Wolf Pack grades: Nevada gets high marks for Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win | NevadaAppeal.com

Wolf Pack grades: Nevada gets high marks for Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada coach Jay Norvell receives the bath of french fries as he hugs running back Toa Taua (35) at the end of the team's 38-27 win over Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl NCAA college football game, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Steve Conner)

Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 38-27 victory over the Tulane Green Wave in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise on Tuesday:


Carson Strong was a very efficient 22-of-28 for 271 yards and five touchdowns. His 23-yard touchdown pass to Justin Lockhart on the Pack’s second score was a thing of beauty. Strong was sacked just once and the Pack had huge holes to run through all game long. Strong seemed to always find the wide open receiver, especially on scoring passes to Toa Taua, Justin Lockhart and Jamaal Bell. Strong had plenty of time to do whatever he wanted all day long and could have played this game in shorts, flip flops and a tank top. Every sixth Strong pass (on average) ended up in the end zone and if the coaches would have let him throw 50-plus passes, like he has done often in his career, he could have ended up with seven or eight touchdown passes.


Devonte Lee had a career high 105 yards rushing and Taua had 102. The two also combined to catch seven passes for 95 more yards, accounting for 302 of the Pack’s 480 yards. The running backs won this game, despite a disturbing start to the game when Lee and Taua failed to score from the 2-yard line on four consecutive runs on the first drive. The Wolf Pack gave the backs 38 carries against Tulane after giving them just 18 in the 30-20 loss to San Jose State the week before. The 38 combined carries by Taua and Lee were their most all season. Taua and Lee simply punished the Tulane defense (literally) the entire game.


Cole Turner did a nice job of using his superior physicality to score on a pair of touchdowns, from 11 and 2 yards out. Turner, at 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, is never really covered even when a defender is on his back or in his face. When Strong sees Turner in the end zone with just one defender in the neighborhood he simply throws the ball up for grabs and Turner usually comes down with it. Lockhart caught his first pass since he had eight catches against San Diego State on Nov. 21 and scored his first touchdown since he found the end zone against UNLV on Oct. 31. Romeo Doubs didn’t get into the end zone for the fourth consecutive game but did turn in an excellent catch down the middle for 27 yards. The wide receivers and tight ends, though, played a secondary role in this game to Taua and Lee but they were productive, catching four of Strong’s touchdown passes. Lockhart’s and Bell’s only catches of the game went for touchdowns as the Pack wide receivers and tight ends combined for a season-low 14 catches.


This just might have been the best performance by the Pack’s offensive line since Jay Norvell took over as head coach in 2017. Strong had all day to throw and the Pack backs had huge holes. Strong averaged 12.3 yards on his 22 completions and Lee and Taua averaged 5.6 yards on each of their 38 combined carries. Tulane came into the game with 38 sacks and had just one against the Pack. The Wolf Pack, it seemed, came into the game knowing it couldn’t just drop Strong back 50-plus times because of the Tulane pass rush. Tulane, though, was without its best pass rushers Cam Sample and Patrick Johnson (15 combined sacks), squeezing the life out of its defense. The Pack, though, stayed with its game plan of running the ball because, well, Tulane couldn’t stop anything. Pack center Tyler Orsini was called for a false start on an extra point but it was an otherwise clean performance by the Pack offensive front.


Tristan Nichols, who had four sacks in 2019, made his presence known for the first time this season. The 6-4 defensive end had a pair of key sacks on consecutive plays in the fourth quarter. Those were his first sacks of the year and just his third and fourth tackles. The Pack, though, was without tackle Dom Peterson and it showed against Tulane’s run (197 yards, 38 carries). Daniel Grzesiak and Christian Love each had timely sacks in the fourth quarter. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Maurice Wilmer, a former defensive back, was called for a costly personal foul after a Taua run put the ball on the Tulane 2-yard line. The penalty likely cost the Pack a touchdown. The Pack defensive line, though, did its best without a single tackle by its two best players (Peterson and Sam Hammond).


Lawson Hall and Trevor Price each had a pair of sacks as the Pack front seven combined for eight sacks. Lamin Touray had a key interception near the goal line on an awful throw by Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt on a play that should have been a Green Wave touchdown. Hall also had nine tackles in arguably the best game of his Pack career (he joined the program under head coach Brian Polian in 2016). Tulane running back Cameron Carroll, though, did find plenty of space to pick up 120 yards. Pratt also burned the Pack on the ground numerous times as did running back Stephon Henderson (52 yards in 10 carries). The sacks, though, kept the afternoon from becoming a complete disaster for the defensive line and linebackers.


Christian Swint and E.J. Muhammad had two of the Pack’s three interceptions. Muhammad’s interception was a great play and came on the very next play after he was called for pass interference. Swint’s pick was pure luck as the ball defected off a Tulane wide receiver. Pratt never should have thrown the ball in the first place, firing out of his own end zone early in the game. The interception set up the Pack’s first touchdown. The Pack secondary didn’t get burned often (just 12 completions for 168 yards) but when it did, well, it usually hurt badly. Pratt’s 12 completions were for an average gain of 14 yards. Jha’Quan Jackson torched the Pack for touchdown catches of 41 and 28 yards. Tyrick James had a 22-yard catch and Jaetavian Toles had one for 17.


Kicker Brandon Talton had arguably the worst day of his two-year Pack career, missing a 32-yard field goal and two extra points. Tulane called for a fair catch on one Julian Diaz kickoff that only went to the 29-yard line and a Diaz punt carried just 15 yards out of bounds. Kieran Clark was called for a holding penalty on a Pack kickoff return. Tulane’s Jha’Quan Jackson had a 27-yard punt return, setting up a Green Wave score. The best play of the day by the Pack special teams was a 61-yard kickoff return by Jamaal Bell, though the drive ended in a missed field goal by Talton. If Tulane could have played even a smidgen of defense the special teams would have cost the Pack this game.


The Wolf Pack had a nice run-pass mix on offense and didn’t try to force things. And, well, most everything worked. Tulane never really stopped the Pack (480 total yards) all game long and the Pack should have scored 50-plus points. The signature play of the game was when the Pack scored on a flea flicker. Strong handed off to Lee, who flipped the ball back to Cole Turner who gave it back to Strong. The closest Tulane defender on the 44-yard scoring pass to Taua was likely in Nampa, Idaho. Tulane, obviously overwhelmed and shorthanded on defense, was probably as surprised as anyone to be down just 26-20 entering the fourth quarter. But you never felt for a second the Pack was going to lose this game because, well, it was just a matter of time before the Tulane defense would disappear, leaving a Pack receiver wide open or giving Taua and Lee wide open spaces in big sky country in which to run. But give the Pack coaching staff credit for being patient, sticking to the game plan and not trying to impress anyone.


It was difficult at times to determine whether the Pack was playing well or badly. To nobody’s surprise the game — just a little more than a week after the end of the regular season during a pandemic — was a sloppy, poorly-played affair. Everything, namely an awful Tulane defense that was playing reserves in some key spots and the location of the game at a Mountain West school, pointed to an easy Pack victory. The Green Wave had to practice for a few days with a severely depleted roster (because of COVID-19) and then travel from New Orleans to Boise, all in the span of about eight days. And on top of it all they were missing 19 players for various reasons. The Pack jumped out to 19-0 and 26-7 leads and still had to sweat this one out (leading just 26-20). You could also argue that Tulane handed the Pack all of its 38 points. Two of the Pack touchdowns came after a pair of Tulane turnovers deep in Green Wave territory. Taua, Lockhart and Bell all were wide open on scoring catches thanks to busted plays in the Tulane secondary and Taua scored from 50 yards out on a run when Tulane likely couldn’t have tackled the guy in the potato costume. But give the Pack credit for taking advantage of the abundance of opportunities.