Grading the Pack: Receivers lead the way vs. Fresno State
Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 37-26 victory over the Fresno State Bulldogs on Saturday at Mackay Stadium:
Carson Strong completed 23-of-39 for 354 yards and five touchdowns and won the conference’s Offensive Player of the Week award. But this was far from Strong’s best or most efficient game this year. He completed just 59 percent of his passes, the lowest completion percentage of his career since he was 7-of-14 against Hawaii last year in the fourth game of his career. He was also intercepted twice, the first time he has been picked off more than once in a game since he was intercepted twice against Weber State in Week 3 as a freshman. Strong and the offense also struggled from late in the second quarter until early in the fourth quarter as five consecutive drives ended in three punts, a lost fumble and an interception. Strong started by completing 10 of his first 16 passes and finished the game by completing just 13-of-23. Strong also completed passes to just five different receivers, the lowest total of the year. He averaged 8.2 different receivers a game over the first six games. So it was far from perfect. Fortunately for the Pack, though, it was, at times, spectacular. An 85-yard scoring pass to Tory Horton in the fourth quarter snapped the Pack out of its offensive struggles. It’s hard not to win your conference’s Offensive Player of the Week award when you toss five touchdowns, no matter what happens on your other 34 throws. A Wolf Pack quarterback had not thrown five touchdowns in a game since Colin Kaepernick against Idaho in 2010.
RUNNING BACKS: C
The Wolf Pack didn’t need a running back on Saturday. Toa Taua, Devonte Lee and Avery Morrow combined to run the ball just 18 times for 84 yards. Lee had the most important run of the game exploding for 33 yards out of the Wildcat formation on 4th-and-1 from the 50 in the second quarter. The other 17 runs by the backs had little to do with the victory. The Wolf Pack seemed determined to prove that their Air Raid offense was still alive and well after a confusing 168-yard, 25-pass effort through the air against Hawaii.
Romeo Doubs returned to the Pack offense with seven catches for 97 yards, including one 35-yard catch-and-run down to the Fresno 5-yard line in the first quarter. The Pack, for the most part, tossed short passes at or behind the line of scrimmage to Doubs and the Southern California lightning bolt took care of the rest. Tory Horton scorched a busted coverage for an 85-yard touchdown and beat single coverage for his other two scores. His two fourth quarter grabs, on two similar routes simply streaking down the sideline, won the game. And Cole Turner outfought a Fresno defender on two identical routes for short scores in the first quarter. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, well, you can call me a Fresno State defensive back.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
The Pack barely ran the ball the entire night and Strong tossed a ton of short passes. So there wasn’t, as usual, a ton of pressure put on the Pack offensive line. Strong, though, was sacked twice and one of those sacks resulted in a fumble that would have been a disaster had not Strong recovered it. Two other Strong near sacks netted zero and two yards. Of the 20 Pack runs that were not sacks, 14 of them netted three yards or fewer. Aaron Frost had a false start and Jermaine Ledbetter was called for a hold. This offensive line is better than it was a year ago but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-
Sam Hammond (four tackles) and Daniel Grzesiak had sacks on two of the most important plays of the game. Grzesiak dropped Fresno quarterback Jake Haener for an 11-yard loss on 4th-and-goal from the Pack 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter and Hammond got the Bulldogs’ quarterback for a 9-yard loss on a 3rd-and-4 play midway through the fourth quarter from the Pack 26. Those two plays likely saved the victory. Kam Toomer had four tackles, including two on Fresno running back Ronnie Rivers. The Pack front, though, had a ton of opportunities to make plays as Fresno State had an alarming 105 plays on offense and piled up 599 yards and 30 first downs. Pack defensive tackle Dom Peterson returned to the field in a backup role after spraining his ankle the previous week and did not have a tackle. The Pack front needs a healthy and active Peterson on the field and making plays.
Lamin Touray had five tackles, one for a loss, and did his best trying to keep Rivers in check. He did trap Rivers for a 1-yard loss on one play. Lawson Hall was in on seven tackles and Daiyan Henley had six. Rivers, who is the heart and soul of the Fresno State offense, never did find a rhythm, despite being in on 23 plays (14 runs, nine catches). But he did pile up 107 total yards. We have to go back to those disturbing 105 Fresno State plays, those 599 Fresno yards and those 30 Fresno first downs. It is a bit amazing Fresno State scored just 26 points. But the Bulldogs couldn’t get out of their own way at times.
Haener just kept firing and usually found someone open, connecting on 41-of-65 throws for 485 yards and two touchdowns. The Bulldogs also dropped five of his passes. Tyson Williams and Jordan Lee led the Pack with 11 tackles each. Emany Johnson and Berdale Robins each had five. But it’s easy for a secondary to pile up tackles when the opposing quarterback completes 41 passes. None of those 65 passes ended up being caught by a Pack defender and just two were knocked down (just one by a defensive back). The biggest play by the secondary took place in the fourth quarter when Williams forced a fumble by Fresno wide receiver Keric Wheatfall and it was recovered by Robins. Lee also stuffed Rivers for a 4-yard loss after a pass reception so there were some bright moments by the secondary. But there wasn’t enough of them.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
The Pack special teams came up with two huge plays, messing up back-to-back Fresno State punts, leading to a pair of Pack touchdowns in the first half. Trevor Price blocked a Fresno punt. There were some negative moments on special teams. Brandon Talton missed his first extra point of the year and punter Julian Diaz had a 39-yard punt to the Fresno 49 and a 26-yard effort to the Fresno 42. Jamaal Bell was also flagged for interfering with a Fresno punt returner. But there were many more positive moments by the special teams. Talton nailed a 49-yard field goal and Diaz dropped a punt to the Fresno State 5-yard line at the end of the game and also had a 55-yarder. Peter Montini also forced a Fresno fumble on a Bulldogs kickoff return and Jordan Lee recovered it. Emany Johnson also fielded a Fresno State onside kick with 1:34 to play.
The Wolf Pack rediscovered its identity, allowing Strong to keep filling the night sky above Mackay with footballs. Strong, offensive coordinator Matt Mumme and head coach Jay Norvell believe that no Mountain West defense can stop the Pack passing attack. And they are right. The Pack lost its way briefly a week ago when it allowed Hawaii to dictate what Pack plays were called. That likely will never happen again as long as Strong is under center. No Mountain West defense can possibly cover Doubs, Turner, Horton, Stovall and whichever other receiver is available on a given night. This offense is just scratching the surface of what it can do. They’ve only reached as many as 37 points this year three times in seven games. If Strong was sharp on Saturday the Pack would have scored 50-plus. But he just seemed a bit overly anxious after what happened at Hawaii.
Norvell is right when he constantly tells us this Pack team can play better than it has this year. We believe him. The Pack really hasn’t turned in a dominating effort from all phases of its team all season long. All six wins, over San Diego State, Fresno State, Wyoming, New Mexico and even UNLV and Utah State, have been far closer than they should have been. The Pack hasn’t beaten anybody by more than 25 points (Utah State 34-9) all season despite playing one-dimensional opponents in all seven games. Some of the opponents, like UNLV, Utah State and New Mexico, are still searching for their one dimension. The Pack hasn’t beaten anyone by more than 25 points since a 49-10 win over Colorado State in Week 10 of 2018. This is the same program that went 10 years in a row, 2004 through 2013, beating at least one team a year by more than 25. But the Pack is winning this year because on six of seven occasions (Hawaii was the painful exception) they have remembered that they have the best quarterback and the best receiving group on the field each and every week. And that’s all it takes to win in the Mountain West during this goofy season. So far.