Pack grades: Nevada drops ball in puzzling, disappointing CSU loss

Wolf Pack running back Toa Taua (35, with ball) looks for some space against Colorado State on Friday.

Wolf Pack running back Toa Taua (35, with ball) looks for some space against Colorado State on Friday.

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Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 17-14 loss to the Colorado State Rams on Friday at Mackay Stadium:

The Wolf Pack might actually have a legitimate Division I passing offense, after all. Well, sort of. Yes, of course, it only showed up on about a fourth of the Pack’s 14 drives and disappeared at the end of the game when needed the most. But this was indeed a positive step in the right direction for the struggling Pack offense. Nate Cox completed 20-of-42 for 244 yards for no touchdowns and one interception. We understand that Carson Strong and most every Pack quarterback the last five decades would have had to go to therapy for a month after a game like that. But for one extended stretch — mainly in the second quarter (after a disastrous start) — Cox showed why the coaching staff has trusted him with all of the snaps in the two Mountain West games this season.

It all started with a 24-yard pass to tight end Jacob Munro late in the first quarter. The strike to Munro started Cox on a productive stretch of 11 completions in 16 attempts for 149 yards. It was a flash of competency that even Strong would have been proud of. Cox wasn’t nearly as productive in the second half, but he did complete 8-of-14 at one point for 88 yards. A dozen of Cox’s passes on the night even went for a first down, a high for a Pack quarterback against a FBS opponent this season (they had 16 passing first downs in Week 3 against Incarnate Word, an FCS team). Put Cox’s two productive stretches together and he was 19-of-30 for 237 yards. Unfortunately for the Wolf Pack, though, the rest of the night he was 1-of-12 for seven yards with an interception that Colorado State turned into seven points. That pick-6 on Cox’s third pass of the night is, of course, inexcusable, as is a completion percentage of less than 60 percent, let alone shy of 50 percent. And the Pack still has just two touchdown passes all season, zero against their five FBS opponents combined. So the quarterback position is clearly still a work in progress. But, for the first time this year, we actually did see some progress.

Toa Taua did have 80 yards on 23 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns on runs of 4 and 2 yards. Taua also caught three passes for 40 yards, including one that went for 29. It was a solid effort from Taua, who likely had extra motivation going against his former head coach (Jay Norvell). But the Wolf Pack offense needs its best back to average more than 3.5 yards a carry in one of the biggest games of the year against one of the worst defenses the Pack will face all year. Taua gained just 47 yards on his last 16 carries, for an average of 2.9 yards a carry. He also failed to gain a yard on a 4th-and-1 carry from the Colorado State 44-yard line in the second quarter. It was, without question, a decent performance for Taua. But the Pack needs the fifth-year senior who turns 24 on Oct. 11 to be great. Devonte Lee, on the other hand, had a night that will haunt him for a long time. It is still a mystery what he was thinking on his fumble late in the first quarter that Colorado State returned for a 50-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. The TV announcers thought he was trying to lateral the ball back to Cox, a ridiculous notion, especially for a fifth-year senior like Lee. Lee was, without question, holding the ball with one hand, something that is inexcusable in traffic. If Lee just falls to the ground with two hands on the ball, the Pack almost assuredly wins the game.

B.J. Casteel was Cox’s favorite target all night long, catching nine passes for 87 yards, both highs for a Pack receiver this season. Casteel came to Nevada this off-season after four seasons (2017-21) at Arizona, where he caught 90 passes for 880 yards and four scores. He has 18 catches for 199 yards this year, with 14 catches for 172 yards and his lone touchdown coming in just two games against Incarnate Word and Colorado State. His nine catches on Friday is also his career high. Casteel’s lone forgettable moment, though, came in the first quarter when he was called for a hold that wiped out a 22-yard run by Cox. Cox, though, struggled to connect with any of his other wide receivers. Jamaal Bell caught just three of his 11 targets, Jacob Munro caught two of his seven targets and Dalevon Campbell grabbed just one of his five targets.

The Wolf Pack offensive line seems to be making slow but steady progress. Cox was sacked on just two of his 42 passes, though he was hurried quite a bit (especially in the second half). The run game, though, was spotty at best, picking up an average of 2.9 yards a carry on 39 attempts. Taua, for example, had three yards or fewer on 14 of his 23 carries. Isaiah World and Grant Starck were called for holds and Zac Welch was whistled for a false start.

The only two noticeable Wolf Pack defensive lineman on Friday were Dom Peterson (three tackles) and Thomas Witte. Witte trapped Colorado State’s Avery Morrow for a 1-yard loss on the Rams’ first drive and he recovered a fumble late in the third quarter. The rest of the game, however, Colorado State’s struggling offensive line (they had allowed 25 sacks over their first four games) kept the Pack defensive line under control. The Rams ran the ball for 5.4 yards a carry and allowed just one sack. The Pack defensive front had just seven tackles all game long, just one (Witte’s tackle on Morrow) behind the line of scrimmage.

Drue Watts had three tackles and the only Pack sack of the game (on the Rams’ second drive of the night). Watts also made a nice play in the third quarter, dropping Rams wide receiver Tory Horton on a 1-yard catch. Maurice Wilmer and Chris Smalley had the only two Wolf Pack quarterback hurries (both in the fourth quarter). But other than that, we just didn’t see enough game-changing plays by the Pack linebackers (and defensive front) all game long. The Pack front seven, though, did allow a backup running back (Avery Morrow) to gain 168 yards on 24 carries.

Bentlee Sanders is, without question, the Wolf Pack MVP through the first six games. Sanders picked off a pass in the first quarter and led the Pack with seven tackles. He also forced a fumble late in the third quarter. It is a mystery why opposing teams even throw the ball near him. The interception is Sanders’ fifth of the year and his first since Week 3. Tyson Williams also continues to be a force in the Pack secondary. Williams had six tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage. He dropped Rams’ running back A’Jon Vivens for a 4-yard loss in the third quarter. Tyriq Mack also intercepted a Colorado State pass in the first quarter. The Rams were playing an overwhelmed true freshman at quarterback (Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi), who had no idea what he was doing in his first college start. The Rams, who run the pass-happy Air Raid, seemed afraid to let their overmatched freshman even think about throwing the ball. And the Pack, for the most part, devoured him. Fowler-Nicolosi completed just 11-of-22 passes for 78 yards and two picks.

Matthew Killam missed a chip-shot 28-yard field goal early in the second quarter. Killam, who also kicks off, was only attempting the field goal because Brandon Talton is still out with a shoulder injury. The Pack, it seems, can’t get away with anything this year. The Wolf Pack’s special teams later ran into Colorado State kicker Michael Boyle on the final play. Boyle, given new life, then made the game-winning 43-yard field goal on the very next play. The penalty, to be sure, was questionable at best. Three Pack players came in from Boyle’s right untouched and one seemed to slightly push another into Boyle’s foot, long after Boyle had landed with both feet about two yards in front of the spot of the kick. Boyle, smartly, then fell to the ground on top of the Pack players and the official bought into the acting job and called the penalty. It was a ridiculous call but merciful just the same, since it helped end one of the ugliest college football games hopefully any of us will see all year.

The Wolf Pack had two full weeks to prepare for arguably its most important and emotional game of the season at home and this is what we get? A mistake-filled circus of a game in which the Wolf Pack kept inventing new ways to lose? We get it. This coaching staff is a huge work in progress, starting from the head coach on down. But we’re still waiting for any of the new coaches to show us something, anything that would suggest they are making a difference. Right now, they just look like a bunch of guys running a summer camp for 16-and-under kids. They practice hard all week and have fun and come out on the weekend and look like strangers trying to play a game together. We understand that head coach Ken Wilson is coaching an outmanned roster and has an inexperienced staff. But the task just might be more than he can handle as a 58-year-old first-time head coach. Given all that, what we saw on Friday night was extremely disappointing just the same. Jay Norvell was in town. He brought with him a bunch of former Pack coaches, players and recruits. How much more motivation as a Pack player and coach do you need to play well, especially at Mackay Stadium?  

We have just witnessed one of the most disappointing losses in Wolf Pack history. The Jay Norvell factor was just part of it. It was disappointing and unbelievable on so many levels. First of all, the Wolf Pack lost a game without giving up a touchdown to the opposing team’s offense. The last time the Pack didn’t allow an offensive touchdown and still lost was in 1987, a 9-7 to Stephen F. Austin on three field goals. The only other times it has happened since 1975 was in a 10-0 loss to Weber State in 1980 (on an interception return for a touchdown and a field goal) and in a 6-3 loss to Chico State in 1975 on two field goals.

But that wasn’t the only reason why this loss to a truly awful and depleted Colorado State team was such a letdown. There were the two goofy and inexcusable Pack turnovers that led to two Colorado State defensive touchdowns in the first quarter and the running into the kicker penalty on the final play that handed Colorado State all of its 17 points. This was without question, a Twilight Zone type of loss by the Pack. The Pack lost a game in which it had more first downs (19-13), yards (358-255), time of possession (31:47 to 28:14) and offensive plays (81-55) and, yes, fewer penalties (14-7). And they did it all at home against a team that had lost 10 games in a row and was playing a frightened freshman quarterback that had no idea what he was doing until, of course, his final drive when the Pack defense disappeared. How does all of this happen in a game that the Pack has been foaming at the mouth to play since last December? The coaching staff — the one area on Friday that cannot be measured by the numbers and stats — should be embarrassed.


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