Hawaii quarterback Brayden Schager (13) drops back to pass against Nevada in the second half in Reno on Oct. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes)
Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 34-17 victory over the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors last Saturday at Mackay Stadium:
Carson Strong wasn’t great and never really took over the game. But in the Air Raid offense a quarterback can put up great numbers just by taking what the defense hands to him on a silver and blue platter. Strong was 34-of-54 for 395 yards, two touchdowns and wasn’t intercepted. OK, on second thought, maybe he was great after all.
Strong is simply a touchdown machine. He has now thrown at least one touchdown in 20 consecutive games, dating back to the last five games of his freshman year in 2019, when Pack coach Jay Norvell finally came to his senses and made Strong his permanent starting quarterback. During those 20 games Strong has tossed 51 touchdowns and has been intercepted just eight times. That’s not only great, it is close to perfection. His touchdowns against Hawaii (28 yards to Romeo Doubs and 3 yards to Tory Horton) both came in the third quarter and put the game away.
“We almost take him for granted,” Norvell said of Strong. “He could have played so much better but he still had an amazing performance.”
RUNNING BACKS: B+
Toa Taua, too, was very good but not great. The veteran Pack back had 21 carries for 84 yards and scored twice, from six and 10 yards out in the second quarter. His longest carry was that 10-yard score that gave the Pack a 17-14 lead. He also caught a couple of passes for eight yards.
The 21 carries are the fourth most he’s ever had in a game and the most since he had 34 against San Jose State in 2019, a span of 21 games. Taua has now gotten 20 or more carries in a game in his career just eight times. His 84 yards against Hawaii are tied for the second fewest he’s ever had in a game when he’s had 20 or more carries. He had 56 yards on 22 carries against Arkansas State in the 2018 Arizona Bowl.
The Pack, by the way, is 6-2 when Taua gets 20 or more carries and 21-11 when he doesn’t. So it doesn’t really make much difference either way because the Pack has a quarterback that almost always gives an amazing performance.
The Pack completed 34 passes for the second consecutive game. The difference this week is that more than a third (12) of the Pack completions went to Cole Turner for 175 yards. The most catches Turner ever had in his four-year career before Saturday was eight against San Diego State last year. The 175 yards against Hawaii also shattered his career best (119 against Wyoming last year). He will likely catch passes in the NFL someday.
Romeo Doubs also found the end zone against Hawaii for just his second score in his past nine games. We’re still waiting for his breakout game this year.
Melquan Stovall caught seven passes for the third time in the Pack’s last four games.
The Wolf Pack’s wide receiver group is the best in the Mountain West and one of the best on the west coast. You simply cannot stop them all and Strong knows it.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
We are being slightly generous with this grade but how bad can the offensive line be when the offense puts up 34 points and 477 yards? But there are some concerns that keep showing up.
The Pack front allowed three more sacks against Hawaii and has now allowed 14 sacks over its last four games. It’s not cause for alarm. The Pack, after all, has attempted 180 passes over those four games. But it is something to pay attention to. Keeping Strong in one piece, after all, is the key to this season.
The Pack running game also averaged just 3.5 yards on 33 carries (not including the sacks). Again, not a cause for alarm. But it’s also nothing that will change the name of the offense from Air Raid to Run Raid.
Aaron Frost was called for an illegal block in the back on the Pack’s first drive and Tyler Orsini had a personal foul on the second drive as the Pack continued its annoying habit of starting slow. Frost also had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a Hawaii sack in the fourth quarter.
Reagan Roberson, technically a tight end but in reality an offensive lineman (he has seven catches in five seasons), also was called for a hold in the fourth quarter.
A very good team, if the Pack ever indeed plays one this year, will take advantage of these concerns.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A+
The defensive line had five sacks, dropping Hawaii quarterback Brayden Schager for 41 yards in losses. Tristan Nichols had two more sacks and now leads the nation with eight solo sacks on the year. Dom Peterson, Jack Powers and Kam Toomer also had a sack. Schager suffered four of those sacks and Nichols even trapped Hawaii wildcat quarterback Calvin Turner for another sack.
The Pack front also was credited with five quarterback hurries so Hawaii either ended up on the ground or had to rush things on 10-of-44 pass plays (39 attempts plus five sacks).
Hawaii’s Dae Dae Hunter did have touchdown runs of 75 and 81 yards but that is not on the defensive line. They were too busy salivating and pinning their ears back, trying to get after the frightened Hawaii freshman quarterback.
Daiyan Henley is one of the most unsung players in the Mountain West. Henley had five tackles against Hawaii and intercepted two passes. His first interception came with 16 seconds left in the second quarter and his second came with seven minutes left in the game. Henley leads the Pack this season with 52 tackles and is sixth in the conference at 8.7 a game. His three interceptions (he is a former wide receiver, after all) leads the team and is tied for the lead in the Mountain West.
Lawson Hall also came up big with six tackles, an interception and a tackle for a loss. It is his first interception since 2019 against UTEP. Trevor Price added the fourth interception for the Pack linebackers against Hawaii.
“All credit goes to the defensive line,” Henley said, explaining the interceptions. “Without them there would be no picks. With all the pressure in his (Schager) face, he just threw some bad balls.”
Without Hunter’s two huge runs this would have been a near-perfect performance by the linebackers. But Hunter did get those two huge runs and they can’t be ignored. Why Hawaii gave Hunter the ball just six more times in the game is a mystery.
It sure helps to play a freshman quarterback making his second career start. Schager, who completed just 11 passes for 116 yards in his first start two weeks ago against Fresno State, was awful against the Pack. He completed 22-of-39 for 205 yards and was picked off four times and sacked four times. Give credit to the Pack defense from front to back. But Schager also made the Pack look like the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Calvin Turner did catch eight passes but nearly half (37) of his 83 yards came on one play. No other Hawaii receiver caught more than three passes or for more than 31 yards. And, most importantly, none of them got into the end zone. Hawaii had just nine first downs through the air, a total many Hawaii quarterbacks in the past would have had after just two drives. A.J. King broke up two passes, including one on a 4th-and-3 throw with 4:35 left to play.
The Pack will play better passing offenses this year, starting with this Saturday at Fresno State.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Brandon Talton made two field goals from 23 and 45 yards but also missed field goals from 41 and 47 yards. He’s now missed three of seven attempts over the last two games combined after making eight of his first nine tries this year. The Hawaii game is the first time Talton has missed two fields goals in the same game in his three-year Pack career.
The Pack, though, might not have beaten Hawaii without two big plays from its special teams. Daniel Grzesiak recovered a muffed punt return by Hawaii’s Hugh Nelson in the second quarter that basically sparked the Pack to life. Cole Turner also blocked a punt by Hawaii’s Matthew Shipley later in the second quarter, leading to Talton’s 45-yard field goal and a 20-17 Pack lead at the half.
“That felt better than scoring a touchdown,” said Turner, who didn’t get into the end zone on any of his 12 catches against Hawaii. “I’ve never done that in my life.”
Calvin Turner did return a Pack punt 19 yards but Julian Diaz averaged 43.2 yards on his six punts with four landing inside the 20 and two traveling 50 or more yards. Six of Diaz’s seven kickoffs were touchbacks.
Norvell was severely out-coached by Hawaii’s Todd Graham a year ago in a 24-21 loss at Hawaii. And Graham seemed to be on his way to doing the same thing on Saturday as Hawaii built a 14-10 lead midway through the second quarter. The Pack offense was stumbling and the defense allowed touchdown runs of 81 and 75 yards.
Norvell keeps preaching every week how the Pack needs to start fast and, well, the only time that has happened was against a Division I-AA team (Idaho State). Norvell in the past might have panicked with all of the slow starts and ordered Strong to start throwing with his left hand or even benched the starting quarterback for a freshman or a guy he picked off the scrap heap in the spring. But Norvell’s strength now as a head coach is his belief and his patience in his players.
The Wolf Pack has the most talented team overall in the Mountain West and it really isn’t close. Norvell knows it. The players know it. And the opposition knows it.
A loss to Hawaii would have made this season a whole lot messier than it needs to be. But the defense and special teams made more big plays in one game than it seemingly has over entire seasons in the past. Take away the five sacks and five Hawaii turnovers and the night would have turned out a bit differently. But that’s what great teams do. They make special plays at special times.
Things are falling into place for this Pack team this year. They got a much-needed bye week to lick their wounds and refocus after their only loss at Kansas State. They got to play the worst Boise State team in two decades on the road and on Saturday Hawaii was forced to play a wet-behind-the-ears, turnover-and-sack-prone freshman quarterback.
Want more good news? A week ago that same frightened freshman quarterback beat Fresno State, the team the Pack plays this coming week.