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The Nevada football team takes the field Oct. 30, 2021 to face UNLV at Mackay Stadium in Reno.

Thomas Ranson/NNG The Nevada football team takes the field Oct. 30, 2021 to face UNLV at Mackay Stadium in Reno.

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The Nevada Wolf Pack hasn’t played many games in its 125-year football history as important as this Saturday’s game against the San Diego State Aztecs in Carson, Calif. You can almost count the number of games in Pack history on one hand with as much at stake, under as much pressure and with just as much to lose as this Saturday’s possible program-changing moment.
A West Division title and a spot in the Mountain West title game is likely on the line. But those are just the surface prizes. A spot in a meaningful (that is, a non-Mountain West-connected) bowl game will also disappear. Hopes of a Top 25 ranking will vanish. We won’t start the conversation that Jay Norvell is one of the greatest coaches in program history and quarterback Carson Strong is one of the greatest winners if the Pack loses on Saturday. The season, which began with such lofty promise, excitement, hope, anticipation and, yes, expectations, will forever have a what-might-have-been feel to it if the Pack leaves Southern California with a loss. That’s not how this season is supposed to end.
Which games in Pack history can compare in importance with Saturday night? Boise State in 2010, with a Western Athletic Conference title at stake. Georgia Southern in the 1990 Division I-AA national title game. Boise State in 1990, Georgia Southern in 1986 and Furman in 1985 with a spot in the I-AA championship game on the line. Youngstown State in 1991 with a berth in the I-AA national semifinals at stake. That’s really about it.
Yes, of course, there were meaningful games in other seasons with possible conference titles and meaningless bowl trophies on the line. And, of course, every UNLV game in history was important, in a Silver State sort of way. But those types of games happen most every year. Nobody was flashing Top 25 votes and significant bowl game spots in front of the Pack’s noses in those games. Few Pack games have offered as many national implications and program-changing moments as the six mentioned above and this Saturday.
We’ve waited nearly 30 years for the Pack to turn the corner and become a consistent winner on a national level in Division I-A. Don’t forget that the Pack in 1992 was an established national power in Division I-AA, capable of winning a national championship every year. But the Pack left all that behind starting in 1992.
Yes, the Pack chose Division I-A money over I-AA championships and, well, we’ve been left with mediocrity and broken promises for the most part for three decades. We thought the program turned a corner with the win over Boise State in 2010. But that so-called program-changing moment ended with a 69-20 loss at Oregon in the first game the very next season. That could, of course, happen again even if the Pack wins on Saturday and goes on to win the Mountain West title.
Don’t underestimate what a victory on Saturday could, in theory, do for this Pack program. Yes, it could be the beginning of the era of championships and national recognition that the Wolf Pack promised us back in 1992 when it moved to Division I-A. But it would also mean much more.
It would mean that coach Jay Norvell had made good on his promise back in December 2016 of making the Wolf Pack the signature program of the Mountain West. A win on Saturday would likely get the Wolf Pack a spot in the Top 25. A win on Saturday could vault the Pack to a division title and a spot in the Mountain West title game and that title game would most likely be at Mackay Stadium against either Boise State (can you say, “Pack sellout?”), Utah State or Air Force. A win on Saturday, as well as a win in the conference title game, would likely give the Pack a spot in a bowl game someone east of Winnemucca has actually heard about. A win on Saturday might mean that we’ve seen the end, for now, of disappointing crowds at Mackay Stadium, like the 17,770 that showed up to see the Pack beat San Jose State just this past Saturday.
A win on Saturday means that all Pack things are indeed possible.
The Wolf Pack should beat the San Diego State Aztecs. The Aztecs opened this week as a 2 ½-point favorite in most sports books. But that means nothing. Put that game at Mackay and the Pack might be a touchdown favorite and would win by two touchdowns.
Here is why the Wolf Pack will beat the Aztecs: The Pack has won three games in a row against San Diego State, beating them in 2018 and 2020 at home and 2019 in San Diego. The Pack also beat the Aztecs in 2014 at Mackay and has won four of the last seven games in the rivalry.
The oddsmakers, for some reason, think San Diego State will have the home field advantage this Saturday. But Dignity Healthy Sports Park in Carson, Calif., is just the Aztecs’ temporary home while their real home is being built in San Diego. There is no home field advantage there. It’s a soccer stadium two hours away in the middle of Southern California freeways whose crowds make Mackay Stadium, even with 17,770 fans, look like Michigan’s Big House on a fall Saturday. This will be like a bowl game at a neutral site.
San Diego State on offense is as predictable as San Diego weather. They will run the ball over and over again and throw up two dozen or so feeble passes that will be considered a success simply if they don’t land in Wolf Pack hands.
The Aztecs offense has scored four touchdowns over its last two games, equaling the amount of touchdowns the Pack defense has scored in the same time frame. San Diego State has averaged just 19 points in its last three losses against the Pack and has averaged 19 points a game over its last four games this year.
The last team to beat the Pack with 19 points? That was Wyoming (31-3), 24 games ago in the middle of the 2019 season when Pack quarterback Carson Strong was a wide-eyed freshman still looking over his shoulder to see if Christian Solano or Malik Henry was going to steal his starting job.
The Aztecs’ best weapon is their punter, Matt Araiza.
Araiza has already set a NCAA record with 15 punts this year of 60 yards or longer. With three more punts of 50 yards or longer (he’ll probably do that Saturday), he’ll have that record, too. The last two games he has punts of 80 yards or longer. The Aztecs probably think Araiza should get some Heisman votes.
The Pack, on the other hand, thinks a punter is a waste of a roster spot and better served as a slot for a 12th wide receiver. It is not turn-back-the-clock night this Saturday at Dignity Health Sports Park. It won’t be 1924, with leather helmets and three-downs-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses. A punter likely won’t win the game, especially not against a quarterback who actually deserves Heisman votes.
San Diego State does not play well in the month of November. The Aztecs lost eight games combined from 2018-20 in the month of November. They’ve won their only November game this year so far but they certainly tried to lose, surviving just 17-10 against mighty Hawaii last week. Maybe grinding down your running backs and offensive line over and over in September and October can, apparently, burn out your offense and smother its creativity. It also likely doesn’t help that the Aztecs that they don’t have a passing attack that any quarterback born after 1968 would recognize.
Prediction: Wolf Pack 28, Aztecs 17.
San Diego State just won’t be able to keep up with the Wolf Pack offense. All the Pack has to do to win is protect the football. San Diego State likely can’t score more than two touchdowns without recovering a fumble or two or picking off a pass or three.
This is the game Norvell has built his Wolf Pack for over the past four-plus seasons to win. Play tough, physical and smart. And let your skill take over.
San Diego State, of course, is also tough, physical and smart. They’ve written the Mountain West book on being tough, physical and smart. But they lost the book somewhere along the line on skill and creativity. The Pack skill and creativity will be the difference on Saturday.


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