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Short week for Nevada: Wolf Pack hosts Utah State on Thursday

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada running back Devonte Lee (2) runs for a gain around UNLV linebacker Malakai Salu (43) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/John Locher

Gary Andersen is not happy with his Utah State football team right now.

“It was 100 percent pathetic and embarrassing for everybody in Aggie nation,” Andersen said after a 38-7 loss to the San Diego State Aztecs this past Saturday.

Utah State, which meets the undefeated (2-0) Nevada Wolf Pack on Thursday (4 p.m., Fox Sports One) at Mackay Stadium, has been overwhelmed in its first two games this season. The Aggies opened the season with a 42-13 loss to Boise State two weeks ago and followed that up by playing just as poorly against San Diego State. This is Utah State’s first 0-2 start since 2009 and the first time the Aggies have been outscored by 60 or more points in the first two games combined since 1992 (a 49-3 loss to Arizona and 42-18 to Utah).

“We are getting our (expletive) knocked off the football on both sides of the ball,” Andersen said. “It was complete domination.”

The Wolf Pack, which received three votes in the Coaches’ Poll (Top 25) this week, is a 15-point favorite on Thursday. The Aggies’ first two opponents this year are also getting Top 25 votes. Boise State is ranked No. 21 in the Associated Press rankings and No. 23 in the Coaches Poll while San Diego State got eight Associated Press votes and one vote in the Coaches’ Poll this week.

“As coaches we need to accept blame and responsibility,” Andersen said. “We’re the adults in the room, not the 18, 19 and 20-year-old kids.”

Utah State is last in the 12-team Mountain West in scoring (10 points a game) and defense (40 points a game). The Aggies are also last in total offense (209 yards a game) and last in rushing defense (289 yards a game). In two games the Aggies have just 23 first downs, scored just three touchdowns, allowed 11 touchdowns, have averaged just 3.3 yards a play, have been outscored 80-20 and have been outgained, on average, by 300 yards a game (510-209).

“We are who we are right now,” Andersen said.

Head coach Jay Norvell, whose Wolf Pack is second in the Mountain West in scoring (37 points a game) and total offense (496.5 yards a game) and first in passing offense (385 yards a game), is convinced the Aggies are better than they’ve shown so far this season.

“They haven’t started like they’ve wanted,” said Norvell, who will go over .500 (he is now 20-20) for the first time in his career as Pack coach with a win on Thursday. “They are in a little bit of a transition. But they’ve played Boise State and San Diego State, two of the better defenses in our league. Anybody can struggle against those two teams.”

The biggest transition the Aggies are going through now is at quarterback. Utah State’s quarterback last year (Jordan Love) was a first-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers last spring. The Aggies’ quarterback this year (Jason Shelley) joined the team this past summer after playing parts of the last two seasons at Utah.

“It’s hard to lose a quarterback of that caliber (Love) and play with the same type of productivity,” Norvell said. “It’s difficult to replace a player that good.”

Shelley was 104-of-179 for 1,205 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions for Utah in 2018 and 2019 combined. His best game for the Utes was in the Holiday Bowl after the 2018 season against Northwestern when he passed for 302 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-20 loss.

The 5-foot-11 Shelley, who only threw 11 passes all of last season, has completed just 27-of-48 passes with one touchdown and two interceptions this year.

The Aggies have just one pass completion over 13 yards this season. The Wolf Pack, by comparison, had 10 completions of more than 13 yards and averaged 16.7 yards on each of quarterback Carson Strong’s 21 completions just last week in a 37-19 win at UNLV.

The Aggies, though, whipped the Wolf Pack 36-10 last year in Logan, Utah without an effective passing game. Love was just 13-of-31 for 169 yards as the Aggies beat the Pack on the ground (Gerold Bright ran for 126 yards and two scores) and with special teams (Savon Scarver returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown).

“We gotta get better,” said Utah State 5-foot-7 wide receiver Deven Thompkins, who leads the team with 11 catches for 92 yards and a touchdown. “We need to get better. Everybody’s got to get better.”

The Wolf Pack, despite its first 2-0 start since 2014, also wants to get better. 
“We’ve done some things well but we still have a lot of improvement to make in all three phases,” Norvell said.

One of the things the Wolf Pack has done extremely well is throw the ball. The Wolf Pack is second in the nation with 385 passing yards a game behind just Central Florida (417.7 a game).

“I thought we could have scored three more touchdowns (against UNLV),” Norvell said. “Overall we can be much better offensively.”

The Wolf Pack on Thursday will once again be without senior wide receiver Elijah Cooks, who injured his shoulder in the season-opening 37-34 win over Wyoming. There is a possibility Cooks will have surgery on the shoulder and miss the rest of the season.

The Pack passing offense, though, hasn’t missed a beat without Cooks. Romeo Doubs leads the team with 19 catches for 336 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Cole Turner has 11 catches for 191 yards and two scores and a stable of talented freshmen and sophomores (Melquan Stoval, Justin Lockhart, Charles Ross and Tory Horton) have combined for 19 catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns.

“Those guys have to pick up the slack and step up,” Norvell said.

The Wolf Pack running game also stepped up last week at UNLV as Toa Taua, Devonte Lee and Avery Morrow combined for 160 yards and two touchdowns on just 19 carries. Taua also had a 20-yard gain nullified by a holding penalty.

The effectiveness of the running game, Norvell said, was a big reason why Strong was able to take shots down the field in the passing game.

“To be able to stretch the field vertically and run the ball off the same (formation), that combination is pretty potent,” Norvell said. “We’ll lean on them (Taua and Lee) more in some games than others but we’re anxious for that (the run game) to grow.”

This week’s game might be one of those times the Pack leans on its run game, if only to give future opponents something to think about. Utah State, after all, allowed 407 yards rushing to San Diego State last week and has given up six rushing touchdowns already this season.

The Wolf Pack and Aggies have played quite a number of exciting games against each other since the rivalry (the Pack leads 18-7) began in 1904.

The Pack stunned Utah State 48-47 at Mackay Stadium in 1992 and 48-44 in Logan, Utah in 1993 as the rivalry started up after a 42-year break. The Pack rallied from a 28-7 halftime deficit and scored three touchdowns in the final five minutes in 1992 as Chris Vargas tossed five touchdown passes in the second half. The win gave the Pack the Big West championship in its first year in Division I-A, Former Pack coach Chris Ault called it the greatest victory of his career at the time, one year after the historical 45-point comeback against Weber State.

Vargas then threw for 518 yards and four touchdowns against the Aggies in 1993 on the road. The 1992 and 1993 Utah State-Nevada games featured two of the greatest quarterback battles in Pack history. Vargas passed for 906 yards and nine touchdowns in the two games combined while Utah State quarterback Anthony Calvillo passed for 764 yards and seven touchdowns.

Pack quarterback Ty Gangi scored on a 6-yard touchdown run with five seconds left to beat the

Aggies 38-37 the last time the two teams met at Mackay Stadium. 

“We fully expect to see a very different Utah State team than the one we’ve seen on film (against Boise State, San Diego State),” Norvell said.