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Wolf Pack football preview: Nevada looks to stay perfect versus San Diego State

NCAA Football: Nevada at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Nevada Wolf Pack (4-0) will host San Diego State (3-1) on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. It will seek its eighth 5-0 start in program history.

Nevada has started 4-0 for the ninth time in school history and for the first time since 2010, when they won its first six games and finished 13-1. They are coming off a tight 27-20 victory over New Mexico in Las Vegas, Nev., last Saturday. The game was moved from Albuquerque, N.M., to Las Vegas after COVID-19 protocols in New Mexico made it nearly impossible to conduct football activity.

San Diego State coasted to a 34-10 victory over the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors. Each of The Aztecs’ three victories have come from 24-plus points. Saturday marks the third and final time where the Aztecs will face a foe that beat them in 2019.

Nevada upset San Diego State, who was ranked No. 24 in the AP Poll, 17-13 on the road last year in Carson, Calif., the Wolf Pack’s second road victory versus the Aztecs and first ranked road win against any opponent in school history.

With its only two road contests held in Las Vegas, the Wolf Pack are playing their fifth straight game in their home state.

Matchup: Nevada (4-0) vs. San Diego State (3-1)

When: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 12:30 p.m. PST

Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

TV: CBS

Spread: SDSU -1.5

Last Meeting: Nevada won 17-13 (Nov. 9, 2019)

Matchup History: SDSU leads 7-5

When San Diego State is on offense:

San Diego State knows its identity offensively: relentlessly running the rock.

Its elite rushing attack ranks fourth in the nation (280.3 ypg). It is led by stalwart tailback Greg Bell, who leads the conference in rushing yards (537) and in yards per game (134.3), while placing second in rushing touchdowns (5). His 134.3 rushing yards per contest also rests atop the Mountain Wests and places No. 7 nationally. Bell has been a safety valve out of the backfield. He is second on the team in catches with nine for 72 yards and a receiving score.

Bell, a Nebraska transfer, is the first player in San Diego State history to begin his Aztec career with four straight 100-yard rushing performances. The 6-foot, 205-pound thumper totaled 160 yards on 19 carries (8.42 ypc) with two touchdowns against Hawai’i.

Tailbacks Chance Bell (unrelated to Greg) and Jordan Byrd will also see snaps. Both are capable of being productive when Bell rests. Chance Bell has 203 yards on 33 carries (6.2 ypc) with three rushing touchdowns while Byrd has totaled 177 rushing yards on 13 carries (13.6 ypc) and two scores.

The unit undergoing considerable struggle is its passing attack.

Carson Baker, who has started in the first four contests, has completed 55-of-95 (57.9 percent) of his passes for 591 yards, three touchdowns to three interceptions.

After a tumultuous performance by Baker versus Hawai’i, where he completed 4-of-13 passes (30.8 percent) of his passes for 30 yards and two interceptions, San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke was bombarded throughout the week on whether he will start Baker or Georgia Tech transfer Lucas Johnson at quarterback this weekend. At the time of posting, he has yet to choose.

Johnson, a dual-threat quarterback, is much more mobile than Baker. In his lone appearance of the season last week, Johnson had three carries for 51 yards without a pass attempt. His runs were 10, 17 and 24 yards.

The passing attack averages just 147.8 yards on 23.8 attempts per game — both ranking in the bottom-20 in the FBS.

Top wideout Jesse Matthews has 10 receptions for 173 yards — both team-highs. Kobe Smith has totaled nine receptions for 90 yards and a score, while tight end Daniel Bellinger has registered seven receptions for 73 yards.

Though SDSU has been without starting center Dominic Gudino for the entire season, they still feature experience up-front led by tackles Kyle Spalding and Zachary Thomas. This group features a combined 62 career starts with the Aztecs.

The Wolf Pack defense has been the second-best in the conference — No. 17 in the FBS — in total defense (317.9 ypg). They are No. 29 in the nation in run defense (126.0 ypg) and No. 23 in pass defense (191.8 ypg).

Though the impressive counting numbers, Nevada ranks as the 44th-most efficient defense (per ESPN). They have primarily faced three backup quarterbacks — two because of injuries (Levi Williams - Wyoming; Trae Hall - New Mexico) — and one struggling starter, Utah State’s Jason Shelley, who was kicked off the team on Sunday.

So with the ensuing situation developing with the Aztec signal callers, Saturday might not be much different.

Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond lead the Pack defensive line. Peterson is second in the team in tackles-for-loss (3.5) and leads the team in sacks (2.0).

Peterson has made 20 total tackles this season seventh in the nation among active FBS players in solo tackles-for-loss per contest (0.90) and eighth in regular tackles for loss per game (1.0). Hammond has a team-high tackles-for-loss with four, including 1.5 sacks.

Lawson Hall, Lamin Touray and Daiyan Henley have all made contributions at the linebacking core. Hall leads the group in tackles (24), tackles-for-loss (3.0) and sacks (1.0).

Starting strong safety Tyson Williams leads the Pack in solo (16) and combined tackles (27). Williams and BerDale Robins are the only members who have forced a turnover, both coming off second-half interceptions.

When Nevada is on offense:

Nevada has been the 19th-most productive offense in the nation (481.1 ypg) and the 66th-most efficient offense, per ESPN’s efficiency rankings.

Carson Strong has been one of, if not the best quarterback in the Mountain West. Through four games, Strong has completed 71 percent of his throws for 1,517 yards, 12 touchdowns and one interception — all atop the conference among quarterbacks that have played in at least three games. His 379.3 yards per game is atop the Mountain West and second-most in the nation (Dillon Gabriel - 396.3 ypg).

Strong boasts a 168.7 passer rating, trailing only San Jose State’s Nick Starkel (171.1) for the best in the conference.

The 6-foot-4 signal caller has thrown six consecutive 300-yard games, the most in Mountain West history and the second-most in school history. If he record another on Saturday, he will tie David Vargas’ Nevada record with seven that was set in 1993.

That will be a tough task versus this stout San Diego State defense, which has held five straight opponents to 300 or fewer yards passing. It has surrendered just 242.8 total yards — including 152.3 passing — per game. Both of those figures rank within the Top-3 nationally.

The Aztecs lead the nation in opponents yards per play (3.9), second in first downs allowed per game (13.0) and are 7th in rushing defense (90.7 ypg). Their defense has forced the highest percentage of three-and-outs (43.1 percent) through their first four contests.

SDSU will have a tall task shutting down Strong’s best weapon: wideout Romeo Doubs. Doubs was added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list — awarded to the nation’s most outstanding receiver — Thursday. He has recorded 100-plus yards in each of the team’s first four contests — including a career-high 219 yards (on seven receptions) in a 37-19 victory over intrastate rival UNLV.

Doubs has totaled 31 catches, 645 yards with eight touchdown catches — all placing within Top-15 nationally. His 161.3 yards per game leads the FBS. Six of his eight touchdown passes have been from 30-plus yards, four from 50-plus and two from 60-plus. He even has as many touchdown catches as UNLV (8) and New Mexico (8) has in total and more than Utah State (6).

Romeo Doubs’ 2020 statistics

Current Statistics (thru 5 games) Prorated over 8 games Prorated over 12 games
Current Statistics (thru 5 games) Prorated over 8 games Prorated over 12 games
Receptions 36 57 86
Receiving yards 778 1,245 1,867
Touchdowns 9 14 22

Cole Turner ranks among the Top-5 in the Mountain West in receptions (21), receiving yards (329) and yards per game (82.3). He also has two touchdown grabs. Justin Lockhart is third on the team and T-9 in the conference in receptions with 18 for 173 yards and a score.

Nevada’s offensive line, formally called “The Union,” has struggled through four contests. They have allowed 12.0 sacks — the fourth-most in the conference — along with the second-most tackles-for-loss (34.0).

Those struggles could pose problems versus the stout San Diego State defensive front that features little-to-no holes. The Aztecs have recorded a conference-best 37.0 tackles-for-loss with the second-most sacks (14.0). They are in the Top-15 nationally in both sacks (3.5) and third in tackles-for-loss (9.25) per contest.

The defensive line is led by two preseason All-Mountain West first team honorees in Cameron Thomas and Keshawn Banks. Thomas has one sack with two tackles-for-loss and Banks has registered 3.5 tackles-for-loss, fourth-most on the team.

Jonah Tavai has performed the best among the three starters thus far. The 6-foot, 305-pound defensive lineman is second on the team in sacks (3.0) and third in tackles-for-loss (4.5). Jalil Lecky, a backup who will see a snap share at the defensive end, adds 1.5 sacks with 2.5 tackles-for-loss.

Starting outside linebacker Caden McDonald has been the biggest surprise. He is atop the conference in tackles-for-loss (6.5) and second in sacks (4.5). Seyddrick Lakalaka adds 5.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage to the mix.

Expect SDSU to bring lots of pressure versus this Pack offensive line, which struggled against New Mexico’s 3-3-5 defense last week.

The Aztec also feature a stout secondary. Tariq Thompson and Darren Hall are two preseason All-Mountain West first team honoree selections. Hall, who had 16 passes defended last year, will likely shade Doubs at corner on the outside. Thompson, along with Dwayne Johnson Jr., are two do-it-all defensive backs. This secondary is very versatile.

Prediction:

  • Nevada: 28
  • San Diego State: 24

Though we are at the halfway point of the season, it’s not too drastic to claim that the winner of this game could potentially slot itself into the Mountain West Championship game in December. It has that much implication. If San Diego State wins, they own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Nevada (which takes precedence over winning percentage with an imbalanced schedule) and vice versa. Saturday marks the second game this season where the Pack enters as an underdog, despite owning a better record. It should be a very competitive contest — one where it could come down to which team has the final possession. Both teams are capable of stringing together lengthy drives. Nevada will have to contain San Diego State’s elite rushing attack, which runs the ball on over 67 percent of their plays. The Pack must crowd the box and force San Diego State to beat them through the air. The one area where Nevada has the clear advantage is the special teams, where the Aztecs have had clear struggles in over the last couple of weeks, although it’s not necessarily sustainable. This will be by far Nevada’s toughest game to date — with its first four opponents posting a combined record of 1-13 (.071). We will see Saturday how it fares against the toughest opponent it has seen to date, and potentially all season. Season record: 3-1

Additional Links:

Nevada Game Notes: https://bit.ly/3pPD5sa

San Diego State Game Notes: https://bit.ly/2UYaQtv

Live Stats: https://bit.ly/38YsB3W

Nevada game notes || Nevada Athletic Department