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Carson Strong’s career-night fuels Nevada past New Mexico State 55-28

NCAA Football: Nevada at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Carson Strong’s career night coupled by Nevada’s second-quarter explosion fueled the Wolf Pack’s 55-28 dismantling of the New Mexico State Aggies on Saturday night in front of 21,448 fans at Mackay Stadium.

Its 55 points — and 52 unanswered — were the most it’s scored against an FBS opponent since it rung up 59 points against San Jose State on Nov. 11, 2017.

The Aggies, who entered No. 112 in the nation in total defense (446.8 ypg) and No. 115 in scoring defense (34.2 ppg), held Nevada to eight yards (on 11 plays), two first downs and just three points in the first quarter.

The Wolf Pack exploded for 265 yards with 13 additional first downs and 28 points in the second quarter alone, scoring touchdowns on four consecutive drives.

After beginning 2-for-5 with an interception and 11 passing yards, Strong found rhythm but hitting receivers on a myriad of screens, swing passes and intermediate routes. He followed his sluggish start by completing all but two of his 16 second-quarter attempts for 229 yards, four touchdown passes and zero turnovers.

The 6-foot-4 signal caller finished with a career-high six touchdowns, completing 78.1 percent of his passes for 377 yards — his 11th career 300-yard performance (third of 2021). No Pack quarterback’s had at least six passing touchdowns in a single game since Mike Maxwell had seven against UNLV on Oct. 28, 1995.

Nevada finished with 533 yards and 27 first downs. It did so without star receiver Romeo Doubs, who was held out with an undisclosed injury after he was listed as the starting Z-receiver on the Wolf Pack depth chart.

Melquan Stovall and Justin Lockhart tied for the team-high in receptions with seven, both tallying their first career 100-yard performances; Stovall finished with 155 yards and Lockhart finished with 103. Tory Horton had four receptions for 26 yards. Cole Turner tallied two catches for 26 yards — both touchdowns.

Thirteen different Pack receivers caught a pass.

Toa Taua had a team-high seven carries for 28 yards; Avery Morrow had 22 yards on one carry while Devonte Lee had 16 yards on three carries.

Nevada’s defense racked up six-plus sacks for the second straight game: All-Conference defensive lineman Sam Hammond (2) and Dom Peterson (1.5) combined for 3.5, while Tristan Nichols (1), Trevor Price (1) and Jack Powers (0.5) added to the sack category as well.

New Mexico State finished with 452 yards and 25 first downs. Jonah Johnson completed 38-of-62 passes for a career-high 425 yards with three touchdowns. It was Johnson’s second consecutive game with multiple touchdown passes and his first career contest with 400-plus passing yards.

Juwaun Price had a team-high 10 carries for 37 yards, while O’Maury Samuels had five carries for 18 yards.

Jared Wyatt, who’s coming off the first 100-yard performance of his career, hauled in six receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown. Terrell Warner tied Wyatt for the team-high in catches (6) for 51 yards with a score.

Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda hauled in five catches for a team-high 76 yards. Andre Bodison had five catches for 57 yards, while PJ Johnson III had five catches for 49 yards and a touchdown.

Saturday’s win bumps Nevada to 4-1 on the season. New Mexico State drops to 1-6. The Wolf Pack have won four consecutive meetings between the two programs, moving to 14-2 all-time.

The Aggies also fall to 0-5 on the year against Mountain West opponents this season.

Strong’s third interception came on the second play of the game — landing in Caleb Mills’ hands, his second career pick.

The Aggies capitalized, finding the end zone on Johnson’s 19-yard touchdown completion to Jared Wyatt, his second of the season.

The Wolf Pack struggled to generate any offense in the opening quarter, totaling just eight yards on 11 plays. Their first scoring drive came at the foot of placekicker Brandon Talton — the conference’s latest special teams player of the week. Talton converted on a 41-yard field goal, cutting the Aggie lead to 7-3 with 1:35 to go in the first quarter.

Strong’s 20-yard completion to Justin Lockhart, followed by a defensive holding put Nevada in the red zone. Its next play had Strong finding Taua on a swing route, who barreled into the end zone from 16 yards out — putting Nevada ahead 10-7.

They didn’t trail the rest of the game.

Nevada put together three consecutive touchdown drives to close the opening half. Strong’s second was a 10-yard connection to Justin Lockhart. On the next drive, he found Melquan Stovall on a wheel route, who juked a couple of Aggie defenders en-route to a 65-yard score — upping the Wolf pack’s advantage to 24-7 with 3:09 left before halftime.

After Nevada’s defense forced another three-and-out, two completions of 34 and 17 yards rewarded Strong another opportunity inside the Aggies’ 30-yard line. Two plays later, he found Turner for the 23-yard score for his fourth touchdown pass of the first half.

New Mexico State didn’t cross midfield on seven of its final eight first half drives, totaling 60 yards (on 23 plays) with five first downs.

Strong and Co. picked up right where they left off to begin the third quarter, driving 75 yards on six completions capped by a three-yard back-shoulder touchdown to Turner, his second score of the evening and 13th since the start of 2020.

Strong’s six-and-final touchdown pass came on a 33-yard connection to former Arkansas Pine-Bluff transfer Harry Ballard III, widening the lead to 45-7 with 8:27 to go in the third quarter. He would attempt one more pass before sitting the remainder of the context.

On the first play of New Mexico State’s third drive of the second half, Wolf Pack corner BerDale Robins ripped the ball from Wyatt’s grasp, taking it 25 yards to the house, making it 52-7 with 4:37 remaining in the third quarter.

That would be Nevada’s final touchdown of the contest.

New Mexico State strung together three scoring drives on its final four possessions. Johnson’s 18-yard touchdown to Warner followed by Johnson’s 34-yard completion to Johnson III cut it to 52-21.

Talton’s 43-yard conversion made it 55-21 with 3:17 to go, but Johnson’s one-yard rushing score in the waning seconds concluded the contest at 55-28.

Next up: Nevada will end its two-game home stint with Hawai’i on Saturday, Oct. 16. Kickoff will be at 7:30 p.m. PT.