Nevada quarterback Carson Strong against San Diego State on Nov. 13, 2021, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 41-39 triple-overtime loss to the Air Force Falcons last Friday night at Mackay Stadium:
You might not find a more inspiring performance by a Wolf Pack quarterback in school history than what we saw Friday night by Carson Strong. Air Force beat him up. They pounded him, harassed him and abused him all night long. And then they did it over and over again, sacking him eight times and attacking him on practically all of his 43 throws. And Strong somehow kept getting up and fighting throughout the four-hour marathon.
Strong, at times, resembled a 1920s dance marathon contestant, barely able to stand up straight. The Wolf Pack should have carried him off the field at the end of the game the way the then-San Diego Chargers helped an exhausted Kellen Winslow off the Orange Bowl field after a Jan. 2, 1982 overtime playoff game win against the Miami Dolphins. It was an epic performance by Strong and should be shown to every Pack quarterback from here on out about how to play with toughness, grit and leadership.
“Boy, he’s a tough guy,” head coach Jay Norvell said after he game.
Norvell, though, almost got his brave, young quarterback destroyed with his this-is-going-to-work-even-if-it-kills-us play calling. It certainly wasn’t Strong’s prettiest performance. But it’s hard to look pretty when half your body is screaming for mercy. He was just 26-of-43, the first time he’s completed under 63 percent of his passes since the season opener at California. But when Strong throws just 43 passes, well, you know something is wrong. But he still found a way to throw for 340 yards and four touchdowns, including two in the fourth quarter and one in overtime with the game on the line. It’s too bad those eight sacks will likely make him think more seriously than ever about escaping to the NFL this spring.
RUNNING BACKS: B
Don’t blame the Wolf Pack’s 18 yards rushing on 27 carries on the running backs. That is all on the offensive line. The running backs, namely Toa Taua, turned in one of their most solid performances of the year.
Taua had 77 yards on 15 carries. His 6-yard touchdown run in overtime kept the Pack in the game. He also recovered a Strong fumble in the third quarter. Given the ferocity of the Air Force pass rush all night Taua clearly should have had more than 15 carries, especially in a game that went to three overtimes.
Devonte Lee, who had just two carries, also should have had a handful of more chances to punch that Air Force defensive line in the face a few times.
Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner are good enough to play in the NFL right now. How the Pack ever loses a game with three (Strong, Doubs and Turner) NFL players on their offense is a mystery.
Doubs had 11 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns while Turner had a pair of touchdowns on five catches for 54 yards. Tory Horton, who will likely also get a NFL chance someday, caught eight passes for 105 yards. Melquan Stovall, Justin Lockhart and Jamaal Bell also chipped in with one catch each. The Pack receivers abused the little Air Force defensive backs all game long. Tre Bugg was just that, a bug on the Pack’s windshield that was swatted away to the ground repeatedly by the bigger, stronger Pack receivers. Bugg was called for three pass interference penalties and probably could have been whistled another three times.
OFFENSIVE LINE: D
Yes, the front finally run blocked well enough for Taua to average five yards a carry. But that was likely because Air Force completely ignored the Pack run all night long and simply zeroed in on Strong.
The Wolf Pack gave up eight sacks. Yes, we’ve pointed that out above. But it’s a number that deserves repeating and shouldn’t be forgotten. It was reminiscent of the 15 sacks David Neill somehow lived to talk about against TCU in 2000. Put Strong in that throw-it-deep-and-pray Pack offense of 2000 and he, too, would have been sacked 15 times on Friday. Strong was nearly buried in the ground in the first quarter by Air Force’s Jayden Thiergood and he basically limped through the rest of the game.
What happened Friday night should not have surprised anyone. The Pack offensive line has routinely allowed three or more sacks a game this year against pass rushes that had a pulse. We’ve seen the warning signs all year long, like an iceberg in the distance that everyone ignored until it was too late.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C
Sam Hammond played the game of his Wolf Pack life with 11 tackles. He left his heart and soul on the field in his last game ever at Mackay Stadium. Dom Peterson had eight tackles, two that held Air Force to gains of just one yard each. Christopher Love had seven tackles, one for no gain. Jack Powers had just two tackles but they were on gains of just one and two yards.
The Pack defensive line, without question, gave a solid effort. But they are not run stoppers. They are pass rushers. And they did their best.
Air Force ran the ball a ridiculous 83 times and many of those, as expected, were right down the Pack’s throats. The Falcons got back to the line of scrimmage or gained positive yards on 81 of those runs, piling up a disturbing 476 yards. On some plays it was like watching a 1920 offense with 10 guys blocking straight up the middle. And it worked. Over and over again.
Again, the effort was there. The results were not. Trevor Price had eight tackles. But Daiyan Henley and Lawson Hall combined for just 10 tackles. That’s just 10 tackles by your two most experienced linebackers against a triple-option offense that ran the ball right at them on 83-of-88 plays.
Back in 2012, when Air Force ran the ball 82 times for 461 yards on Nevada, Pack linebackers Albert Rosette and Dray Bell combined for 47 tackles (Rosette had 25).
Yes, Henley did recover a fumble and two of his tackles held Air Force to zero and one-yard gains.
But Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels rolled to his right on the game-winning play and waltzed untouched into the end zone for two points. That just should not happen. There's never an excuse for losing sight of the quarterback in a triple-option offense.
Air Force tossed just five passes and completed just one for 23 yards. But pass coverage is not the No. 1 concern when you play Air Force. It’s about helping against the run. Tyson Williams and Jordan Lee each had five tackles and Jaden Dedmon had three, one for a loss. A.J. King forced an Air Force fumble and Jordan Lee recovered one.
So the Pack secondary did its part at times. They also did a nice job preventing Daniels from burning them through the air. It's the traditional Air Force sneak attack. But the Pack never really stopped the Air Force ground game so it wasn’t necessary for Daniels to throw. Air Force picked up 25 first downs on the ground, converting an alarming 12-of-21 third and fourth-down plays combined. The Falcons also controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes in regulation. Air Force did what it wanted to do on offense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Brandon Talton made all four of his extra points and his only field goal attempt. Julian Diaz averaged 47.8 on his four punts. The Pack was called for a holding penalty on a kickoff return late in the first half that was at least partly responsible for an Air Force field goal as the half expired from 49 yards out. A pair of sacks on Strong with just over a minute to play in the half played a much bigger role in that field goal. Special teams did not play a significant role in this game.
Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme are simply average play callers at best. We’ve seen it all year and, well, for five years. It's the reason why Norvell ended up in Nevada in the first place.
Their worst crime against Air Force was in not doing anything noticeable to help their overmatched offensive line handle the Falcons’ pass rush. Air Force had just 22 sacks in 10 games going into Friday night and the Pack’s predictable offense turned them into the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Norvell and Mumme, as usual, simply went down with their predictable Air Raid offense like the co-captains of the Titanic. Taua and Lee, for example, did not catch even one pass for the first time over the past two seasons. They certainly didn’t run the ball all that much (just 17 carries combined) either. Cole Turner was a beast on his five catches, two that ended in the end zone. He should have had a dozen catches on Friday because Air Force’s mighty mite defensive backs were like gnats on the side of the Empire State Building against him.
The Air Raid of Norvell and Mumme works tremendously well against awful defenses. But against defenses with a pulse, like Kansas State, Air Force, San Diego State and Fresno State, well, not so much. Norvell after the game, though, bragged how he called the play on Doubs’ 61-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
“I was determined to get that play called,” Norvell said. “I didn’t want to go home knowing I didn’t call that play. As a coach you are just not very smart if you don’t throw the ball deep to Romeo several times a game.”
The Pack threw the ball to Doubs 18 times against Air Force including on a failed two-point attempt on the final play. That final play right under the goal post in the back of the end zone, by the way, was eerily similar to the failed two-point attempt at the end of the Fresno State loss. One day it just might work. One day the Air Raid might produce a championship.
Norvell, as long as he coaches at Nevada (which now, by the way, looks like it will be for a very long time), will forever remind everyone how the Wolf Pack in 2021 lost three league games by a mere two points each.
“We basically lost three games by one play each time,” he said on Friday with pride. When a similar thing happened in 2012, when the Pack lost three heartbreaking games by one point each, it caused head coach Chris Ault to quit and retire. Norvell and Mumme, though, are not Chris Ault, a fact we were reminded of once again on Friday.
For this Wolf Pack team, with its abundance of talent and experience, to lose four games is a huge letdown. How did this team, with that quarterback, stable of receivers, running backs and its abundance of experience on defense, lose four games this year? One day Norvell might tell us. But don’t count on it because there’s no real pressure for him to do so.
This team should not have lost one game this year, let alone four. Great coaches don’t keep losing in the same fashion over and over again. But that is what happened this year. But Norvell and Mumme went down with their predictable Air Raid ship once again, like the Air Raid has historically done in its 30-year history.