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Grading the Wolf Pack: ‘A’ overall but some trouble spots for Nevada

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong (12) during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Utah State on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Reno, Nev.
AP Photo/Lance Iversen

Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 34-9 victory over the Utah State Aggies on Thursday:

QUARTERBACK: A+

There isn’t a quarterback in the country playing better than the Wolf Pack’s Carson Strong right now. Strong completed 36-of-52 passes for 411 yards and three touchdowns against Utah State and barely broke a sweat. The Pack clearly has a video game offense right now. Strong, just a sophomore and possibly on his way to a NFL career by 2023, has not been intercepted over his last 282 passes (six games) and is just 24 away from Derek Carr’s (Fresno State) Mountain West record of 306 in 2013. The NCAA record is 444 passes in a row without an interception by Colby Cameron of Louisiana Tech in 2011-12. Cameron threw 45 of those passes against the Pack in 2011. Strong has completed 96-of-131 passes this year after three games for 1,181 yards and nine touchdowns and is the early frontrunner for Mountain West Player of the Year.

RUNNING BACKS: A+

Toa Taua’s biggest mistake was joining the Wolf Pack during the Air Raid pass-happy era. The junior chewed up Utah State for 107 yards on 12 carries and had a key 15-yard touchdown early in the third quarter. Stick Taua in Chris Ault’s run-heavy 1980s offense or the pistol from 2005-12, he’d be on pace to set school records. Bulldozer Devonte Lee also makes the most of his limited opportunities. He had 29 yards on six carries against the Aggies. The top three Pack backs (Taua, Lee and Avery Morrow) had 153 yards on just 20 carries and combined to catch 11 passes for 69 yards.

RECEIVERS: A+

Strong’s biggest competitor for the conference’s Player of the Year honors this season is the guy who catches most the Pack touchdowns. Romeo Doubs grabbed seven passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns. The touchdowns came in a 10-minute flurry in the first half and basically put the game out of reach. Doubs just might be the best wide receiver in the country. There is certainly nobody in the Mountain West that can cover him. Justin Lockhart, who has been a revelation this season, chipped in with six catches for 95 yards and Cole Turner caught four for 66 yards. The Pack has lost wide receiver Elijah Cooks to a shoulder injury but hardly anyone has noticed. Strong has a ton of receivers and he keeps them all happy.

OFFENSIVE LINE: B

It’s easy to look at the numbers (36 points, 512 yards per game) and think all is well and perfect with the Pack offensive line. But this group continues to make mistakes that could prove fatal against better defenses. Luckily for the Pack they will play just one real defense (San Diego State) in the regular season this year. Strong, though, was sacked four more times against Utah State and has gone down a disturbing 10 times in just three games. One of the sacks led to a Utah State safety and another was turned into a Strong fumble. Aaron Frost had a holding penalty and Nate Edwards was called for illegal procedure. The Pack ran the ball on 4th-and-2 on its first drive and lost three yards. In the second quarter the Pack had first-and-goal from the Utah State 3 and threw the ball three times and ran it once. The one time they ran it the Aggies stuffed Taua for no gain. Nobody should be afraid to run the ball against Utah State.

DEFENSIVE LINE: B

Amir Johnson had the Pack’s only sack and Zak Mahannah was in on a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Mahannah, a nose tackle, was also called for being off-side on another play. Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond combined for just five tackles. But Hammond made a nice play on Utah State quarterback Jason Shelley after a 1-yard gain. Utah State didn’t run the ball often (25 times) but the Aggies did average 4.4 yards a carry. Like the offensive line, it’s easy to look at the numbers (Utah State had just 11 first downs and 210 total yards) and think all is well with the Pack defensive line. And things are well enough for now. But we’re just not seeing enough big plays from the Pack’s front seven just yet.

LINEBACKERS: B

Daiyan Henley, a former wide receiver, led the Pack with eight tackles. But all eight tackles were after gains of at least three yards and six were after five or six-yard gains. Lawson Hall had just two tackles and Lamin Touray had just one. Trevor Price combined with tackle Zak Mahannah for one tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Shelley did break free for runs of 12, 20 and eight yards, a problem (quarterbacks gaining big yards on the ground) that has popped up in all three games. The Pack has not forced or recovered a fumble all season long yet.

SECONDARY: A

The Pack has yet to play a decent quarterback this season so it’s difficult to tell just how well the secondary is playing. But they must be doing something right. Utah State had almost no passing game (Shelley was 15-of-27 for just 96 yards) on a day when the Pack had little, if any, pass rush. So we’ll credit the secondary. Safety JoJuan Claiborne had six tackles and has proven this year he isn’t afraid to come up and help the linebackers when needed. Safety Tyson Williams also gives a solid effort each time he’s on the field, covering his man and making tackles. And we like what we’ve seen so far from Christian Swint, Emany Johnson, Berdale Robbins and A.J. King, though Robins was called for a pass interference on Thursday. It is an active, athletic, physical secondary that likes to play with aggressiveness. But the Pack has just one interception all season long despite 107 passes by the opposition.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A

Punter Julian Diaz, who also handles kickoff duties, did not dress for the game. But Matt Freem, a junior transfer from Saddleback College, handled the punting and freshman Matthew Killam kicked off eight times and both performed well. Four of Killam’s kickoffs were touchbacks and Freem averaged 43.7 yards on three punts. Kicker Brandon Talton stayed perfect, making both of his field goals and all four of his extra points. He is now 6-of-6 on field goals and 12-of-12 on PATs this year. The Wolf Pack punt coverage team was called for one penalty.

COACHING: B+

The Pack didn’t seem ready to play this game. The first nine-plus minutes were a mess as the Pack dug itself a 9-0 hole, giving up a safety to an awful defense and a touchdown to an anemic offense. That 9-0 deficit, of course, was never a cause for alarm against a team like Utah State but it could prove fatal in, say, a Mountain West title game against Boise State. Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme also reminded us on the Pack’s first drive that old habits die hard. Maybe they were just bored but, for some reason, they found it necessary to go for a 4th-and-2 at their own 43 on the first drive of the game. It was a silly, careless decision in a game they should have won by 40 points at home. The play resulted in a 3-yard loss by Taua and, of course, eventually led to the Utah State safety and touchdown as the Aggies clearly won the field position battle in the first nine minutes. The Pack play calling, though, reverted back to the maturity and sanity we saw in the first two games and dominated the Aggies the rest of the way. Strong flips a few short passes to his backs and possession receivers to keep the chains moving. He then gives Taua a few carries up the middle to keep the defense from dropping nine men into coverage. And then he goes deep to Romeo Doubs for the touchdown. That sort of play calling, and not the silly, careless stunt we saw on the first drive of the game, is why the Pack is 3-0 this year and will likely put them in the Mountain West title game against Boise State.

OVERALL: A

Utah State is a complete dumpster fire right now. If the Pack wouldn’t have handed the Aggies nine points in the first quarter because of some shoddy playcalling, the Pack would have had its first shutout since 2011 (37-0 over UNLV). Playing an awful team at home is always a treat but when you get to do it on a short week, well, the NCAA should be ashamed for scheduling such a game on a Thursday, especially during a pandemic. Strong and Doubs are simply toying with the Mountain West right now. The Pack offense is demoralizing opposing teams and the Pack defense is reaping the benefits.