Grading the Pack: Secondary needs improvement heading into Homecoming

Nevada's Lamin Touray tackles NMSU's O'Maury Samuels.

Nevada's Lamin Touray tackles NMSU's O'Maury Samuels.
Photo by Thomas Ranson.

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Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 55-28 victory over the New Mexico State Aggies last Saturday at Mackay Stadium . . . 


Carson Strong was nearly perfect, completing 25-of-32 passes for 377 yards and six touchdowns and he basically did it all in just two quarters. The Pack quarterback was 22-of-26 for 362 yards and six scores over the second and third quarters combined. His six touchdowns came over a span of just 23 passes in the second and third quarters. New Mexico State is truly incapable of defending the forward pass. Even Pack backups Nate Cox and Clay Millen came on and completed 9-of-14 passes for 86 yards in the third and fourth quarters. Why do you let Cox and Millen toss 14 passes in a little more than a quarter with a 45-point lead? Even backups deserve a little fun. That’s why. Strong, after an unenthused first quarter, did what he was supposed to do against the New Mexico State’s of the world. You pad your stats to make sure the Mountain West doesn’t do something stupid after the season and name someone else the Offensive Player of the Year.

Pack coach Jay Norvell will always tell anyone who will listen how important it is for the Pack to run the ball. Don’t believe him. The Pack gave the ball just seven times to Toa Taua and three times to Devonte Lee basically just to make sure they were still standing there behind Strong. The two picked up 44 yards, averaging 4.4 yards a carry because they are good at what they do, no matter how often the coaching staff tends to forget it. Taua did catch a 16-yard scoring pass so it wasn't a total loss for the backfield. But Taua and Lee would have been better off sitting in the stands and getting to know their fellow students. The Air Raid saw some easy targets on Saturday through the skies and they weren’t about to give those yards to the running game. No less than 13 of Cox’s first 15 plays were pass plays and it was 52-7 Pack when he entered the game.


The Pack completed 34 passes for 463 yards and did it without their two best receivers. Elijah Cooks injured his foot at Kansas State a month ago and will miss the rest of the year and Romeo Doubs sat out the New Mexico State game with an undisclosed injury. Strong, Cox and Millen, though, didn’t have any problem completing passes to 13 different receivers not named Cooks or Doubs as anyone and everyone dressed in Silver and Blue was open all night long. Five different players caught Strong’s six touchdowns passes. Melquan Stovall and Justin Lockhart each had career nights, proving that the Pack just might have four or five of the top 10 receivers in the conference on their roster. Stovall and Lockhart each caught seven passes and a touchdown. Cole Turner’s two catches each went for touchdowns and one of Harry Ballard’s two catches ended up in the end zone. The Pack even kept Taua happy by flipping a touchdown pass his way. This is why the Pack tends to forget to run the ball. 


The good news is that we didn’t see as many annoying false start penalties on the Pack offensive line as we normally do. The only one on the offensive line, in fact, was on backup Jacob Nunez in the fourth quarter. The Pack also protected its quarterback on 46 pass attempts. The running game had just 69 yards on 23 carries but five of Taua’s and Lee’s combined 10 carries went for four or more yards. The only real concern for the Union is a disturbing, albeit friendly and polite, trend they have of picking Strong up off the ground after a sack. New Mexico State sacked Pack quarterbacks four times (Strong and Cox each twice). The Aggies only had nine sacks in five games coming into the game. The Pack has now allowed 11 sacks over its last three games. This is why you want to run the ball now and then, so defenses can’t simply pin their ears back and rush the passer and get your first-round draft pick hurt.


Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond are starting to make game-changing plays on a consistent game-to-game basis now. Peterson was in on two sacks (officially 1.5) and hurried Aggies quarterback Jonah Johnson twice. Hammond had two sacks. Tristan Nichols also dropped Johnson once. Nichols now leads the team with six sacks while Hammond has four and Peterson is at 3.5. The trio could all finish with double digits in sacks this year as the Pack offense continues to build big early leads, forcing teams to abandon their running games. Daniel Grzesiak also pressured Johnson once and Amir Johnson was called for roughing the Aggies quarterback. No Pack defensive lineman had more than Jack Powers’ three tackles but that was mainly due to just 17 attempts by the Aggies running backs. Hammond (four), Peterson (5.5) and Nichols (six) are all in the Top 25 in the Mountain West in tackles for loss.


Daiyan Henley had 12 tackles, one behind the line of scrimmage. He stopped New Mexico State’s Juwaun Price for a 1-yard loss on a 4th-and-1 play from the Pack 48 in the third quarter with the Pack up 45-7. Henley’s 47 tackles (31 solo) are tied for second in the Mountain West behind San Jose State’s Kyle Harmon (58). Henley’s 31 solo tackles are third in the conference behind Boise State’s J.L. Skinner (43) and Wyoming’s Chad Muma. Trevor Price had six tackles and a sack while Lawson Hall had four tackles. 


The Wolf Pack did allow Johnson to complete 38-of-62 passes for 425 yards and three touchdowns. The silver lining was that hardly any of the yards or touchdowns were meaningful. It was like watching a 7-on-7 passing drill on Saturday. But when you give up 425 yards through the air, well, there is still room for improvement because meaningful moments are coming in the games ahead. None of Johnson’s 62 passes, by the way, were intercepted. Jordan Lee did have nine tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage. But he was also called for two costly penalties (one on special teams). A.J. King had six tackles and knocked away two passes. Bentlee Sanders and JoJuan Claiborne each had four tackles and broke up a pass. Berdale Robins had the play of the game on defense, forcing and recovering a fumble and returning it 25 yards for a touchdown.


It certainly wasn’t perfect or pretty. There were, in fact, almost as many negative events on special teams as positive ones. Brandon Talton made two field goals and all seven of his extra points but he also missed a 31-yarder. Bentlee Sanders had punt returns of 26 and 12 yards but he also muffed one return. Jordan Lee was called for an illegal block on another Sanders punt return. Julian Diaz did average 43 yards on his five punts but one of his punts went just 30 yards. He also padded his stats with a 55-yarder into the end zone when he should have taken a bit off and trapped the Aggies near their own goal line.


There really was no coaching needed in this game. Norvell’s biggest concern all week was simply to keep his players healthy and somewhat focused after the big win over Boise State last week and make sure everyone showed up for the kickoff Saturday night. Norvell and the Pack did what they wanted to do on Saturday and barely broke a sweat along the way. Well, OK, after the first quarter, that is, when the Pack built a silly 7-3 deficit while they were playing the part of a unknowing freshman caught off guard in the morning by his alarm clock. The goal on Saturday was to pad everyone’s stats, get an easy win against an overwhelmed opponent and get ready for the final seven Mountain West games. Mission accomplished.


Norvell and the Pack did a brilliant job by scheduling this easy victory a week after an emotional game at Boise State. This was almost like the Pack’s second bye week over the last three weeks, only better. They, after all, got to have a little fun on the field with their friends on Saturday night. Not even the big win over Boise State just seven days before, though, could push the crowd over 21,448, proving once again that northern Nevada will not show up in huge numbers to watch a glorified scrimmage that means absolutely nothing. Even Strong looked bored in the first 15 minutes until it dawned on him that going up against the New Mexico State secondary for a quarterback was like a hungry grizzly bear simply standing in a stream as salmon jumped into his mouth.


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