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Can Nevada Wolf Pack stop San Diego State run game?

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
San Diego State running back Greg Bell, left, sprints for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Hawaii Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Carson, Calif.
AP Photo/Kyusung Gong

The San Diego State Aztecs do not try to trick anyone.

“They love to run the football,” Nevada Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said this week. “That’s their formula.”

The Aztecs will bring a 3-1 record to an near empty Mackay Stadium this Saturday (12:30 p.m., CBS, Channel 2) against the unbeaten (4-0) Wolf Pack.

“You have to stop the run against this team,” Norvell said. “It becomes very simple in a lot of ways.”

Stopping San Diego State’s run means you have to stop Greg Bell. The 6-foot, 200-pound senior leads the Mountain West with 537 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

“This is a big challenge for our defensive line and linebackers,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack has allowed 126 rushing yards a game this year. “It’s a very physical game when you play these guys.”

The game will be the Wolf Pack’s first televised by either CBS, ABC or NBC since it played at Notre Dame on NBC in 2016. It is also the first game between two Mountain West teams televised on one of the three major networks since Boise State at Nevada in 2012.

“This is a team playing really well and having a lot of success,” San Diego State coach Brady Hoke said of the Wolf Pack. “They beat us a year ago and they beat us two years ago. They’ve played very well against us.”

The Wolf Pack won at San Diego State last season 17-13 and also beat the Aztecs at Mackay Stadium 28-24 in 2018. The Aztecs, though, beat the Wolf Pack seven out of eight games before 2018 and lead the series, which began in 1945, 7-5.

“We know we’ve beaten them the last two years and they’re probably not happy about it,” Norvell said.

The Wolf Pack has the No. 2 passing offense in the nation at 382.8 yards a game while the Aztecs have the No. 3 rushing offense (280.3 yards a game).

“These guys know us and we know them,” Norvell said. “They kind of know what we’re going to do and we kind of know what they’re going to do.”

Bell, who rushed for 173 yards on 35 carries over four games for Nebraska in 2018 before transferring to San Diego State, had 145 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-10 victory at Hawaii last week. His running backs coach at San Diego State is former Wolf Pack (1993) and UNLV Rebels (1994-98) head coach Jeff Horton.

“Our offensive line’s mentality is that they want to come off the ball and push the defensive line around,” said Bell, who sat out all of last year with an eye injury. “They do all the work. I’m just running through the holes.”

The Wolf Pack defense held the Aztecs to just 113 rushing yards on 39 carries last season (2.9 a carry).

“This game will be won in the (offensive and defensive) lines,” Norvell said.

The Aztecs have struggled to throw the ball in recent years and this season is no exception. Sophomore Carson Baker has completed just 55-of-94 passes this year for 591 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong, by comparison, has completed 120-of-169 passes for 1,517 yards, 12 touchdowns and one interception. Baker was just 4-of-13 for 30 yards with two interceptions last week at Hawaii.

The Aztecs, therefore, likely will not want to turn the game into a shootout between the two Carson quarterbacks. San Diego State, which is playing its home games this season in Carson, Calif., also has former Georgia Tech quarterback Lucas Johnson on its roster. Johnson has not thrown a pass this season though he rushed for 51 yards on three carries last week at Hawaii in his 2020 debut.

Hoke, though, was vague about which quarterback will play against the Pack.

“He’s a great kid, smart and he’ll bounce back,” said Hoke of Baker. “But having both of them is a real positive. I’m sure Nevada will prepare for both of them.”

Hoke, who was Michigan’s head coach from 2011-14, is well aware of the Aztecs’ struggles to throw the ball this year. “I do love the fact that our run game, our backs, have done a nice job,” Hoke said. “But there’s no question that during the course of the year people will stack it up (to stop the run) until we can prove that we can get the ball down the field (through the air).”

Hoke has taken notice of what Strong and the Pack passing game has accomplished this year. “Carson Strong, he can make all the throws,” Hoke said. “And he has a group of receivers who are all very talented. (Romeo) Doubs is pretty special. They are going to be a really good challenge for us.”

The Aztecs have the No. 1 passing defense in the Mountain West this year, allowing just 152.2 yards a game. San Diego State has also allowed the fewest passing first downs in the conference (23) while the Wolf Pack offense has the most passing first downs (62).

Doubs, who leads the Mountain West with 31 receptions for 645 yards and eight touchdowns, has caught Strong’s last six scoring passes. The Pack junior, though, has just six catches for 69 yards and no touchdowns in two career games against San Diego State.

“The big plays by Carson and Romeo are just backbreakers,” Norvell said. “If they (opposing defenses) want to get cute with some of their defenders, they still have to deal with Romeo out there. We’re just not going to let people off the hook that way. We’re going to continue to use those guys.”

San Jose State beat San Diego State 28-17 on Nov. 6 on the strength of three Aztecs’ turnovers in the fourth quarter, leading to two San Jose State short touchdown runs in the final 11 minutes.

Norvell, whose Wolf Pack defense has forced just two turnovers all season long, isn’t relying on the Aztecs to make many mistakes.

“You have to outplay them,” the Pack coach said. “They are not going to give you anything. You have to be at your best to beat a team like this.”

The Aztecs are clearly the best team the Pack has faced this season. The Pack’s first four opponents (Wyoming, UNLV, Utah State and New Mexico) are a combined 1-13 right now. The Wolf Pack’s final four opponents this season (San Diego State, Hawaii, Fresno State, San Jose State) are a combined 12-4.

“The season is now just starting for us, really,” tight end Cole Turner said. “These four games will prove to everyone how good we are.”

A victory on Saturday will make the Wolf Pack 5-0 for the first time since the 2010 team started 6-0. The 2010 season is the only Pack season since the school joined Division I-A in 1992 that has started with at least five victories.

“We just can’t get comfortable,” Wolf Pack safety Tyson Williams said. “It’s about just staying hungry.”

The Wolf Pack has won seven of its last eight Mountain West games dating back to last season.

“This year we expect ourselves to win every single game,” Turner said. “We just don’t expect to win, we expect to dominate. It’s our plan to do it again this week.”