Wolf Pack grades: Nevada’s collapse against SJSU touches on all areas
Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 30-20 loss to the San Jose State Spartans on Friday in Las Vegas:
Carson Strong simply does not play poorly. He goes from good to great. The Pack’s problem is that when he is merely good and not great, the entire team struggles. The sophomore quarterback completed 33-of-48 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown and was not intercepted. That is a solid effort, no matter how you look at it. Yes, Strong looked ordinary down the stretch, completing just five of his last 12 passes. But San Jose State did a great job of keeping the Wolf Pack receivers in front of them and that, well, took the explosiveness out of the Pack attack. Strong took what the Spartans gave him, completing 23 passes for nine yards or less. Strong was also under pressure most of the game, getting sacked four times. He also had to scramble four other times to get away from pressure.
RUNNING BACKS: C
Toa Taua fumbled the ball away twice, doing as much as anyone to cost the Wolf Pack the game. Taua did have 96 yards on just 11 carries but more than half of those yards (52) came on one play. Five of his carries were for three yards or less. Taua, though, also caught five passes for 32 yards, giving him 128 total yards on the day. He’s a very good back who just doesn’t get a lot of chances in this pass-happy offense. But, still, you just can’t fumble the ball away. Twice. Taua carried the ball just five times in the second half, fumbling it away on two of his final three carries (at the San Jose 1 and 34-yard lines). Devonte Lee did the most with his limited carries, picking up 38 on seven tries. His 1-yard touchdown came on the Wildcat, where he is extremely effective. Taua and Lee are as good as any running back tandem in the Mountain West and will likely be remembered as two of the most under-appreciated good backs in Nevada school history because they play in this offense. But you just can’t drop the ball.
Romeo Doubs did have nine catches for 75 yards but also failed to get in the end zone for the third consecutive game. Doubs now has just 17 catches for 182 yards and no scores over his last three games after hauling in 36 passes for 778 yards and nine touchdowns in his first five. His three-game touchdown dry spell is his longest since he went seven games in a row without a score as a freshmen and sophomore (the last three of 2018 and first four of 2019). Tory Horton had six catches for 62 yards and no touchdowns, one week after catching five for 148 yards and three touchdowns against Fresno State. Melquan Stovall caught seven passes but gained just 37 total yards. Cole Turner caught four passes, including a 2-yard touchdown and was under utilized against the Spartans as strong seemed to want to force the ball to Doubs.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C+
Strong was sacked four times, forcing him to dump the ball off far too often for short gains through the air. Strong also averaged just 7.9 yards on each of his 33 completions, his shortest average gain on completions this year. There’s a reason the Pack is calling for more short, safe, dump-off passes lately. Taua and Lee did gain 138 yards on the ground on just 18 carries but more than half of those yards (73) came on just two carries. This offensive line could be a solid run-blocking unit, if only they were allowed to get in a rhythm. Strong has now been sacked 19 times this year in eight games. Jermaine Ledbetter and Aaron Frost had false starts.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C
The Wolf Pack defensive front, to nobody’s surprise, misses tackle Dom Peterson dearly. Peterson has sat out the bulk of the last three games with an ankle injury and the Pack has lost two of the three games. Peterson started against San Jose State and did not have a tackle for the second consecutive game. Sam Hammond did have five tackles, Zak Mahannah had the Pack’s lone sack and Amir Johnson trapped San Jose State running back Kairee Robinson for a 4-yard loss. But San Jose State running backs Tyler Nevens, Robinson and Nick Nash piled up 213 rushing yards on just 22 carries and experienced little resistance from the Pack front.
Lawson Hall stuffed Nick Nash for no gain on a 3rd-and-1 play but the impact plays by the Pack linebackers were few and far between. Lamin Touray had five tackles and Daiyan Henley and Trevor Price each had four. Touray also teamed up with defensive back Mikael Bradford twice, stopping Tyler Nevens for a pair of 2-yard gains. But San Jose State piled up 506 total yards, averaging 7.4 on each run and 8.9 on each play overall. Nevens had 184 yards on 12 carries and while 138 of those yards came on two 69-yard carries, he also had six or more yards on six more carries.
Mikael Bradford had a team-high 11 tackles and Tyson Williams and E.J. Muhammad each had five. Williams also buried Nash for no gain on a 4th-and-1 run and later picked off a Nick Starkel pass and returned it 31 yards. But the rest of the evening was a nightmare for the Pack secondary. Starkel completed 20 passes, mainly to his wide receivers, for 306 yards. Bailey Gaither torched the Pack for seven catches for 156 yards, Tre Walker also caught seven for 80 yards and Jermaine Braddock caught a 33-yard touchdown. The Pack knew Starkel would target Gaither and Walker all night long and still couldn’t stop it. The Pack secondary has struggled mightily against competent quarterbacks (Starkel, Fresno’s Jake Haener, Hawaii’s Chevan Cordeiro) over the last three games. Starkel, Haener and Cordeiro combined for 87 completions, 1,037 yards, four touchdowns and 52 first downs through the air.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C –
The game took a turn for the worse for the Pack on a pair of special teams plays, to end the first half and open the second half. Leading 20-7, the Wolf Pack’s Brandon Talton missed a 25-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. San Jose State’s Sharmar Garrett then returned the second half kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. So, instead of being up 23-7 and in total control of the game, the Pack was up just 20-14 and in a dogfight. Henry Ikahihifo (personal foul) and JoJuan Claiborne (holding) were also called for penalties on Pack kickoff returns. Great teams use special teams to win championships. The Pack special teams contributed big-time to the loss on Friday.
It was clearly a tale of two halves for the Pack. The Wolf Pack was patient, efficient and productive on offense in the first half, putting up 20 points. The defense also turned in arguably its best quarter of the year in the second quarter, allowing the Spartans just 17 total yards on 14 offensive plays with an interception, sack and punt. The Pack was up 20-7 at the half and it felt like 42-7. But then Garret returned the second half kickoff for a score and the Pack looked like it was in a daze the rest of the game, dropping the ball on offense (Taua) and giving up big play after big play on defense. The Pack coaches had no answer on offense and defense and seemed determined to keep waiting for a 40-yard Strong touchdown pass to make everything all right.
It was a total collapse by the Pack in the final 30 minutes of the most important game it has played in 10 years, since the win over Boise State at Mackay Stadium in 2010. With a spot in the Mountain West title game on the line, the Wolf Pack played its worse half of football – and with a 13-point lead on top of it – of the year. That sort of collapse touches all areas of the team, on the field and on the sideline and shows just how much this program still needs to grow. This was the Pack’s true bowl game, not that meaningless exhibition in Boise next week with nothing on the line against a team that has already lost five games.