Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 30-20 loss to the Colorado State Rams on Saturday in Fort Collins, Colo.
A.J. Bianco started and lasted just three drives, completing 3-of-6 passes for 25 yards. Unfortunately for the Pack, though, another two of his passes were caught by Colorado State, setting up 10 Rams’ points.
Those interceptions (one was tipped by a Pack player and should have been caught) by the redshirt freshman in his second college start were crucial. But that’s what can happen when you start a redshirt freshman.
Bianco, though, also ran for 14 yards on three carries and led the Pack to a field goal on one of his three drives. He just tends to panic and make bad decisions when under pressure in the pocket, something that also tends to happen with an inexperienced quarterback.
Brendon Lewis relieved Bianco in the second quarter and nearly rallied the Pack from a 20-3 deficit to a victory. Lewis was efficient at times and electric at other times and played smart football for the most part, running the offense as well as he has all season.
The former Colorado Buffalo completed 18-of-24 passes for 169 yards without an interception. He also ran the ball 14 times for 61 yards and scored the Pack’s only offensive touchdown on a 9-yard run in the third quarter.
He had back-to-back runs of 20 and 26 yards in the second quarter. You can bet former Wolf Pack pistol coach Chris Ault was smiling when watching that, especially on the Air Raid’s home field.
Lewis had separate streaks of 4, 6 and 7 completions in a row and clearly was, at times, controlling the Colorado State defense. He had eight completions of 10 yards or more and another 21-yarder was wiped out by an ineligible receiver downfield.
Lewis and Bianco clearly held their own in comparison to Colorado State quarterback Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi.
The Pack quarterbacks had more completions (21-15), passing first downs (12-9) and were more efficient (70 percent completion rate to Fowler-Nicolosi’s 48 percent).
RUNNING BACK: C+
Sean Dollars once again turned in a solid effort, picking up 69 yards on a season-high 20 carries.
Dollars had a 20-yard run to the Colorado State 17-yard line in the third quarter, setting up the Pack’s only offensive touchdown. He also picked up a crucial yard on a 4th-and-1 carry at the Colorado State 25 in the fourth quarter.
Take away the 20-yard burst and Dollars’ afternoon wasn’t all that noteworthy with just 49 yards on 19 carries. But those were tough yards and he also had runs of six, seven and nine yards.
Dollars has 321 yards on 84 carries with four touchdowns over his last five games. Those numbers are noteworthy considering the quarterbacks keep stealing carries from him, the offensive line is extremely inconsistent and the Pack is usually trailing and looking to throw.
Air Raid? Who needs the Air Raid?
The Wolf Pack ran its version of the Air Raid on Saturday, with 21 completions going to six receivers. Three receivers had at least five catches.
John Jackson, the Pack’s trustworthy possession receiver, led the team with six catches for 41 yards, two that went for a first down.
Five different Pack receivers caught a pass for a first down.
Four of Dalevon Campbell’s five catches for 72 yards went for first downs. Three of Cameron Zeidler’s five catches for 39 yards went for first downs. Two of Spencer Curtis’ three catches for 27 yards went for first downs and Jamaal Bell’s only catch for 12 yards was for a first down.
Zeidler, a redshirt freshman from North Valleys High, had his breakout game on Saturday. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, who took over for injured tight end Keleki Latu in the middle of the season, now has nine catches for 97 yards in six games and looks like a true weapon for the future.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-
Colorado State sacked Wolf Pack quarterbacks four times (three on Lewis in three quarters) and were officially credited with seven quarterback hurries.
That’s a lot of pressure on two quarterbacks (Lewis, Bianco) who run extremely well.
Dollars also had to fight and claw his way on the majority of his runs (15 of his 20 carries were for three yards or less). Jamaal Bell carried the ball three times and lost five yards twice and four yards once.
Ten Pack plays lost yardage.
Center Andrew Madrigal was caught illegally downfield on what should have been a 21-yard pass to Campbell. Isaiah World had a personal foul on a 3-yard pass to Dollars and Frank Poso was called for a false start.
The offensive front broke down on the most important play of the game. Facing a 3rd-and-5 from the Colorado State 17, trailing just 23-20 on the 16th play of an impressive drive, Lewis was buried for a back-breaking 7-yard loss. Brandon Talton missed a 43-yard field on the next play and the wind got sucked out of the Pack comeback efforts.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C-
The Pack never did get to Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi for a sack but did have five quarterback hurries, three (Tanner Vaughan, Chris Smalley and Thomas Witte) by the defensive line.
Sosefo Moeaki and Witte led the defensive linemen with three tackles each. Witte also teamed with linebacker Marcel Walker-Burgess to stop Rams’ back Avery Morrow for a 2-yard loss in the first quarter.
James Hansen had a pair of tackles, one that held Morrow to no gain in the first quarter.
Smalley, a Douglas High grad, hurried Fowler-Nicolosi once and teamed with linebacker Tongiaki Mateialona to hold running back Justin Marshall to two yards on a key 3rd-and-4 run in the second quarter.
Dwight Togiola knocked away a pass.
The front played reasonably well but Rams’ running backs Marshall, Morrow and Vann Schield combined for 161 yards on 31 carries (5.2 a carry).
Marcel Walker-Burgess and Drue Watts stood out for the Pack all game long.
Walker-Burgess had nine tackles with a quarterback hurry and 1.5 tackles for a loss. He also broke up a pass. Watts had eight tackles, broke up a pass and had a tackle for a loss.
Tongiaki Mateialona had just two tackles but he also had a quarterback hurry. Davion Blackwell and Jackson LaDuke each had a tackle, which is as many as tight end Jayden O’Rourke had on one Colorado State interception.
Richard Toney Jr. returned an interception 66 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the second quarter. Toney’s play was really the only reason the Pack was in the game after the first quarter.
Toney, a sophomore from Arlington, Texas, had seven tackles on Saturday and now has 59 this season. His touchdown was his second this year (he also returned a pick for a score against New Mexico). His only blemish on Saturday was a pass interference that helped pave the way for Colorado State’s second touchdown.
Emany Johnson returned to the top of the Pack tackle chart with a team-best nine (with Walker-Burgess). One of Johnson’s tackles was for a loss and another was for no gain on his ex-Pack teammate Tory Horton.
Michael Coats Jr. had five tackles but was called for a pass interference in the second quarter. Jaden Dedman had four tackles and broke up a pass intended for Horton. Dedman also stopped Horton for no gain on a catch.
Fowler-Nicolosi did hit some big plays against the Pack secondary. The final touchdown to a wide open Louis Brown IV from 38 yards out was inexcusable. There was absolutely no pass rush and the secondary fell asleep.
But, for the most part, the Pack secondary took the air out of the Air Raid fairly well, bottled up Horton (except for a 53-yard gain and an 8-yard score) and made things difficult for Fowler-Nicolosi.
The Rams’ quarterback completed just 15 passes, the fewest he’s had in any of his 10 starts this season.
The Pack also shut down Rams’ tight end Dallin Holker, who had 57 catches for 710 yards and six scores going into Saturday’s game. Holker, a transfer from BYU, had just two catches for 29 yards, his fewest catches in a game for the Rams this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
Brandon Talton’s miss on a 43-yard field goal attempt with just under 13 minutes to play was devastating.
Talton, 9-of-9 inside the 40 this year, is now just 4-of-9 from 40 or longer (3-of-6 from 40-49). Talton did have field goals of 37 and 31 yards. But a possible Pack victory, a victory that would have been the most memorable in the Ken Wilson era, was on his shoulders in the fourth quarter and he was wide left.
Punter Matt Freem had a solid game, averaging 43.5 yards on four punts. Freem (and the punt coverage team) did an excellent job forcing Tory Horton to call for a fair catch on two returns.
The Pack seemed to have a solid game plan on both offense and defense.
The Pack defense, for the most part, made the Rams’ Air Raid work for everything it got. Yes, Colorado State scored 30 points but the first 10 came after a pair of mistakes by the Pack offense. It was reminiscent of a year ago when the Rams scored two first-quarter defensive touchdowns for a 14-0 lead in an eventual 17-14 win in Reno.
The Pack offense did everything but score points. The only offensive touchdown was on a 9-yard run by Lewis but the Pack moved the ball fairly well and accomplished its goal by keeping the ball away from the Rams’ explosive offense (Nevada had the ball for 35-plus minutes).
There were, however, a few questionable play calls by the Pack offense that proved costly.
The Pack had A.J. Bianco, a red-shirt freshman in his first college start on the road, throw the ball 20 yards downfield on his very first pass of the game. It was, surprise, surprise, horribly overthrown and picked off.
The Wolf Pack’s insistence on letting wide receivers (usually Jamaal Bell) run the ball was also a disaster. Colorado State seemed ready for it each time.
Bell ran the ball three times for losses of 4, 5 and 5 yards. Dalevon Campbell was trapped for a 1-yard loss on the Pack’s second play of the game.
Are you really trying to out-trick the Air Raid with gimmicky wide receiver runs? Stop it. The Air Raid, especially with Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, is a clown show in should pads. Tricks, gadgets and sleight-of-hand is what they live for and do best.
Those four ill-advised runs by the Pack were basically as hurtful as sacks. Add the four sacks Colorado State’s defense actually had on the Pack quarterbacks to the four on the wide receiver runs and, well, those were 44 yards in losses on eight plays that contributed heavily to this Pack loss.
There was a lot to like about the Pack’s performance.
They came back from a 20-3 deficit and should have tied the game at 23-23 early in the fourth quarter. Colorado State was doing what it does best, trying to blow a fourth-quarter lead and the Pack was following the script perfectly.
For the Pack to rally from a 17-point deficit with a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter is a significant accomplishment on the road for a program that has won just four games over the last two years.
Brendon Lewis was the best quarterback on the field. He just wasn’t the luckiest. Saturday was also just another reminder that Lewis might simply be one of those quarterbacks that is just good enough to get you beat every game.
The Pack receivers might have had their best game of the season, the defense bottled up the Air Raid most of the game and the Pack had a chance to win. That qualifies as a win in the Ken Wilson era.
There are a lot of reasons why the Pack should feel better about itself after this game than Colorado State and coach Jay Norvell.
Norvell, we saw, is still Norvell, making ridiculous and needless decisions on offense. He did it again late in the first half when his Rams took over the ball at their own 25-yard line with a comfortable 20-6 lead just 27 seconds before halftime.
The game felt over at that point but Norvell, as he seems willing to do often, coached his opponent back into the game. There was Never-Play-It-Safe Norvell and offensive coordinator Look-at-My-Playbook Matt Mumme showing off again, having Fowler-Nicolosi air it out on that mini drive just before the half.
His fourth pass, on what was going to be the final play of the half from the Rams’ 49-yard line, was heaved 17 yards downfield where it was intercepted by the Pack’s Richard Toney Jr. and returned for a 66-yard touchdown.
Maybe that was just Norvell’s gift to the Pack for all the players he stole after the 2021 season.