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Wolf Pack Football preview & prediction: Nevada squares off with Wyoming in season-opener

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NCAA Football: Nevada at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

After a long offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mountain West football is finally back!

The Wyoming Cowboys (0-0) travels to Reno, Nev., for the first time since 2016 to take on the Nevada Wolf Pack (0-0) in Mackay Stadium. There will be no fans or tailgating allowed, though a maximum of 250 combined family members from the players and coaches are allowed.

Nevada is coming off a season where they placed third in the West Division with a 4-4 conference record, finishing 7-6 overall. The Pack made a bowl game for the second straight season, falling 30-21 to the Ohio Bobcats in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. After going 18-20 (.474) in his first three seasons, Nevada head coach Jay Norvell was given a five-year extension in the offseason.

Wyoming also finished 4-4 in conference while going 8-5 overall — its third 8-win season in the last four years. Wyoming cruised to a 38-17 over the Georgia Southern Eagles in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl. Craig Bohl, a three-time national champion in the FCS with North Dakota State (2011-13), is 36-40 (.474) in six seasons with Wyoming.

Though there will be no divisions in this truncated season, Wyoming was picked to finish second in the Mountain Division while Nevada was picked to finish second in the West Division in the conference’s preseason poll.

Matchup: Nevada (0-0) vs. Wyoming (0-0)

When: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 4 p.m. PST

Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

TV: CBS Sports Network

Spread: Wyoming -3

Last Meeting: Wyoming won 31-3 (Oct. 26, 2019)

Matchup History: Wyoming leads 5-3

When Nevada is on offense:

The Pack offense will be led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Carson Strong. Strong, entering his second season as a starter, threw for 2,335 yards, 11 touchdowns against seven interceptions in ten starts last year. Strong had five contests with 250-plus passing yards and three with 300-plus, including a career-high 402 passing yards versus Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Nevada struggled mightily in its ground game last year, averaging just 115.6 yards per game which ranked second-worst in the conference and No. 122 nationally. Toa Taua and Devonte Lee lead the charge, hoping to build off a dreadful 2019 campaign as a unit. Taua, the primary workhorse, rushed for a team-high 807 yards on 4.1 yards per carry with six scores. Lee, after missing the first five games recovering from knee surgery, accumulated a team-best seven touchdowns on the ground on 66 carries.

Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks are one of the best receiver duos in the conference. Cooks finished Top-10 in the conference in receptions (76), receiving yards (907) and receiving touchdowns (8). Doubs racked up 44 catches for 649 yards and four scores. Doubs was an All-Mountain West Honorable Mention honoree last year. Melquan Stoval, a speedy 5-foot-8, 185-pound threat, inserts himself into the starting slot receiver role after accumulating 171 receiving yards on 19 catches in 2019.

The Wolf Pack brings back experience on its offensive line — also known as “The Union” — which struggled last year. They ranked 127th in run blocking per Pro Football Focus and allowed the 14th-most pressures.

However, The Union was thrown a curveball not long before its first game. With the sudden retirement of senior left tackle Miles Beach just over a week ago (first reported by Chris Murray of Nevada SportsNet), Nevada turns to junior Moses Landis for his first career Wolf Pack start. Shoring up Strong’s blindside will be a situation to monitor as the season develops.

According to Nevada’s depth chart, Nate Brown (RT in ‘19) and Aaron Frost flip positions for a more natural fit. Jermaine Ledbetter makes his second career collegiate start at left guard. Though the experience is there, Beach’s departure does not help a unit that placed dead last in the nation in preseason rankings.

Behind the defensive-minded Bohl, Wyoming was an above-average defense last season, placing in the Top-5 in the conference in total defense (364.5 ypg). Though it allowed the second-most passing yards, Wyoming ranked in the Top-2 in sacks (31) and tackles-for-loss (83.0).

The Pokes feature multiple new coaches on their defensive staff, including new defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel.

They will also be without some key pieces from last year’s defense. Alijah Halliburton — the conference’s leading tackler — Cassh Maluia and Logan Wilson due to graduation; five players, including three projected starters (Solomon Byrd, Rome Weber and Mario Mora) elected to opt-out of the season due to COVID-19 risks. Byrd is the team’s returning sack (6.5) and tackle-for-loss leader (9.5) and was named to the Freshman All American Team last year.

Senior defensive end Garrett Crall, who finished second on the team in sacks last year (4.5), will miss the opener due to recovering from offseason foot injury. The team’s top available sack leader is nose tackle Cole Godbout, who had two with four tackles-for-loss. Defensive tackle Ravontae Holt returns from a season-ending injury. In 2018, he totaled 31 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one fumble and recovery in 12 games.

Chad Muma broke out as a sophomore. He finished sixth on the team in tackles (51) with 3.0 tackles-for-loss and one sack. Keyon Blankenbaker, who will play a linebacker-safety hybrid role, is the team’s top returning tackler. He recorded 57 tackles with ten pass deflections as a sophomore in 2019.

Despite the loss of Weber for Saturday’s contest, the secondary still retains some experience. C.J. Coldon, who started in three games in 2018, returns from a season-ending injury prior to the start of last season. Former Arizona transfer Azizi Hearn, Wyoming’s best corner, totaled 37 tackles with four passes defended in 10 starts. Esias Gandy racked up 24 tackles with two pass breakups in 12 games. This unit will have to step up if Wyoming wants to keep up with Nevada’s fleury of offensive weapons.

When Wyoming is on offense:

The Cowboys have one of the best ground attacks in the conference. They averaged 214.8 rushing yards per contest last season — second-best in the conference and 23rd-best nationally. It is conducted by star running back Xazavian Valladay, who was named to the All-Mountain West first team last year.

Despite battling an ankle injury in the middle of the season, Valladay still rattled off six 100-plus yard performances in the team’s final seven games. He earned the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl Offensive MVP after rushing for 204 yards (on 7.8 ypc) with a rushing score.

Valladay shredded Nevada’s defense last year. The 6-foot, 205-pound thumper ran for a season-best 206 yards on 26 carries (7.9 ypc) and added two receptions for 74 yards and a score versus the Pack. He has been named to two preseason award watch lists: The Doak Walker award, given to nation’s top running back, and the Maxwell Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding player in college football.

Former Louisville transfer Trey Smith enters his second season with the program. Smith was limited to just four games due to a season-ending ankle injury. He was granted a sixth-year of eligibility from the NCAA earlier this offseason. Standing at 6-foot and 225 pounds, Smith rushed for 227 yards on 5.2 yards per carry and three touchdowns in 2019.

Wyoming also returns lots of experience on its offensive line (six have starting experience). The group is led by second-team All-Mountain West center Keegan Cryder.

Earlier this week, Bohl announced dual-threat quarterback Sean Chambers would make the start. Chambers, a team-captain was limited to eight games after suffering a season-ending injury to his left knee versus the Pack. Chambers is a sensational running quarterback. In college football, sacks count as negative rushing yardage. Chambers still led the conference in yards per carry (6.3) and finished sixth in rushing touchdowns (6).

Don’t be surprised if Wyoming opts to utilize both of its quarterbacks listed on the depth chart. Chambers’ backup, Levi Williams, went 11-for-26 (42.3 percent) for 234 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in his only career start in the Arizona Bowl.

Wyoming does not have a receiver who caught more than eight passes last season. The duo of Gunner Gentry and Ayden Eberhardt, who combined for 14 catches, 298 yards and two touchdowns, are expected to make contributions as full-time starters.

Similarly to Wyoming, the Pack features a different staff defensively heading into 2020. They transition from a 3-3-5 base to a 4-3 system under new defensive coordinator Brian Ward.

The front four is led by defensive stalwart Dom Peterson, an All-Mountain West first team member and the Mountain West’s top sack and tackle-for-loss leader. Though he mainly will play as a 5-technique on the edges, the 6-foot, 295-pound lineman could potentially move around the defensive line, showcasing different looks. Opposite of Peterson will be Sam Hammond, who is getting his first real starting opportunity as a fifth-year senior. He totaled 35 tackles, 1.5 sacks and three tackles-for-loss last season.

Filling in for nose tackle Chris Green — who was arrested earlier this month — will be Zak Mahannah, who registered just six tackles last season.

The linebacking core raises the biggest question mark defensively. The core is led by Lawson Hall, but not much experience follows. Hall was spectacular last year, finishing T-2 with 58 tackles.

Nevada’s secondary is experienced, but suffers a blow with the loss of All-Mountain West corner Daniel Brown.

E.J. Muhammad earned the top corner spot after receiving his sixth-year of eligibility in March; Tyson Williams returns for his junior season after leading the squad in tackles (85) last season; Austin Arnold, while suspended for Saturday’s game because of the brawl with UNLV, enters his senior season with plenty of experience.

Wyoming’s offense begins and ends with the workhorse Valladay. Nevada’s front seven will be thrown in the fire right away and will have to slow him down to win this game.

Prediction:

  • Wyoming: 31
  • Nevada: 27

The result will likely come down to who can get the most defensive stops: Nevada or Wyoming. Both enter with new defensive personnel and staff. With so much offseason uncertainty, who knows what it will look like? Both feature high-powered offenses with contrasting styles for success. This matchup can go either way, but I expect Wyoming’s offense to overpower Nevada’s front behind that experienced line. It will be a battle of the trenches, but I think Wyoming squeaks away with a victory that will come down until the end.