Wolf Pack grades: Football gods smile on Nevada

Nevada’s Daiyan Henley reacts as he’s about to cross the goal line on an interception returned for a touchdown Nov. 6, 2021 against San Jose State at Mackay Stadium in Reno. (Photo: Thomas Ranson/NNG)

Nevada’s Daiyan Henley reacts as he’s about to cross the goal line on an interception returned for a touchdown Nov. 6, 2021 against San Jose State at Mackay Stadium in Reno. (Photo: Thomas Ranson/NNG)

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Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 27-24 victory over the San Jose State Spartans last Saturday at Mackay Stadium:
Even when Carson Strong is not at his best, he is still the best quarterback on the field and one of the greatest in school history.
Strong was 36-of-54 for 314 yards and a touchdown against the Spartans. For most quarterbacks that is a career game. For Strong it is just a reason to watch more game film during the week. Yes, the Spartans picked off two of his passes, just the fourth time in Strong’s career and second time in his last 25 games he’s thrown more than one interception. Those 314 yards are also the fewest of his career when attempting 50 or more passes in a game since the 295 he threw against Purdue in the first start of his freshman year in 2019. San Jose State took away the deep ball most of the night, holding Strong to just one completion of more than 20 yards.
Strong, though, takes what you give him and he beats you. Tied 17-17 with just 7:17 to go in regulation, Strong led the Pack 87 yards in seven plays to a touchdown, a 20-yard strike to Romeo Doubs with 5:26 to play. The play before Strong found Justin Lockhart for 19 yards on 3rd-and-5. On the third play of the drive he connected with Melquan Stovall for 43 yards. Tied 24-24 with 1:47 to go, Strong found Doubs for 20 and later hit Stovall for 12 on 4th-and-9 with about half a minute to play, setting up Brandon Talton’s game-winning 45-yard field goal with three seconds left.
Toa Taua and Devonte Lee returned to the Pack offense against the Spartans. They didn’t score a touchdown and the Pack didn’t jump on their backs and ride them to a victory. But Taua and Lee were used throughout the game and weren’t forgotten, which is a welcome improvement.
Taua had 57 yards on 16 carries and had runs of 10 and 11 yards. Lee had 22 yards on eight carries, including a 3-yard gain on a 4th-and-2 play in the second quarter. The Pack ground game, overall, wasn’t impressive on the stat sheet with just 53 yards on 30 carries but that wasn’t the fault of Taua and Lee. The two, after all, had a respectable 79 yards on 24 carries combined. Strong, though, lost 26 yards on three sacks, ruining the rushing stats.
Taua also caught six passes for 43 yards, giving him an even 100 yards on 22 touches. It’s the first time since the Boise game in Week 4 that he’s had at least 100 yards rushing and receiving combined. Lee also hauled in two passes so the two backs combined for a total of 130 total yards rushing and receiving.
Strong found Romeo Doubs, Melquan Stovall, Cole Turner and Tory Horton at least five times each for completions. Nobody is ignored in the Pack passing game.
Stovall, who has carved a niche within this talented group as one of the most clutch receivers in the conference, led the way with seven catches. Doubs and Turner had six and Horton had five. Justin Lockhart also had three. Doubs’ 20-yard score in the fourth quarter was a huge play as was Stovall’s 12-yard catch on 4th-and-9 in the final minute.
Doubs now has touchdowns in four consecutive games, his longest TD streak since he scored in the first five games last year. He now has 20 career touchdown catches, just one of 11 Pack receivers in history with 20 or more.
Strong, it seemed, was pressured all night by the Spartans. The Pack offensive line allowed three more sacks, including one on the game-winning drive that could have been disastrous. Strong’s ability to get the ball away quickly, on time and accurately prevented about another three or four Spartan sacks.
The Pack has now allowed three or more sacks in six of its last seven games. Quarterback sacks are the price the pass-happy Air Raid historically pays. But 22 sacks over the last eight games is a bit too much. This offensive line, it seems, has also forgotten how to run block. Taua and Lee are talented enough to average five yards a carry but behind this offensive line they averaged just over three against the Spartans. The week before against UNLV it was less than two a carry.
Nobody on the defensive line (or on the entire defense) had a sack despite 49 Spartan passes. San Jose State also averaged nearly six yards on each of its 28 rushing attempts. Spartan running back Tyler Nevens had 116 on just 14 carries.
Jack Powers probably had the best play of the night on the defensive line when he dropped San Jose’s Shamar Garrett for a 5-yard loss on a 3rd-and-2 play in the first quarter. The Spartans Matt Mercurio then missed a 45-yard field goal on the next play. Sam Hammond had a solid game with four tackles, two for a loss.
This group is better than what they showed on Saturday. Then again, it must be noted that the defensive line blocked for more touchdowns (two, on a fumble return and interception return) than the Pack offensive line (one).
Daiyan Henley continues to be one of the most productive linebackers in the Mountain West. He picked up a San Jose State fumble and went 56 yards for a touchdown for the game’s first touchdown in the first quarter. Henley, who had five tackles against the Spartans, also returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown against UNLV the week before to close the scoring.
Lawson Hall had seven tackles, one for a loss. And Christian Swint had a meaningful game with four tackles, one for a loss. Without Henley’s touchdown return this would have been a disappointing evening for the linebackers, who allowed nearly six yards a rush and never got to the Spartan quarterbacks. But Henley did score and usually does something meaningful every game.
San Jose quarterbacks Nick Starkel and Nick Nash attempted 49 passes but only averaged less than six yards per attempt. So they weren’t shredding the Pack secondary all night long.
Berdale Robins had a memorable 86-yard touchdown return of an interception and Tyson Williams also had an interception as well as a team-high 13 tackles. A.J. King had five tackles and knocked away two passes. And Jordan Lee forced the fumble that Henley returned 56 yards for a score.
This Pack secondary has been underrated all year and a big reason why the Pack is knocking on the door of its first Mountain West championship. Head coach Jay Norvell loves athletic wide receivers and defensive backs and those two units are usually in the middle of everything good that has happened with this Pack team all year.
Brandon Talton won the game with a 45-yard field goal with three seconds left and also booted a 51-yarder in the third quarter. But the rest of the evening, for the most part, was one hide-your-eyes moment after the other by the special teams.
Jordan Lee was called for a block in the back early in the first quarter, wiping out a 37-yard punt return by Romeo Doubs. Julian Diaz did have a solid 46-yard punt early in the first quarter, a 55-yarder in the second quarter and a 61-yarder in the third, but he also had first-quarter punts of 27 and 29 yards.
Christian Swint was called for a personal foul on a Spartan punt late in the first quarter. Talton missed a 56-yarder early in the second quarter and a 37-yarder with 2:25 left before halftime. His second-quarter nightmare continued when his 52-yarder was blocked to end the half.
The Pack was also flagged for running into San Jose State punter Will Hart with a minute to go in the first half but, for some silly reason, San Jose State declined the penalty. Jamaal Bell returned a Spartan kickoff just five yards (to the Nevada 11) in the third quarter.
Jay Norvell’s best quality this year is that he is, for the most part, staying out of the way of his players. Norvell is trusting their experience, talent and determination, three things he nurtured and built the last four years, to win these type of ugly games.
The Pack, which certainly didn’t play like a well-oiled machine, doesn’t win this game even last year. It was, overall, one of their most inconsistent efforts of the year in all three phases. Take away the plays by Henley and Robins and, well, we’d be having totally different conversations right now. But Henley and Robins did make those plays. Strong made enough plays in the fourth quarter. Talton kicked that 45-yarder with the game on the line. And Norvell all along trusted they would.
Make no mistake Norvell isn’t out-coaching anybody this year. In fact, San Jose’s Brent Brennan impacted the game in a more positive way than Norvell on Saturday. There’s no way that Spartan team should be tied with the Pack on the road with mere seconds to play. Brennan’s defense stymied one of the best quarterbacks in the country for most of the game and his offense piled up 449 yards and three touchdowns (to the Pack’s 367 and one).
But Norvell has always been one of those coaches that worries more about coaching his own players than out-coaching the guy on the other sideline. His coaching is done from Sunday through Friday. He then trusts the players to go out and win on Saturday and, so far, that has happened seven-of-nine times this year and 14-of-18 times the past two years.
This was a game the Pack probably deserved to lose. But that’s OK. The football gods owed them one after that Fresno State loss two weeks ago. But this one, which was tied 7-7 at the half, was a mess until the last two minutes. The Pack didn’t score an offensive touchdown until there was 5:26 left in the game. The last time the Pack offense waited longer to get into the end zone was Oct. 26, 2019 in a 31-3 loss at Wyoming.
Carson Strong was picked off twice and Brandon Talton missed two field goals and had another one blocked. San Jose State kicker Matt Mercurio, one of the most consistent kickers in the Mountain West, also missed two 45-yard field goals. San Jose State’s offense also scored three times (3-1) as many touchdowns as the Pack offense. The Pack did a lot of things that warranted a loss on Saturday. If the game was played in San Jose, well, that’s likely what would have happened.
But two defensive touchdowns covered a multitude of Pack sins. And it also didn’t hurt that San Jose State was playing a quarterback (Nick Starkel) who last saw the field six weeks ago. The Pack simply should play better at home in November against a .500 team with the division title at stake. If you didn’t think this Pack team was a team of destiny, well, you should now.


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