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Film Study: Nevada owns second half in upset of Purdue, and finds its quarterback along the way

It took a while, but Carson Strong settled in to lead a comeback under the lights in Reno

NCAA Football: Purdue at Nevada David Calvert-USA TODAY Sports

What a tale of two halves we had last Friday night in Reno.

In this Mountain West Connection Film Study, we break down the key plays and players in the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 34-31 upset victory at home over Power Five opponent Purdue.

Purdue and head coach Jeff Brohm had things rolling in the first half. Behind surgeon-like precision from quarterback Elijah Sindelar and the undeniable greatness of receiver Rondale Moore, the Boilermakers racked up 340 yards of total offense — 268 passing, 72 rushing — and gained 15 first downs in the opening two quarters.

Purdue’s defense, which gave up 284.7 passing yards per game last year (128th in the nation), did its job and held Nevada to just 99 total yards, five first downs and contained the Mountain West’s Freshman of the Year from a season ago in running back Toa Taua — the Wolf Pack gained just 35 yards on the ground and trailed 24-7 at halftime.

Nevada’s pistol offense, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Carson Strong, seemed like it was stuck in mud. But that changed in the second half.

Strong was finally able to get comfortable and in a rhythm after halftime, and he fired some impressive throws to his receivers, who started to find openings in Purdue’s zone defenses.

Strong, who made his fist start since his junior year of high school, showed why he’s the guy in Reno and won the job over Florida State transfer Malik Henry. Strong went 30 of 51 for 295 yards and three touchdowns. Most importantly, he took care of the ball. In fact, Nevada as a team took care of the ball and enjoyed a plus-5 turnover margin, which was a big reason why the Pack came out on top.

Purdue fans were probably pulling their hair out on turnovers that resulted in Nevada points, like this muffed punt from Moore:

But first, let’s talk about Strong — Nevada has something here. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has all the arm strength you could want in your quarterback. Watch this throw from the opposite hash to wideout Romeo Doubs, who runs a 10-yard out route to the sideline (we don’t need to talk about the two inside receivers colliding with one another). Purdue was in soft zone coverage, and probably didn’t think Strong could make that throw. But he delivered a frozen rope:

On the play below, Strong is flushed from the pocket from A gap pressure and was forced to throw off balance to his checkdown, Taua. Some quarterbacks don’t have the arm strength to still throw a fastball when their feet aren’t set, but Strong does. Look at the placement of the ball, too. It’s right at Taua’s facemask:

But as we know, sometimes quarterbacks need to take shots down the field to loosen up a defense. Strong really showed off his deep-ball accuracy against Purdue. In the play below, Nevada comes out in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end), and Purdue’s one-high safety gets drawn to the middle of the field by Nevada’s slot receiver, leaving one-on-one coverage with the Boilermaker corner and Doubs. Even though this was a drop, check out the accuracy here on a pass that travels about 55 yards:

Another part of Strong’s game is his mobility. It doesn’t look like the smoothest thing in the world — after all, he’s a tall guy coming off a knee injury — but he was pretty effective in the second half picking up yards with his legs when nothing was open down field:

On this pivotal first-down run on third-and-10, Taua motions out of the backfield in hopes of drawing the linebackers out of the middle of the field. Purdue was in zone, however, and did a good job of sticking with the receivers up the field. But at the same time, it provided some running room for Strong, because the middle linebacker and defensive coordinator’s son, Ben Holt (44), took his eyes off Strong and turned his back in coverage.

Strong got cute with this run because he attempts a slight hesitation juke, and it looked like his knee gave out a little bit. He was slow getting up. It’s also worth noting that he wasn’t wearing his knee brace late in the game after wearing it in the first half:

It was a great decision to pick up the yards with his legs, though. The very next play was this 7-yard touchdown run from Taua. Look at the blocks thrown by guard Aaron Frost and center Nathan Edwards, who both pull around great down blocks from tackle Nate Brown and tight end Reagan Roberson (31).

After forcing a punt on Purdue’s ensuing drive, Nevada marched down the field on an 11-play drive that featured 12- and 8-yard grabs from Strong to slot receiver Kaleb Fossum and this 23-yard catch from Doubs on fourth-and-7:

As well as this crazy 13-yard completion to Taua. Strong was trying to throw this ball away, but it didn’t travel far enough. No worries, though, because Taua, who leaked out of the backfield and turned up field, grabbed it and fell in bounds:

That play set up this 20-yard touchdown throw from Strong to Elijah Cooks. Again, Purdue was sitting in zone, and Strong used his arm strength to squeeze the ball through the hole in the zone to tie the game at 31. Look how Strong steps up in the pocket just enough to elude true freshman monster D-end George Karlaftis (great pass protection from Taua, too), then fires a strike to Cooks, who splits the field corner and safety, who looks as if he was drawn towards the middle of the field by the underneath drag route:

Two plays later for Purdue, Sindelar forces the ball into a tight window. Nevada rushes three and drops eight, with the two corners covering the underneath flats and three high safeties each taking a third of the field.

This was a poor decision from Sindelar. Emany Johnson was the deep safety to the field side — you can see him bailing just before the snap. Austin Arnold is the field corner that makes a great play on the loose ball, but it was Johnson who covered the ground to break up the play on Purdue wideout David Bell. Look at how Arnold doesn’t take the bait on Moore, the slot receiver who runs a 5-yard stop route meant to draw him towards the line of scrimmage:

Nevada drove down the field, and on this second-and-15, Strong found Cooks for a 17-yard completion out of 10 personnel against man coverage. Cook’s route was simple: sprint to the first down marker and turn around for the ball. The TV broadcast didn’t show how Cooks got so open, but it’s clear the Purdue sideline wanted offensive pass interference:

You know the rest. Nevada true freshman kicker Brandon Talton drilled a 56-yard walk-off field goal and was put on scholarship after the game:

Next up for Nevada is an even tougher Power Five opponent: Oregon on Saturday night.