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Wolf Pack football preview: Nevada hosts Utah State, seeks first 3-0 start since 2010

Nevada v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Thursday night football for the second consecutive week? In the Mountain West?

Yep. You did not read that incorrectly. Just five days after reclaiming the prized Fremont Cannon, the Nevada Wolf Pack (2-0) square off with the Utah State Aggies (0-2) on Thursday evening at 4:00 p.m. PST on Fox Sports 1.

Nevada is coming off a 37-19 victory over intrastate rival UNLV in the Battle for the Fremont Cannon. The Fremont Cannon — college football’s largest and most expensive trophy — spent the previous two seasons down south.

The Wolf Pack is 2-0 for the first time since 2014, while it is also their best start in conference-play since 2013. They have not started 3-0 since 2010 — when they finished the year 13-1.

Utah State is in the exact opposite spectrum. It suffered a somber 38-7 loss to San Diego State on Saturday. In the first two games (against arguably the two best teams in the MWC), the Aggies have been outscored 80-20.

“It was 100 percent pathetic and embarrassing for everybody in Aggie nation — all of us involved,” Utah State head coach Gary Andersen said after its loss versus SDSU.

Utah State seeks to prevent its first 0-3 start since 2008 (they finished 3-9 that year).

Nevada has won four straight contests against Utah State at Mackay Stadium. Their most recent affair in Reno came in a 38-37 thriller on Nov. 19, 2016. Though Utah State has bested Nevada in three of their last four meetings — including a 36-10 victory last year behind a two touchdown performance from running back Gerold Bright.

Mackay Stadium will still hold its crowd to a maximum of 250 family members of both team’s players and coaches will be allowed to attend. Fans are still prohibited from attending.

Matchup: Nevada (2-0) vs. Utah State (0-2)

When: Thursday, Nov. 5 at 4:00 p.m. PST

Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

TV: Fox Sports 1

Spread: Nevada -18

Last Meeting: Utah State won 36-10 (Oct. 19, 2019)

Matchup History: Nevada leads 18-7

Utah State on Offense:

It has been tough-sledding for the Aggie offense so far.

Among the 115-of-130 teams that have played college football in 2020, they are the second-worst offensive team nationally (209.0 ypg), fifth-worst in passing offense (102.0 ypg), third-lowest scoring team (10.0 ppg) and have registered the second-fewest first downs per contest (11.5).

Utah State’s offense ranks as the sixth-least efficient in the nation through two contests, per ESPN’s efficiency rankings.

Jason Shelley has gone 27-of-48 (56.3 percent) for 180 yards, one touchdown against two interceptions in his first two contests with Utah State. The Utah transfer boasts a lowly 3.8 yards per attempt — the worst mark nationally among 101 qualified quarterbacks.

Shelley’s first career Aggie touchdown pass came versus San Diego State when receiver Deven Thompkins made a highlight-reel catch at the end of the first half.

The Aggies’ ground game has been their best recipe for success thus far, averaging 107 yards per contest.

Jaylen Warren averaged for 89 yards (on 23 carries) with two rushing touchdowns in one contest. He missed last game due to a leg injury, but remains atop the depth chart heading into Thursday. If Warren is on a snap count, expect Devonta’e Henry-Cole and Elelyon Noa to see more-extensive playing time in the backfield.

Henry-Cole and Noa both struggled mightily against the vaunted Aztec defense. Henry-Cole had 12 touches for 31 total yards while Noa registered seven carries for 16 yards.

Thompkins is Utah State’s biggest threat at wideout. The junior is the lone Aggie with double-digit catches (11) for 92 yards and a receiving score. Jordan Nathan, who led all returning Aggies in receptions (56) in 2019, has yet to get going. He is T-3 on the team in receptions (3) for a total of 12 yards.

On paper, the offensive line is not bad, but it has struggled to win in the trenches. The group has been solid in pass protection, surrendering just four sacks on the year. They have not been able to develop a good run game so far — placing No. 88 nationally in yards per carry (3.2).

Utah State’s offensive line is also its most experienced group — returning 70 career starts. Heading into the 2020 season, the group was scheduled to return all five starters. But starting left guard Ty Shaw was suspended from the team and is currently not on the roster.

Left guard Andy Koch returns from a season-ending injury that limited his season to just three games.

The Wolf Pack defense is allowing 26.5 points while surrendering 354.5 yards per game. They are No. 52 in defensive efficiency rankings.

Nevada’s defensive line is led by Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond. Hammond trails Fresno State’s Kwami Jones (4.0) for the most tackles-for-loss in the Mountain West with 3.5. Peterson and Hammond also have one sack apiece.

Kameron Toomer has also registered 1.5 tackles-for-loss with a sack. The three have combined for 25 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks.

Lawson Hall and Lamin Touray have one sack apiece on Nevada’s linebacking core. Hall is second on the team in tackles with 12 while Touray has recorded 11.

Nevada’s secondary may not be as good as SDSU or Boise State, but it is still a quality group. The Pack is eighth in the conference — No. 43 nationally — in pass defense (227.5 ypg). The group is led by Tyson Williams, who has tallied a team-high 13 tackles in the first two contests. Due to a targeting penalty in the second-half against Wyoming, Williams was suspended for the first half against UNLV.

Emany Johnson and Jojuan Claiborne have seen substantially more snaps with the back-four. He has ten tackles with one pass breakup. Johnson has totaled nine tackles. The only interception Nevada has on the season came on a pivotal highlight-reel catch by BerDale Robins late in its season-opener.

Nevada on Offense:

Through two games, Nevada has been one of the best offenses in the Mountain West. The Pack place atop the conference in passing offense (385.0 ypg), ranking second in total offense (496.5 ypg) and in scoring (37.0 ppg). They rank inside the top-25 nationally — second in the Mountain West — in offensive efficiency, per ESPN.

Leading the conference’s best passing attack is redshirt sophomore Carson Strong. Strong has completed 60-of-79 (75.9 percent) of his passes for 770 yards, six touchdowns against zero interceptions. He ranks second nationally in passing yards per game (385.0) — trailing only UCF’s Dillon Gabriel — and seventh in pass efficiency (182.9). The 6-foot-4 signal caller has recorded four straight games with 300-plus yards passing.

Strong has thrown 230 consecutive pass attempts without an interception, which leads the nation and is the second-most in Mountain West history (Derek Carr had 306 in 2013):

1. Carson Strong (Nevada) - 230
2. Dillon Gabriel (UCF) - 166
3. Jayden Daniels (Arizona State) - 157
4. Tyrrell Pigrome (WKU) - 143
5. Ian Book (Notre Dame) - 129
6. Max Duggan (TCU) - 127
7. Kedon Slovis (USC) - 126

Despite boasting the conference’s best passing attack, Nevada is No. 8 in the conference in rushing (111.5 ypg) and No. 6 in yards per carry (4.1).

The Pack welcomed back Toa Taua last game, who missed the season opener due to an undisclosed injury. Taua totaled 12 carries for 86 yards and a touchdown in the season opener.

Romeo Doubs — along with Justin Lockhart, Melquan Stovall and Cole Turner — must shoulder the load after the injury to star wideout Elijah Cooks, who could potentially undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. Through two games, Doubs has been the best receiver in the Mountain West — leading it in receptions (19), receptions per game (9.5), receiving yards (336) while tying its lead in touchdowns (2). The 6-foot-2 speedster also leads the nation in receiving yards per contest with 168.0.

Doubs was dominant versus UNLV. He had seven receptions for a career-high 219 receiving yards and a touchdown. It was his first 200-yard performance of the year and the sixth 100-yard game of his career.

His 219 yards were the most by a Wolf Pack receiver since Rishard Matthews had 220 versus UNLV in 2011.

Lockhart has ten catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. Turner transitioned to tight end in the offseason, but is still capable of making a big impact in the Pack passing attack. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound target has 11 catches for 191 yards and two scores through two games. Stovall has registered six catches for 67 yards. All three should see their roles increase with Cooks’ extended absence.

Nevada returns four starters on its offensive line this season, led by right guard Nate Brown. The Wolf Pack are starting freshman Jacob Gardner at left tackle after the sudden retirement from senior Moses Landis.

It has been tough sledding for this Utah State defense, which returns just five starters from last year’s team.

The Aggies surrendered a ghastly 570 yards of defense last week versus San Diego State. The revered Aztec ground attack bludgeoned Utah State for 407 rushing yards on 7.7 yards per carry. The 407 rushing yards were the 7th-most rushing yards that any FBS team has allowed so far this season.

Utah State has surrendered a combined 6.6 yards per carry through two games — the third-worst mark across the FBS.

Senior defensive lineman Justus Te’i provides the most experience on the Utah State front seven. Te’i has appeared in 43 games (the most among any Aggie) including 24 starts. So far in two games this season, he has 1.5 tackles-for-loss with a 0.5 sack.

The Aggies feature a quality inside linebacker duo of Cash Gilliam and Kevin Meitzenheimer.

Cash Gilliam is a breakout presence at the Aggies’ inside linebacker position. Gilliam — who recorded 15 combined tackles and 1.5 tackles-for-loss in nine 2019 contests — has already surpassed those totals through two games. He has 19 combined tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss with one sack. His 19 tackles rank as the fourth-most in the Mountain West.

Meitzenheimer is third on the team in tackles with 14, totaling 1.5 tackles-for-loss and a 0.5 sack.

Shaq Bond, the team’s starting strong safety and one of the best defensive backs in the Mountain West, leads its secondary unit. Bond is Utah State’s second-leading tackler with 16, including 1.0 tackle-for-loss.

Prediction:

  • Utah State: 24
  • Nevada: 38

I know the optics have looked horrendous through the small sample of two games, but I believe Utah State’s offense will be better than they have gotten credit for. It hasn’t received any credit, and rightfully so. But they began their season with arguably the three best teams in the Mountain West, never an easy task to overcome. However, this Wolf Pack team has a lot of confidence after their first two wins. Their offense is currently in cruise-control while their defense is performing up to expectations in a new scheme. Carson Strong will continue his trend upward while the Pack playmakers have a big day offensively. The short week adds intrigue to both teams, but I think Nevada will come away on top at home. Season record: 1-1