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Grading the Wolf Pack: Nevada ‘D’ could have been better vs. UNLV

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada defensive end Sam Hammond, left, and defensive end Kameron Toomer (7) sack UNLV quarterback Max Gilliam (6) during the second half Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/John Locher

Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 37-19 victory over the UNLV Rebels last Saturday:

QUARTERBACK: A+

Carson Strong, once again, was brilliant. The sophomore was 21-of-27 for 350 yards and two touchdowns and did not throw an interception for the fifth game in a row. Strong has not been intercepted over his last 230 passes, since San Diego State’s Darren Hall grabbed one of his throws early in the second quarter last season. Strong completed passes to eight receivers. He averaged 16.7 yards on each of his 21 completions. That is the highest average gain on completions in Strong’s career and the highest for the Pack since it gained 23.3 yards on each completion (the quarterback was Ty Gangi) against Portland State to open the 2018 season.

RUNNING BACKS: A+

Toa Taua returned to the lineup after a one-game absence and exploded up the middle of the Rebel defense for 86 yards on just 12 carries. Devonte Lee had 45 yards on just four carries and Avery Morrow had 29 on just three. The three Pack backs combined for 159 yards on a mere 19 carries (8.4 a carry). The Wolf Pack could have dominated the Rebels even if they lined up in the Wildcat all game long. Lee had a 35-yard run, Toa had one run of 33 yards and Morrow went for 29 on one carry. That’s 97 yards on just three carries. Take away those three runs and the trio still had 62 yards on 16 carries for a respectable 3.9 a carry.

RECEIVERS: A+

Romeo Doubs gained 211 yards on just six catches. His 65-yard touchdown catch gave the Pack a 17-6 lead early in the second quarter. Tight end Cole Turner caught four passes for 72 yards and sophomore Justin Lockhart, who caught just five passes all of last season, caught six for 36 yards and a 4-yard touchdown for a 24-12 lead with 15 seconds left in the first half. Lockhart now has 10 catches this year in two games. Lockhart’s production has been important with senior wide receiver Elijah Cooks possibly out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. Norvell said Cooks is getting a second opinion this week.

OFFENSIVE LINE: B+

The Pack front dominated the Rebels in the run game but also allowed three sacks for the second consecutive game. Left tackle Jacob Gardner was called for holding and center Tyler Orsini had a false start. The starting five (tackles Gardner and Aaron Frost, Orsini and guards Jermaine Ledbetter and Nate Brown) have already become a cohesive unit and are playing the vast majority of the game, a big change from a year ago when the Pack rotated linemen in and out of the game often.

DEFENSIVE LINE: B+

Dom Peterson had a parting gift sack with about a minute to play and Sam Hammond had a sack near the line of scrimmage earlier in the fourth quarter. Those were about the only times the Pack front penetrated and made a play in the UNLV backfield. Peterson’s five tackles led the defensive line while Zak Mahannah, Kam Toomer and backup defensive end Daniel Grzesiak each had four. Hammond’s sack was his only tackle of the game. The four-man front combined for just three tackles for a loss (two on sacks). Peterson and Grzesiak were both in on a pair of tackles of UNLV running back Charles Williams after short gains.

LINEBACKERS: C+

The Pack linebackers still are not making enough game-changing plays. Lawson Hall had six tackles and Lamin Touray had four, including a key sack. But the top three Pack tacklers were all defensive backs. Williams had 99 yards on just 19 carries and also caught five passes and the linebackers were rarely in on a tackle of the UNLV back. This Pack defense will make a bigger impact once Hall and Touray are turning in double-digit tackle totals most every game.

SECONDARY: B

UNLV quarterback Max Gilliam completed 27-of-40 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns, with the bulk of those receptions going to wide receivers and tight ends. The Pack defensive backs did not have an interception despite UNLV throwing 41 passes, mainly downfield. JoJuan Claiborne did lead the Pack with eight tackles but the majority of his tackles were after long gains on the ground by Williams. Safety Tyson Williams had six tackles and knocked down a pass and also had a pair of tackles on Williams after short gains. A.J. King, E.J. Muhammad and Kieran Clark also broke up passes. Jaden Dedman was called for pass interference.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A-

Kicker Brandon Talton continues to be a model of perfection, drilling three field goals (26, 32, 34 yards) without a miss. And Julian Diaz dropped his only punt of the game (26 yards) inside the 20-yard line. Just two of Diaz’s eight kickoffs, though, were touchbacks and one of them went out of bounds. Jamaal Bell did return one UNLV kickoff 50 yards but his other two kickoff returns netted just 35 yards combined and the three Pack punt returns netted just 12 total yards. The explosive Doubs had just 1 and 3 yards on his two punt returns. The Pack kickoff coverage team did a solid job, holding UNLV to an average of 21.4 yards on five returns.

COACHING: A-

The offensive play calling was nearly perfect as the Pack mixed in 27 passes and 27 runs and rolled up 497 total yards and 22 first downs. UNLV really didn’t have a clue how to stop the Pack the entire game. The Pack offense gained 9.2 yards a play. The Pack had six drives (out of eight) of 50 or more yards. The Pack was extremely aggressive and confident the entire game on offense and had 17 plays of 10 yards or more. The defense, though, didn’t play as well as the surface numbers (UNLV had just 19 points and 348 total yards) might indicate. The Pack defense, which could have used some of the offense’s aggressiveness, struggled most of the game trying to get off the field. UNLV converted 5-of-6 fourth down plays and had as many first downs (22) as the Pack. The Rebels also controlled the ball for 73 plays and 32-plus minutes. UNLV had four drives of 11 or more plays and punted just three times. The Pack defense also did not force a turnover. If it did, the Pack would have likely scored 50-plus points.