nash as the starter.
“This is probably the toughest road opponent we’ve had,” said Brennan, whose Spartans are 2-3 away from home this year with wins at UNLV and Hawaii and losses at USC, Western Michigan and Colorado State.
The Wolf Pack is a confident bunch right now, no matter who and where they play.
“We have to keep pushing for improvements,” Norvell said. “We’re still not playing our best football. We can play better.”
The Wolf Pack, Norvell said, hopes to sweep its next four opponents (San Jose State, San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State), finishing first in the West Division and hosting the Mountain West title game Dec. 4.
Fresno State (7-2, 4-1), which beat Nevada 34-32 two weeks ago, and San Diego State (7-1, 3-1) appear to be the biggest roadblock to those Pack plans right now. San Jose State, though, could also vault into a first-place tie with Fresno State at 4-2 in league play with a victory on Saturday at Mackay Stadium combined with a Fresno State loss to Boise State and a San Diego State loss at Hawaii this weekend.
“We have high aspirations,” Norvell said. “We just became bowl eligible (with a 51-20 win over UNLV last Friday) but, to be honest, that wasn’t our top goal going into this season. Our goals are higher than that.”


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