Grading the Wolf Pack

Oh! So close: Nevada good, but not good enough

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong reacts to a play against San Diego State on Nov. 13, 2021, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong reacts to a play against San Diego State on Nov. 13, 2021, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 23-21 loss to the San Diego State Aztecs last Saturday at Carson, Calif.
Carson Strong completed 13 more passes, threw for 174 more yards and passed for three times (3-1) as many touchdowns as San Diego State’s Lucas Johnson. Johnson would have had to go 13-of-14 for 174 yards and two touchdowns to just equal Strong’s numbers.
So, yes, the Wolf Pack loss was not the quarterback’s fault. Strong, who had to deal with a dangerous San Diego State pass rush all night, also didn’t get any help from the non-existent Pack running game (eight yards on 15 carries), as usual. There is only so much one right arm, no matter how strong and accurate, can do.
Strong’s 54-yard touchdown pass to Romeo Doubs gave the Pack a 21-20 lead with 9:57 to play. He was 8-of-10 for 96 yards and a 5-yard touchdown to Doubs on an 80-yard drive that cut San Diego State’s lead to 17-14 late in the third quarter. Trailing 23-21, he connected with Justin Lockhart for 16 yards and Toa Taua for eight to give the Pack a first down at the 49-yard line with just over a minute to play. So he nearly put the Pack on his back and carried them to a victory. But the Pack likely just fell one 15-yard completion away from winning.
Strong is one of the most competitive, toughest and talented quarterbacks in school history and he showed it again Saturday.
It is difficult to judge the Pack backs because, well, they barely touch the ball. Taua (nine carries, 31 yards) and Devonte Lee (one carry, no yards) combined for just 10 carries on a night when the Aztecs defensive line was just pinning its ears back and trying to bury Strong.
Taua, who gained at least a yard on each of his nine carries, had just three carries in the second half. Lee’s only carry came on the game’s first drive. Running the ball against San Diego State’s defense is not the preferred method. But you at least have to show them you are willing to try.
Yes, of course, the Pack threw the ball to Taua (five for 35 yards) and Lee (three for 18) and, as the Pack coaches will tell you, that is an extension of the running game. But it really isn’t. It doesn’t make a pass rush think twice about making a bee line for the quarterback. But add it all up and it is still just 18 touches for the two Pack backs combined out of 63 plays.
Taua and Lee, arguably the two toughest backs in the Mountain West, would have enjoyed softening up that Aztec defensive line and dealing out some punishment of their own. But they never really got the chance.
Romeo Doubs had a brilliant night with nine catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns. His 54-yard touchdown catch for a one-point lead with just under 10 minutes to play seemed destined to become one of the more meaningful and dramatic Pack catches in history.
Tory Horton also stepped up with eight catches for 91 yards and a 28-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7-7. Melquan Stovall had five catches for 48 yards and Justin Lockhart caught four passes for 31 yards.
When he wasn’t running for his life, Strong had plenty of open receives to choose from despite the absence of tight end Cole Turner, who missed the game after suffering a concussion against San Jose State a week earlier.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The opposing defensive front breathes down Strong’s neck the entire game and the Pack abandons its run game for lack of interest and production after halftime.
Strong was sacked three times against San Diego State and, officially, hurried four more times. But it seemed like he was hurried or sacked on about a third of his 48 passes. The Pack has now allowed three or more sacks in seven of its last eight games. The run game has been historically bad most of the season but over the last month it has simply vanished. Saturday night was a nightmare for the ground game as the Pack had eight yards on 15 carries. The Wolf Pack has now rushed for 2.2 yards or less per carry in each of its last five games.
Daniel Grzesiak had a sack but that was his only tackle of the night. He has just five tackles over his last six games combined. That sack, though, was the only time the Pack defensive front bothered Aztec quarterback Lucas Johnson on his 34 attempts. No Pack lineman even had a hurry.
The Pack front, however, gave a solid effort against the physical Aztecs. Dom Peterson had four tackles and Christopher Love and Sam Hammond each had three. Kam Toomer had a tackle for a loss in the third quarter, forcing an Aztec punt, and Trevor Price knocked down a pass. Peterson, though, was called for holding on a 4th-and-5 play in the first quarter, giving San Diego State a first down at the Pack 2-yard line. They scored a touchdown a play later. He was also whistled for a personal foul in the second quarter on first down from the Pack 28 and the Aztecs scored another touchdown two plays later.
The Wolf Pack saw first-hand what a dominating defensive line looks like with the Aztecs’ Cameron Thomas and Keshawn Banks, who combined for 12 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, three quarterback hurries, two sacks and a forced fumble.
Daiyan Henley and Lawson Hall combined for a dozen tackles and Hall did have a tackle for a loss and a quarterback hurry. Henley and Hall combined for two tackles on Aztec running back Greg Bell on consecutive plays in the second quarter, forcing San Diego State to settle for a field goal.
But the Pack has grown accustomed to its linebackers making game-changing plays lately and, well, that didn’t happen against San Diego State. The Aztecs ran for 186 yards and averaged 4.8 a carry on 39 attempts. This was a game the Pack desperately needed a huge play from its front seven and, well, they are still waiting for that to happen.
Tyson Williams, Jordan Lee and JoJuan Claiborne played solid games. Lee had eight tackles while Williams and Claiborne each had seven. Berdale Robins also had five tackles. Williams had two tackles for a loss while Isaiah Essissima had three tackles and knocked away two passes. The Pack secondary, as usual, was active and physical the entire game.
Aztec quarterback Lucas Johnson completed 21 passes but just three were for more than 15 yards. Johnson just dumped short passes (15 of his 21 completions were for under 10 yards) in front of the secondary. It would have been nice if the Pack secondary would have picked off at least one of Johnson’s 34 passes but the Aztec quarterback made sure that didn’t happen.
Brandon Talton, who beat San Jose State with a 45-yard field goal with three seconds left the week before, didn’t get a field goal attempt while the Aztecs’ Matt Araiza was 3-of-4. The Wolf Pack could have allowed Talton to attempt a 55-yarder on its first drive, and now likely wishes it would have, but they had Strong punt on fourth down from the Aztec 38. Strong did what he was supposed to do, pinning the Aztecs on their own 1-yard line, but San Diego State proceeded to go 99 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
There were a lot of little things on special teams that helped add up to a Pack loss. Kaegun Williams had a 31-yard kickoff return, setting up an Aztec field goal in the second quarter. Julian Diaz punted the ball into the end zone with 96 seconds to go in the half, instead of trapping the Aztecs with their back to the goal line, and San Diego State turned that into a 65-yard field goal try as the half expired (they missed). Maurice Wilmer was called for an illegal block in the back on a Romeo Doubs’ 16-yard punt return in the third quarter, trapping  the Pack on its own 18. On that next Pack drive Daniel Grzesiak was called for a false start on a Pack punt and when the Pack did punt, San Diego State’s Jordan Byrd returned it 19 yards to the Nevada 37. That set up yet another Araiza field goal with 12 minutes to play. The Pack also had an unfortunate personal foul on its kickoff in the fourth quarter after taking a 21-20 lead, forcing Diaz to kick from his own 20-yard line.
Special teams didn’t cost the Pack this game but it also didn’t help them win it. The Aztecs’ special teams helped them win.
San Diego State came out and threw 34 passes, the second most they’ve attempted in a game all year. And they completed a season-high 21. It was enough of a change in the Aztecs’ typical and predictable run-based attack to keep the Pack defense guessing all night long.
The Pack, on the other hand, was tremendously predictable. Head coach Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme didn’t seem to have any surprises in store for the Aztecs as the Pack threw the ball on 48 of its 63 offensive plays. And five of those runs were either Strong getting sacked (three) or running for his life.
The Aztecs, a team that has been offensively challenged all year, even out-gained the Pack on the night, 362-358. That shouldn’t have happened.
The Pack’s strategy, it seemed, was simply to do what it has done all year and sit back and watch Strong go win the game with his arm. And it almost worked. But the Pack also never really took San Diego State out of its comfort zone on both offense and defense. The game was exactly the type San Diego State always wants, a defensive struggle decided by field goals. The Pack coaches didn’t lose this game but they also didn’t win it.
Put the game at Mackay Stadium and we’d likely be getting ready for a Pack appearance in the Mountain West title game in a few weeks. That could still happen with two or three miracles, starting with a UNLV win over San Diego State this Friday, but this season should not have come down to a miracle.
Before the year started it was easy to pick out the three key games on the Pack schedule, road games at Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State. And the Pack lost the two most important (Fresno State and San Diego State) because they were division battles. The Pack played its heart out against the Aztecs and seemed to have everything set up for a dramatic victory in the final seconds. But the Pack offense has generated just four touchdowns and 34 points over the last two games combined. San Diego State showed once again that being willing and able to run the ball and playing great defense is still a solid recipe to win championships.


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