Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 31-24 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday at Mackay Stadium.
The Wolf Pack offense, with quarterback Brendon Lewis at the controls, obviously subscribes to the theory of death by a thousand paper cuts. Lewis, playing his first complete game of the year, completed 15-of-22 mostly safe, easy and ineffective passes for a mere 113 yards. Almost half those yards came on one 53-yard pass to Dalevon Campbell in the third quarter. Just four of Lewis passes were completed for first downs. Just one was for more than 10 yards.
The Pack either doesn’t trust Lewis to throw the ball down the field or Lewis almost always takes the easy way out. Only Lewis and his offensive coordinator know for sure. Either way, it certainly isn’t striking fear into the hearts of the opposing defense.
Lewis is the Pack starter because he is experienced (three years at Colorado) and nimble on his feet. He sort of plays like a high school quarterback in the 1960s, either tossing short passes or simply running for his life. Lewis did scramble around 11 times for 58 yards and two short (two and six yards) touchdown runs against the Jayhawks. But he also fumbled the ball twice, one that was recovered by Kansas on the field but was awarded back to the Pack because the Kansas player’s legs were out of bounds.
Most of Lewis’ rushing yards, though, came on just two (17 and 20 yards) first-half runs. In the second half he had just 21 yards on seven carries as Kansas took that weapon away from him. With Lewis under center the whole game, the Pack offense had just 14 first downs and a mere 263 total yards. Lewis as a starting quarterback is safe and won’t destroy your offense with silly chances. But, so far, he’s also not a guy who can breathe life into a stagnant offense. And the Pack offense is about as stagnant as a plastic flower in a vase in your grandma’s house.
RUNNING BACK: B
Ashton Hayes (10 carries, 56 yards) and Sean Dollars (14 carries, 38 yards, one touchdown) were a combined 24 carries for 94 yards and one score. That is solid production from the running backs, especially with a running quarterback like Lewis around stealing carries.
All of Dollars’ 14 carries at least got back to the line of scrimmage, a credit to how hard he runs. Hayes had an explosive 35-yard run early in the fourth quarter but he got sloppy at the end of the run and dropped the ball. The Pack fortunately recovered Hayes’ fumble at the 1-yard line and Lewis ran it in from the 2-yard line three plays later to tie the game at 24-24. Dollars also contributed with four catches, though those catches resulted in a grand total of just six yards, five on one catch.
Dalevon Campbell’s only catch of the night was an important 53-yard gain, deep down the sideline in the third quarter. It remains a mystery why the Pack doesn’t throw the athletic, 6-foot-4 Campbell (a former Big Ten receiver at Illinois) the ball much more often. He has just four catches through the first three games this year.
Jamaal Bell didn’t do much with his opportunities, picking up just 21 total yards on five catches. He also ran the ball twice for one yard.
John Jackson and Isaah Crocker each had one catch and also need to be involved more as does Spencer Curtis, who had two catches for 14 yards. Curtis also might have made the play of the day, racing in to fall on Hayes’ fumble in the fourth quarter. That sort of hustle is what will bring the Pack out of its long losing streak.
It is difficult for the receivers to shine in this play-it-safe Pack offense. They have much more talent and big-play ability than the Pack play-calling is allowing them to show. We’ve seen it only in lightning flashes this year (Campbell’s 53-yarder against Kansas, Bell’s 77-yard touchdown against USC, Curtis’ 73-yard gain against USC). It’s time to let them shine more often. A team can’t live on just 3-yard runs and 3-yard passes.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
Lewis was sacked twice but the losses were for just four yards and one yard. It’s a fine line, after all, between a Lewis sack and a run for negative yardage. But Kansas and its Big 12 defensive line certainly didn’t manhandle the Pack offensive line at all. In fact, it was the Pack offensive line doing most of the manhandling at times. Lewis, for the most part, had time to throw his short passes, though there were two sacks and four quarterback hurries from Kansas. There also were some holes for Dollars and Hayes to run through. Frank Poso recovered a Lewis fumble in the first quarter.
The problem with the Pack offensive front, like almost all areas of the team, is a lack of consistency caused by inexperience and a lack of talent. They seldom block two running plays in a row well. But this offensive line will mature as the year goes on, the Pack will rely on Dollars and Hayes more and trust Lewis to stay in the pocket longer and throw downfield. And the Pack will win some games this year. That’s the theory, at least.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C
This is simply not a defensive line that is going to dominate games and fill up the stat sheet. In fact, you hardly notice these guys at all. But, rest assured, they are in there mixing it up and giving their best. They just rarely penetrate the line of scrimmage.
Dwight Togiola had a sack and forced a fumble. Dion Washington had the Pack’s lone quarterback hurry. James Hansen had a brilliant play in the second quarter, trapping Daniels for a 4-yard loss (why wasn’t that a sack?) on third down and forcing Kansas to settle for a field goal. But that was Hansen’s lone tackle of the day. It must be noted that Kansas running backs Devin Neal and Daniel Hishaw powered their way through the Pack front most of the night to the tune of 137 yards on 26 carries combined, an average of 5.2 a carry.
Stone Combs and Jackson LaDuke were active with six tackles each. LaDuke and Drue Watts also teamed up for a 10-yard sack on Daniels in the first quarter. Watts, who had four tackles, seems to smell the ball when it hits the turf. He recovered a Kansas fumble and now has recovered one fumble in each of the Pack’s first three games.
Tongiani Mateialona had five tackles and forced a fumble. Marcel Walker-Burgess had three tackles. This isn’t a spectacular group but it is solid and makes plays. They would make even more plays if someone up front could get to the quarterback and someone in the defensive backfield could cover someone.
Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels, like USC’s Caleb Williams and Miller Moss and Idaho’s Gevany McCoy before him this year, simply shredded the Pack secondary. Daniels was 21-of-27 for 298 yards. None of his completions found the end zone but 14 of them went for a first down. All six of Daniels’ incompletions were in the first half. In the second half he was 11-of-11 for 197 yards.
Opposing quarterbacks have now completed a disturbing 61-of-82 passes (74 percent) for 1,064 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions. The numbers are staggering. The good news is that they will get better. They will at least look better because the quality of quarterbacks throwing the ball their way will decrease. Williams, McCoy and Daniels are among the top five or six quarterbacks the Pack will face this year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Brandon Talton kicked a 42-yard field goal to cut Kansas’ lead to 7-3 early in the second quarter. Punter Matt Freem had a solid night, averaging 46.6 on five punts. One went for 62 yards for a touchback. Neither team had a kickoff or punt return. The biggest blunder on special teams was by Kansas as one of their kickoffs went out of bounds. The Pack special teams has been almost invisible over the first three games which, come to think of it, makes them the best unit on the team so far.
Give head coach Ken Wilson a ton of credit for getting his team ready to play a week after the embarrassing 33-6 loss to Idaho. Teams can go one of two ways after such a dreadful loss and the Pack chose the right way.
The Wolf Pack coaching staff clearly recognized the seriousness and sense of urgency needed after the loss to Idaho. That was the most positive thing to take out of the latest Pack loss. For one of the few times in the Wilson era the Pack looked like a team that felt it might have a chance to actually win the game. But this is still a coaching staff that coaches scared, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The play calling was, as usual, lifeless and unimaginative. If you’ve seen one Pack game film over the last two years you know the playbook. Even Lewis’ runs are just the 2023 version of Nate Cox a year ago, though Lewis is better at it.
But this is what this coaching staff is. It is not full of difference-makers or innovators. But at least now this team is playing with a sense of urgency.
Don’t believe the scoreboard. This one shouldn’t have even been close. Kansas basically dominated the Pack on both sides of the ball and should have won this game by at least three touchdowns. But Jayhawks will be Jayhawks. This is a program, don’t forget, that hasn’t had a winning season since 2008 and just three since 1995. It is a Big 12 team in Mountain West clothing.
The Jayhawks, playing in the Pacific time zone for the first time in two decades, seemed asleep most of the night. They looked like a Sacramento gambler getting off the bus at midnight and heading straight to the slot machines. Kansas kept shooting itself in the foot, arm, leg and chest most of the night. Seven Kansas penalties wiped out what should have been huge gains likely leading to points. The Jayhawks also fumbled the ball away once, likely costing them on the scoreboard again. Their mistakes clouded their dominance.
The Jayhawks outgained the Pack 441-263. They had 10 more first downs. There were the seven costly penalties (just three on the Pack) that turned what should have been a three or four-touchdown win into a lifeless one-touchdown survival test. Couple all that Kansas sloppiness and carelessness with a ton of Wolf Pack luck and, well, you can begin to see why the final margin was just seven points.
What Wolf Pack luck? Well, the Pack fumbled the ball five times and lost none of them. That is difficult to do. The Pack field goal was made possible by a facemask penalty on the Jayhawks, the Pack recovering one of its fumbles and another Pack fumble going out of bounds. The first Pack touchdown was helped along by a rare holding penalty on a Kansas defensive lineman. Kansas jumped off-side on 4th-and-1 and the Pack recovered another one of its fumbles on the Kansas 1-yard line to pave the way for its third touchdown. The Pack basically got every break imaginable and still lost by seven at home against a team that was begging to lose. But that’s OK. It’s college football. But just don’t think the Pack solved all of its problems because it stayed in the game with a Big 12 team.