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Wolf Pack football preview: Nevada closes regular season with undefeated San Jose State in Las Vegas

Nevada v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Nevada Wolf Pack will take on the undefeated San Jose State Spartans in the regular season finale Friday.

Both teams are playing for a spot in the Mountain West Title game on Dec. 19. Both will be eliminated from contention with a loss.

If Nevada wins AND Boise State beats Hawai’i, then Nevada will face Boise State in the title game. With a Wyoming win, SJSU gets a bid over Nevada because of the winning percentage among the teams in the conference with the highest winning percentage.

The current team with the highest winning percentage that all three teams (Nevada, Boise State, San Jose State) in contention have played is Hawai’i. The Spartans and Broncos beat Hawai’i, Nevada did not — thus giving the former two teams a bid.

(Yes, there’s a circumstance where Nevada could possess the highest winning percentage in the conference with a head-to-head victory over San Jose State and still not get in over SJSU because of a loss to the current seventh place team.)

A Boise State loss feels unlikely, currently standing as 11.5-point favorites.

If the Spartans win, they will advance to the title game regardless of any other results across the conference. If they lose, they need to, again, bank on a Boise State loss Saturday afternoon.

Though San Jose State is going to be considered the home team, the game was moved to Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Nev., on Sunday because of current Santa Clara County COVID-19 protocols that are preventing any sporting events being hosted there.

It will be Nevada’s third game in Las Vegas this season. The previous two were: 37-19 win over UNLV (Oct. 31) and a 27-20 win over the New Mexico Lobos (Nov. 14), who were relocated to Las Vegas this season because of COVID-19 guidelines in New Mexico (max gatherings of five people). The Wolf Pack will have played seven of their eight games in their home state by the end of the regular season.

Nevada is coming off a 37-26 victory over the Fresno State Bulldogs last Saturday. Carson Strong, who won the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week because of his performance, threw for 354 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions.

San Jose State is coming off a 35-24 win over Hawai’i, keeping its undefeated season alive. Tailbacks Kairee Robinson and Tyler Nevens combined for 263 rushing yards on 33 carries (7.97 ypc) with three rushing scores.

Matchup: Nevada (6-1) vs. San Jose State (5-0)

When: Friday, Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. PST

Where: Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Nev.

TV: CBS Sports Network

Spread: San Jose State -2.5

Last Meeting: Nevada won 41-38 (Oct. 12, 2019)

Matchup History: Nevada leads 22-9-2

When San Jose State is on offense:

San Jose State has been the third-best offense (419.2 ypg) in terms of yardage and is the fourth-best scoring offense (30.4 ppg) this season.

The Spartan offense is spearheaded by former Arkansas and Texas A&M transfer Nick Starkel. He has completed 66.2 percent of his passes this season for 1,147 yards, 11 touchdowns against three interceptions.

Nevens and Robinson have delivered a good one-two punch in the backfield. Nevens has rushed for a team-high 270 yards on 39 carries (6.9 yards per carry) with four rushing scores. Robinson has added 53 carries for 217 yards (4.1 ypc) with two rushing touchdowns.

Quarterback Nick Nash will make multiple appearances for designed runs. He has 33 carries for 197 yards and a score this year.

Bailey Gaither has totaled team-highs in receptions (29), receiving yards (471) and receiving touchdowns (4). Tre Walker and Derrick Deese Jr. have tallied three touchdowns apiece. Walker is second on the team in receptions (24) and yards (158), while Deese has 11 catches for 158 yards.

Deese was named as one of the eight semifinalists for the John Mackay Award Tuesday, annually given to the best tight end in college football. The last Spartan to be a semifinalist for the award was in 2000.

San Jose State’s offensive line has been incredible this season, surrendering just four sacks and 17 tackles-for-loss in five games. Its 0.8 sacks allowed and 3.4 tackles-for-loss allowed per game rank among the Top-6 nationally.

It is anchored by left tackle Jack Snyder, a 2019 All-Mountain West Honorable Mention honoree, and center Kyle Hoppe. Hoppe was named to the 2020 Rimington Trophy Watch List for the best center in the country.

Nevada ranks No. 6 in the Mountain West in total defense (361.1 ypg). It has the 9th-best passing defense (221.8 ypg) and the 4th-best rushing defense in the conference (125.4 ypg).

After playing in the second half against Fresno State, Dom Peterson (ankle) will likely get more reps versus the Spartans on Saturday.

Peterson anchors this Wolf Pack defensive line and is arguably their top defensive talent. Peterson has 27 total tackles on the season, placing second in tackles-for-loss (7.0) with a team-high 4.5 sacks.

He is tied for 10th in Nevada history in career sacks (16.5) and remains 1.5 tackles-for-loss away from cracking the top-10 in that category.

Sam Hammond has emerged at the defensive end position, totaling 27 tackles with a team-high 7.5 tackles-for-loss with four sacks.

Lawson Hall leads the team in tackles with 50 and is third in tackles-for-loss (6.5). Daiyan Henley is third with 39 and Lamin Touray is No. 9 with 24, including three behind the line of scrimmage.

Strong safety Tyson Williams has recorded 48 total tackles — second-most among Pack players — with one interception. Corner EJ Muhammad (concussion) has been cleared to play by the medical staff. He has 20 tackles with three pass deflections. Berdale Robins (25 tackles, 5 passes defended) will be on the opposite side of Muhammad.

When Nevada is on offense:

Carson Strong has been one of the best quarterbacks in the Mountain West this season. He leads in completions per game (27.7), completion percentage (69.5) passing yards (2,327) and touchdowns (21).

Strong was the most recent Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week after his 354-yard, five touchdown performance versus Fresno State.

He was the first Nevada quarterback — ninth ever — since Colin Kaepernick in 2010 to throw for five touchdowns in a single game. He also has five 300-yard and two 400-yard performances on the season.

Romeo Doubs has been his top target. He leads the Mountain West in receptions (440, receiving yards (885), receiving yards per game (126.4 ypg) and receiving touchdowns (9). His 126.4 yards per game

Last week, Doubs eclipsed 2,000 career receiving yards with the Wolf Pack — the 16th player in school history to ever do so. His 2,096 career yards now ranks 14th in school history.

Tight end Cole Turner has been a complimentary No. 2 target with the absence of Elijah Cooks. He trails Doubs for the most receptions (40) and touchdowns (6) in the Mountain West. He is third for receiving yards (496) and No. 8 in yards per game (70.9 ypc)

Melquan Stovall and Justin Lockhart are tied for being third on the team in receptions with 26. Stovall has registered 213 yards while Lockhart has 218 yards with a score.

True freshman Tory Horton displayed a breakout performance last week, hauling in five catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns, including an 85-yard touchdown in the second half. He has 12 catches for 244 yards — an absurd 20.3 yards per reception — with five touchdowns.

The Nevada offensive line is led by right guard Nate Brown. The unit has allowed just 15.0 sacks in seven games, which is a quality mark to own. Though the group has surrendered 46.0 tackles-for-loss — third-most in the conference.

After surrendering nearly 450 yards of offense per game last year, San Jose State has been one of the top defenses in the conference this year in a drastic turnaround.

They rank No. 12 nationally in scoring defense (17.0 ppg); it ranked No. 99 last year (31.9 ppg). Its 24 points that it allowed versus Hawai’i was a season-high and the second time it’s allowed 20-plus points to an opponent this year.

The Spartan pass rush has totaled all 15 of its sacks in the last four games. Cade Hall and Junior Fehoko are the two-headed spear that make up over 75 percent of their sack production.

Hall has totaled a team-high 5.5 on the year, while Fehoko has 5.0. Fehoko is fifth on the team in tackles (22) with 8.5 tackles-for-loss, one pass defended with one fumble recovery. Hall has recorded 17 tackles with one fumble recovery.

Linebacker Kyle Harmon leads the team in tackles with 63. No other player has recorded more than 40.

Safeties Tre Webb and Tre Jenkins anchor the secondary. Webb is second on the team in tackles with 37, including 3.5 for loss. He also has a team-best three pass deflections. Jenkins is third with 28 with two interceptions and one fumble recovery.

Prediction:

  • Nevada: 27
  • San Jose State: 24

This was a tough selection for me. San Jose State is the only remaining undefeated team in the Mountain West, while Nevada has just one loss on the year. It was a coin flip. Both offenses are good enough to score on each other’s defense. Nevada has been the most explosive offense in the conference, and will go up against another good pass defense. Meanwhile, San Jose State isn’t as explosive, but they are as efficient with multiple speed threats on the outside. The Pack will have to put pressure on Starkel in order to win this game, which has been a tough task for other opponents this year. They will also need to limit the costly penalties (1st in the MW in penalties and penalty yardage), and might need to force at least a couple turnovers (they have forced six all year) to come out on top against an excellent Spartan team. Season record: 5-2