Nevada wide receiver Romeo Doubs makes a touchdown reception behind California cornerback Collin Gamble on Sept. 4, 2021, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)
Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 22-17 victory over the California Golden Bears on Saturday night in Berkeley, Calif.:
Carson Strong certainly didn’t play his best game in a Wolf Pack uniform. He completed just 22-of-39 passes (56 percent) and made a bad decision on a 3rd-and-5 throw deep down the right sideline that was intercepted in the fourth quarter. But Strong was brilliant just the same, throwing for 312 yards and two touchdowns and gaining an average of 14-plus yards on each of his completions. Strong doesn’t simply pad his stats with meaningless completions like most quarterbacks. His intent is to beat you with each and every throw. Strong has now turned in nine 300-yard games and the Pack has won the last six. He is the definition of a money quarterback. He was 7-of-14 on third down for five first downs. On 3rd-and-9 or longer, when Cal knew for sure he was throwing the ball, he was 5-of-8 for three first downs.
RUNNING BACKS: B
Toa Taua (10 carries, 37 yards) and Devonte Lee (11 for 36) didn’t get a lot of opportunities. But the two veteran backs clearly have the coaching staff’s trust and confidence. More than half (six) of Lee’s 11 carries came in the final seven-plus minutes with the Pack protecting its lead. His two biggest runs of the game (eight and 10 yards) came on back-to-back plays with 7:11 to go. Taua had carries of five and six yards in those final seven-plus minutes. Toa also had a 20-yard catch in the third quarter, sneaking out of the backfield down the sideline on a maneuver which has sort of become his signature play. Six of Taua’s 10 carries went for five or more yards. The Pack could beat a lot of the teams on its schedule by simply giving the ball to Taua and Lee 50-plus times a game combined. That’s not going to happen (this, after all, is Strong’s year) but it’s a comforting feeling knowing Taua and Lee are back there waiting patiently.
Strong is a money quarterback because he has a stable of money receivers. And he’s not afraid to use all of them. The play that woke up the Wolf Pack offense was a 43-yard scoring pass to Romeo Doubs down the left sideline in the second quarter to cut Cal’s lead to 14-10. But the back-to-back completions of 46 yards to Tory Horton and a 16-yard scoring strike to Elijah Cooks in the third quarter, giving the Pack a 19-14 lead, seemed to break Cal’s spirit. Cooks looked like a man among boys on the play by bursting into the end zone because, well, that’s exactly what he is. Turner caught seven passes for 75 yards and has become the Pack’s go-to receiver on third down. Strong targeted him seven times on third down and connected five times for 69 yards. Doubs had six catches for 83 yards (none on third down) with three of them going for 12 or more yards. Horton had catches of 46 and 42 yards and just might be the most underrated receiver in the conference. Five of his 20 receptions last year went for touchdowns and he is now averaging 14.3 yards on each of his 23 career catches.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
The Wolf Pack didn’t run the ball particularly well but, then again, they didn’t necessarily try to. Lee and Taua combined for 73 yards on 21 carries for a respectable 3.5 yards a carry. But nearly half (10) of those 21 carries did pick up two yards or less. Gray Davis committed a costly false start penalty on a 4th-and-2 play from the Cal 32-yard line with two minutes to play. Aaron Frost had a holding penalty earlier on the same drive. Another Pack holding penalty was declined by Cal (a dumb decision, by the way, because it led to a 49-yard Pack field goal). Strong was sacked in the third quarter and second quarter. So the offensive front had its own share of first-game jitters. But they held their own against one of the more physical defenses they will see all year.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Sam Hammond (fourth quarter) and Daniel Grzesiak (second quarter) had timely sacks. Hammond’s play, with just over seven minutes to play from the Pack 9-yard line, was arguably the defensive play of the game. Grzesiak and Hammond’s sacks, though, might have been the only two plays all game that you noticed the Pack defensive front. Nobody on the Pack front had more than two tackles, including Dom Peterson, who is on the Chuck Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Outland Trophy preseason watch lists. Peterson, who is in a fist fight on every play because he gets an abnormal amount of attention from opposing offensive lines, had two official tackles and a third that was wiped out by a Cal holding penalty. Tristan Nichols was called for roughing the passer on one play and did have the Pack’s only quarterback hurry. So it was just refreshing to see the Pack front get to Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, who threw 38 passes.
Daiyan Henley, a former wide receiver, did have nine tackles. But somebody has to make a tackle now and then. The rest of the Pack linebackers combined for just six tackles. This is not all on the linebackers but Cal did average over seven yards on each of its 25 running plays (minus two sacks). The Pack defensive front and linebackers put a lot of pressure on the defensive backs to make tackles. Cal had 10 running plays of five yards or more. The Pack linebackers other than Henley were, for the most part, invisible against Cal. Henley teamed with defensive back JoJuan Claiborne to tackle Nikki Remiglio for a 5-yard loss on a pass reception on Cal’s second play of the game. But that was the only time a Pack linebacker was in on a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Garbers did complete 25 passes but they went for just 177 yards. The veteran Cal quarterback seemed afraid all night to test the Pack secondary, completing just four passes of more than 10 yards. Isaiah Essissima secured the victory with an acrobatic interception of a Garbers pass with 4:29 to play. Essissima, a Wake Forest transfer, also had four tackles. The Wolf Pack secondary is as physical as any in the Mountain West. JoJuan Claiborne led the team with 10 tackles. Bentlee Sanders, a transfer from South Florida, had six. Tyson Williams had four tackles and knocked away two passes. A.J. King had an eventful night, with two tackles, one for a loss, and also broke up a pass and was called for pass interference. Berdale Robbins also was called for pass interference but the penalty was declined. Like Nichols’ roughing the passer penalty, it is refreshing to see the Pack secondary all over the ball and the receivers even on pass interference penalties. This secondary just might be the best in the Mountain West and they get to practice all week against the best passing attack in the league.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
The Pack might also have the best special teams in the conference. Brandon Talton had three field goals (he also missed one from 47 yards out), including a crucial 49-yarder that gave the Pack a 22-14 lead late in the third quarter. Julian Diaz averaged 45 yards on four punts, including one 56-yarder. Romeo Doubs had a 38-yard punt return and Bentlee Sanders brought a punt back 16 yards. Sanders also had a 25-yard kickoff return. Cal did return one punt 21 yards and one kickoff 29 yards. Cal, though, did nothing with Matthew Killam’s five other kickoffs, calling a fair catch on three of them and returning the other two for just 25 combined yards.
Head coach Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme didn’t try to force anything or get too cute, even when down 14-0. They just let Strong and the receivers do their thing and it paid off in a victory on the road against a Power Five school. Norvell gave his team a much-needed pep talk on the sidelines when down 14-0 and the Pack dominated the game on both sides of the ball from that point on. What we saw on Saturday was a coaching staff maturing right before our eyes. It’s obvious that the staff has a never-ending trust and belief in its veteran team. The only decision Norvell made worth discussing was a Pack punt on 4th-and-7 from the Cal 37 with two minutes to play. Norvell went for a first down on the play before (4th-and-2 from the 32) but a false start penalty ruined that idea. Now starting from the 37, the Pack had three options. A field goal by Talton from roughly 54 yards out would have put the game away. The Pack also could have lined up on offense and tried to get the seven yards, also putting the game away. But Norvell, likely frustrated by the false start but also fortified by a confidence in his defense that had played well since the second quarter, decided to play it conservatively and punt. The decision proved to be the right one.
The Wolf Pack showed all of its experience and talent on Saturday and came away with a solid victory on the road against a Power Five team. It was an extremely important victory because it kicked off what should be a memorable season. But it also showed that the Pack can grind out a win on the road against a physical team and do it with defense and a handful of big plays on offense. It certainly wasn’t pretty. But don’t forget that this team was coming off a month in which it had to travel back and forth from the west coast in a bus just to practice under healthy skies. And it was the first game of the season and the first in front of an opposing crowd in two seasons. Also don’t overlook the fact that the Pack had to come back from a 14-point deficit on the road. Pretty doesn’t win you championships. But a veteran, tough team grinding out a victory does win championships and that’s what we saw on Saturday.