Nevada’s Melquan Stovall races around Idaho State’s Josh Alford during the game Sept 11, 2021 in Reno. (Photo: Thomas Ranson/NNG)
Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 49-10 victory over the Idaho State Bengals last Saturday night at Mackay Stadium:
Carson Strong could have beaten the Bengals by throwing with his left hand. No, the right-hander didn’t turn into a southpaw in the home opener but he basically spent the evening tossing changeups and off-speed breaking balls instead of his deadly fastball.
It all worked almost to perfection as Strong stayed calm and patient, completing 34-of-43 passes for 381 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. And he didn’t break a sweat.
The Pack smartly refused for the most part, it seemed, to put anything exciting, exotic or even remotely indicative of the firepower of its passing game on film for its next two opponents (Kansas State and Boise State) to study. Strong kept it simple, flipping short passes and basically running a boring 7-on-7 drill. It was a glorified Silver-Blue scrimmage.
The only time the Pack allowed Strong to really air it out was on his final two drives of the game at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth. After going three-and-out on three passes on the first drive of the second half, Strong then stretched out his right arm on his next two drives, going 10-of-11 for 168 yards and a touchdown.
He obviously could have done that all night if he was greedy and wanted to get into the Heisman conversation, throwing for 500-plus yards and seven or eight touchdowns. But there’s no need to be greedy against Idaho State and, after all, Mountain West quarterbacks don’t win the Heisman by embarrassing Division I-AA teams.
RUNNING BACKS: A
There might not be a backfield in the country that does more with as few opportunities as the Pack running backs. Toa Taua had 103 yards on just nine carries (76 of those yards came on two runs) and Devonte Lee had 33 yards and a touchdown run on just six carries.
Lee also caught three passes, including one that went for a 15-yard touchdown. Taua also caught a pass. Avery Morrow chipped in with four receptions. The Pack backs touched the ball 24 times on runs and catches for 199 yards and two scores. That’s a performance that would even make Frank Hawkins smile.
Elijah Cooks is the toughest and grittiest Pack wide receiver since Brandon Wimberly. Cooks, who played less than a full game last season because of a shoulder injury, led the Pack against Idaho State with seven catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns. Elijah “End Zone” Cooks now has 18 career touchdowns. His 39-yard catch set up Lee’s 2-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
Romeo Doubs had four catches for 55 yards and Tory Horton had 55 on three. Cole Turner had five catches for 48 yards and a 6-yard touchdown that opened the scoring. So Strong made sure to feed his favorite targets.
He also fed backups Justin Lockhart, Melquan Stovall and Jamaal Bell for a combined nine catches and 84 yards.
We also saw the emergence of wide receiver Harry Ballard on the final Pack drive of the game. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Ballard, who signed with Missouri out of high school and transferred to the Pack after last season from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, caught a 43-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Nate Cox with under five minutes to play. The Pack passing game is basically a video game.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A
The Wolf Pack averaged 7.6 yards on each of its 19 rushing attempts. Idaho State didn’t get a sack or even a quarterback hurry despite 46 Nevada passes.
It wasn’t perfect. Jacob Garner had a false start and a hold on consecutive plays in the first quarter and Tyler Orsini was called for a false start in the second quarter. But it was close to perfection.
The Wolf Pack offensive line did exactly what it is supposed to do against a Division I-AA defense. It dominated.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A
Tristan Nichols, who doesn’t even start, is becoming a force on the Pack defensive line. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior had three sacks and forced a fumble that resulted in a 12-yard return for a touchdown by tackle Dom Peterson in the fourth quarter. Nichols also had another sack wiped out by a Pack off-sides penalty. Nichols, a transfer from Arizona Western College in Yuma before the 2019 season, had two sacks in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win over Tulane last year and has hit the ground running this year. It might be time to put him in the starting lineup.
Peterson had a productive night with three tackles and a pass break-up to go along with his touchdown. Christopher Love had a pair of sacks and was in on five tackles and Daniel Grzesiak had one sack. This is what a Division I-A defensive front is supposed to do against a Division I-AA offensive line. Dominate.
Lawson Hall had a solid night with 10 tackles and a sack and also forced a fumble. And Daiyan Henley, as usual, was around the ball enough to make eight tackles and knock away two passes. Hall and Henley were the only Pack players with more than five tackles. It was nice to see because, well, linebackers should lead your team in tackles. Trevor Price had three tackles. Idaho State only gained 104 yards on its 34 rushing attempts that did not result in a sack.
Idaho State’s quarterbacks completed just 15-of-25 passes for a mere 142 yards so the Pack defensive backfield wasn’t tested much. There were no Pack interceptions but just two of Idaho State’s completions went for more than 10 yards so the Pack secondary didn‘t get a lot of opportunities to pick the ball off.
Jordan Lee had an active night with three tackles, one behind the line of scrimmage. He also recovered a fumble and broke up a pass. Tyson Williams had a pair of tackles and a sack.
Coach Jay Norvell loves two things: wide receivers and defensive backs because, well, defensive backs are just wide receivers who can’t catch. And this secondary is almost as talented as his wide receiver group.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
The Pack didn’t need its special teams against Idaho State. Kicker
Brandon Talton made all seven of his extra points and didn’t get a field goal try. Punter Julian Diaz was only called upon once. Romeo Doubs (why is he returning punts against Idaho State?) only returned two punts for little or no gain and Jamaal Bell only returned one kickoff (10 yards). Diaz did put seven of his eight kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
The Pack was off-side on one of its kickoffs in the first quarter but they also fielded an on-side kickoff by Idaho State cleanly when it was still just 21-10 Pack in the third quarter.
Norvell made a point of telling everyone this summer that it was important for his Wolf Pack to start fast. Well, that has yet to happen after two games. The Pack found itself down 14-0 at Cal in the season opener and led Idaho State just 21-10 in the third quarter. That is about the only thing, though, that the Wolf Pack hasn’t done for its coach this year so far.
The Pack has its first two opponents an eye-opening 57-6 after the first quarter in both of its games combined. So, yes, starting fast isn’t all that important when you obliterate your opponent over the final 45 minutes of a game.
The game plan against Idaho State was conservative but there is no need for a Mountain West team to empty its playbook against a Big Sky Conference team. Norvell has finally learned as a head coach that his highly skilled and experienced players can turn conservative plays into six points from any spot on the field.
There were a few calls, of course, by Norvell that were interesting. He had Strong punt the ball from his own 47 in the second quarter on fourth down. Why be cute by having your quarterback punt against Idaho State? Later in the second quarter, up just 14-7, he had Strong toss a pass to Doubs (it was incomplete) on 4th-and-6 from the Idaho State 6-yard line. Just kick the field goal.
The last thing Norvell should have done differently on Saturday was to put freshman quarterback Drew Scolari in the game with six minutes to go. Norvell instead gave that drive to Nate Cox and he let Cox have fun despite a 32-point lead. Cox tossed three passes for 60 yards, including a 43-yard scoring strike to Harry Ballard. Norvell should have let the hometown kid (he’s Chris Ault’s grandson, for goodness sake) play in front of friends and family. Cox can mop up the rest of the Pack’s 10 regular season wins.
The Wolf Pack was called for 10 penalties and led Idaho State by just 11 points in the third quarter at home. The Pack defense also allowed Idaho State to control the ball for nearly 33 minutes and convert 9-of-19 third and fourth down plays. So, yes, it wasn’t total domination by the Pack. This Pack defense, after all, won’t likely dominate anybody anytime soon.
But the offense put up 42 points in just 27 minutes and the defense scored as many touchdowns (one) as it allowed and had eight sacks. The Wolf Pack could have easily scored 65-plus points against Idaho State but that would have served no purpose other than to alert Kansas State and Boise State the next two games. Also, don’t forget that the last time Idaho State came to Mackay Stadium in 2017, it took home a ridiculous 30-28 victory.