Wolf Pack grades: Nevada's bad day doesn't mean much

Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn (22) gets past Nevada defensive back JoJuan Claiborne on a run during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Manhattan, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn (22) gets past Nevada defensive back JoJuan Claiborne on a run during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Manhattan, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 38-17 loss to the Kansas State Wildcats last Saturday in Manhattan, Kansas:
It wasn’t Carson Strong’s finest hour. But even when Strong is seemingly playing uphill the entire game, he still performs fairly well. But the Pack needed Strong to be the future first-round NFL draft pick some experts have said he is and, well, that guy didn’t show up on Saturday.
For whatever reason, it just appeared that the Wolf Pack quarterback wasn’t playing with his normal swagger and confidence. There were too many please-don’t-hurt-me short passes. Too much indecision. The normal Strong crispness and conviction just never showed up in Manhattan.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t all his fault. The Kansas State pass rush sacked him three times and hurried him, officially, on five throws. (Unofficially, it seemed like Strong was hurried on about a dozen throws). The Pack offensive line simply didn’t allow Strong to be his normal confident self.
That lack of confidence and conviction was never more apparent than on the most important play of the game when Strong was stopped a foot or so short of a first down on a 4th-and-4 scramble from the Kansas State 41 early in the fourth quarter. That is a first down that you simply just have to get. You can’t get stopped inches short. The game was basically over after that play. Kansas State scored on its next two possessions to make it a rout.
The day started slow with a delay of game penalty on the first offensive play and a fumble on the third and the Pack just seemed out of sorts the whole day. Strong did make some eye-opening throws, like on a 55-yard deep ball down the middle to Romeo Doubs in the first quarter and a 14-yard strike to Elijah Cooks in the end zone in the third quarter. He also found Doubs for 23 on a 3rd-and-20 throw. But he ended up completing a ho-hum (for him) 27-of-40 passes for 262 yards, a touchdown and a costly interception. And even those numbers were inflated on a meaningless final drive in the final 72 seconds when Strong was allowed to complete 4-of-5 passes for 40 yards.
Devonte Lee had just 10 carries for 24 yards and a two-yard touchdown. His longest run was six yards. Toa Taua had just six carries for 15 yards with more than half of those yards (eight) coming on one run. Lee did catch a pass for 15 yards and Taua caught one for no gain but the Pack backs didn’t get a chance to do much of anything.
The Air Raid, as it does now and then, panicked, got one dimensional and abandoned its run game. Lee had just five carries after the first quarter and two in the second half. Taua had just four carries after the first quarter and two in the second half. And don’t forget that this was a 17-17 tie in the fourth quarter. The Pack couldn’t run the ball and then simply refused to run the ball.
Romeo Doubs didn’t get into the end zone (the Pack never loses when Doubs scores) but he did show why he could help a NFL team right now. Doubs had seven catches for 121 yards, including one 55-yarder and one 23-yarder. This was Doubs’ ninth career game with 100 or more receiving yards but the first time he did it in a Pack loss. It was also just the second time that Doubs had a 100-yard game without scoring at least one touchdown. Doubs, by the way, has just one touchdown over his last seven games and the Pack has lost three of those games.
Melquan Stovall had one of his best games for the Pack, grabbing seven passes for 76 yards, including the longest catch (44 yards) of his career. Elijah Cooks was a difference-maker as usual, grabbing four passes for 45 yards and a touchdown. But Tory Horton and Cole Turner combined for just five catches for 35 yards. Horton had more yards than that on one 44-yard pass to Stovall in the third quarter. The feeling all game was that Kansas State really couldn’t cover the Pack receivers. Nobody can. But Strong didn’t always have enough time to take advantage of it.
The Pack couldn’t run the ball and Strong seemed unsure of himself the whole day. That’s because the offensive line was manhandled by the Kansas State defensive line, throwing the Pack off its rhythm the entire game. Jacob Nunez was called for a false start on arguably the most important drive of the game that ended on Strong’s 3-yard run on 4th-and-4 in the fourth quarter. But three sacks, numerous hurries and a 2.4 average carry on 17 attempts by your three backs (Taua, Lee, Morrow) summed up this afternoon by the offensive line.
Dom Peterson was in on three tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage. But nobody else along the defensive line had more than two tackles. And don’t forget Kansas State simply ran right at them the entire day.
Jack Powers had the Pack’s lone quarterback hurry and did stop Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn a yard behind the line of scrimmage on one play. Christian Love also stopped Vaughn for no gain on one run. But no Pack player got to Kansas State quarterbacks Will Howard and Jaren Lewis for a sack or even came close. To be fair, Kansas State threw just 13 passes so there weren’t many opportunities for the Pack pass rush.
But the Pack knew what was coming (Kansas State ran the ball 48 times for 269 yards and four touchdowns) and still couldn’t stop it. Kansas State running backs Vaughn and Joe Ervin combined for 34 carries and 30 of those gained at least a yard and just one failed to at least get back to the line of scrimmage.
Give Daiyan Henley and Lawson Hall passing grades for effort. Henley had 11 tackles and Hall had eight but Kansas State’s Vaughn, Ervin and Howard also averaged 5.8 yards on the ground on 46 carries combined. The Pack defense tried to attack the Kansas State running game and, well, just couldn’t get there most of the day. Lamin Touray had three tackles and would have had another for a one-yard loss but the Pack was called for illegal substitution. The Kansas State offensive line simply bullied the Pack's front seven all day long.
Kansas State barely tested the Pack secondary with just 13 passes. But the Wildcats did complete nine of them for 129 yards and a touchdown. It was like watching the Big 12 version of Air Force.
A 68-yard Kansas State touchdown pass on the game’s second play set the tone for the whole day and, understandably, seemed to stun the Pack. Berdale Robins was called for a costly pass interference in the second quarter on a drive that ended on a Kansas State touchdown. The Pack secondary did its best to lend support to the front seven on Kansas State running plays. Jordan Lee had seven tackles and JoJuan Claiborne had four. But Tyson Williams, one of the best tacklers in the secondary, was injured on the Kansas State 68-yard scoring strike. There just weren’t enough impact plays by anybody on the defense the entire game.
A big play by the Pack special teams might have turned the entire game around. But it never came. Zeke Robbins and Cole Turner were each called for holding on separate Pack kickoff returns. Bentlee Sanders returned a kickoff just 11 yards to give the Pack the ball at its own 12 on its first drive. Julian Diaz had punts of 26 and 31 yards that went out of bounds. It was just that type of forgettable day for the Pack.
Jay Norvell likes to paint a picture of his team as a working man’s team. The Pack coach even wears a gas station attendant’s shirt now and then with his name on the pocket to emphasize that point. But that is all for show and is merely a Norvell fantasy. He was a tough, physical Big Ten defensive back as a player but as a coach, at least with his offense, he is the complete opposite.
The Pack saw a real working man’s team on Saturday in the Kansas State Wildcats and, well, got punched in the mouth all day along and couldn’t really do anything about it. It’s just not their style. The Pack, it is obvious, doesn’t like to simply roll up its sleeves and get down and dirty.
They have given the ball to their running backs on running plays just 33 times over the last two games combined, in a blowout win over Idaho State and the loss at Kansas State. So, basically, they had the same type of offensive philosophy against a Division I-AA team they blew out of the stadium and in a tough, physical loss on the road against a Power Five team. The Pack is what it is, a team that likes fancy, intricate, eye-opening pass plays where nobody gets his uniform dirty. They will live and die every game by simply letting their wide receivers and tight ends make plays.
That is all well and good against the vast majority of teams the Pack will play this season and in most seasons. But they saw a big-boy, physical football team from the Midwest on Saturday and the offense put up just 17 points.
The Pack was bold, calling for a pass from wide receiver Tory Horton in the third quarter and it went for 44 yards and helped get the Pack back in the game. But we didn’t see much imagination or aggressiveness from the Pack before or after that play. They even looked a bit conservative at times, punting from their own 46-yard line, down 17-7 on 4th-and-2 with 49 seconds to go in the half.
If the Pack was in the Big 12 we would be extremely concerned right now. But Nevada is still in the Mountain West and there is really nothing to be alarmed about.
The Pack, in fact, should feel pretty good about itself. The Pack played fairly poorly for much of Saturday’s game on both sides of the ball (particularly in the trenches) and still found itself in a 17-17 tie early in the fourth quarter on the road in a hostile environment against a Power Five team. The 21-point difference between the two teams is also a lie. Kansas State got two parting-gift touchdowns late in the fourth quarter after the Pack wilted physically and mentally to inflate the score.
Strong coming up less than a yard short on that 4th-and-four scramble when the deficit was still just seven points seemed to break the Pack’s spirit. The Pack defense, especially, simply disappeared after that play. Strong makes that first down and the Pack might be 3-0 right now and sitting in the bottom third of the Top 25. And Norvell could then wear his gas station shirt with pride this week.
The good news is that the Pack won’t play a team as physical as Kansas State the rest of the regular season. They will be able to simply let Strong drop back in the pocket and let him toss his 20-yard passes to a streaking Doubs, Cooks, Turner and Horton the rest of the year. It will be fun and exciting and the black eye the Pack received from Kansas State will heal before you know it.
The Pack will average 35-plus points a game the rest of the year and might not lose again. That’s the beauty of the Mountain West. But just remember, when you are complaining because the Pack is not in an important bowl game after the season, that in the two games against Power Five teams this year (Cal and Kansas State) the Pack’s pretty Air Raid offense averaged just 19.5 points a game.


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