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Wolf Pack Week 7 preview and prediction: Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors

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NCAA Football: Nevada at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

The Nevada Wolf Pack close their two-game home stint against the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors on Saturday, Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m. PT.

Hawai’i is coming off a bye week, though it’s most recent outing came in a 27-24 upset victory over then-No. 18 ranked Fresno State. Hawai’i is 3-3 on the year and 1-1 in Mountain West play.

Nevada enters off a 55-28 win over New Mexico, putting up 52 answered — including the final 46 in the middle two quarters. The Wolf Pack have been victorious in five of their first six games, including a 41-31 road victory against Boise State on Oct. 2.

Hawai’i handed the Wolf Pack their first loss of the season in 2020, 24-21, in Honolulu, Hawai’i. The year prior, the Rainbow Warriors walked away with a shocking — yet monstrous — 54-3 thrashing. Nevada generated just 203 yards of offense (16 first downs) to Hawai’i’s 512 yards (26 first downs).

In the eight prior meetings, Nevada took seven of them. It is 14-11 all-time against Hawai’i. Will the Wolf Pack be able to get back on top? Let’s dive into the matchup and find out!

Matchup: Nevada (4-1, 1-0) vs. Hawai’i (3-3, 1-1)

When: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 7:30 p.m. PT

Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

TV: CBS Sports Network

Spread: Nevada -14.5 (William Hill)

Money line: Nevada -600, Hawai’i +450

Last Meeting: Hawai’i won 24-21 (Nov. 28, 2020)

Matchup History: Nevada leads 14-11

When Hawai’i is on offense:

Hawai’i has the nation’s 55th-ranked offense (417.5 ypg), the No. 74-ranked rushing attack (159.3 ypg) and the No. 48-ranked passing attack (258.2 ypg).

Per reports, quarterbacks Chevan Cordeiro and Brayden Schager both might see time against the Wolf Pack on Saturday. Due to Cordeiro’s undisclosed injury, Schager made his first career start against the Bulldogs. He completed 11-of-27 passes for 116 yards and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to seal the comeback victory.

Head coach Todd Graham labeled Cordeiro’s injury as “not serious”, though the listed recovery time would range anywhere from 10 to 30 days.

Cordeiro’s had a down year through five games. He’s completed just 54.6 percent of his passes — nearly eight percentage points (62.3) from his completion percentage a year ago — for 1,410 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. The dual-threat quarterback is second on the team in rushing — tallying 195 yards (including sacks) on 59 carries with a touchdown.

Hawai’i’s two most frequent ball carriers out of the backfield are Dae Dae Hunter and receiver Calvin Turner, its most versatile offensive weapon.

Hunter’s tallied a team-high 384 yards on 5.5 yards per carry with one touchdown. Turner has a team-high six rushing touchdowns, adding 184 rushing yards on 38 carries (4.8 ypc). Dedrick Parson (35 car., 203 yds., 3 TD) will also see a decent snap share, especially when Hawai’i’s in the red-zone.

Turner is one of the Mountain West’s receiving threats, too. He’s top-7 in the conference in receptions (31) and receiving yards (401) with two scores. Turner’s 585 yards from scrimmage ranks No. 5 in the Mountain West, while his 97.5 yards from scrimmage per game rank No. 8.

After tallying just 357 combined receiving yards (on 17 catches) in the his first two seasons, 6-foot-6 receiver, Nick Mardner, is having a breakout junior season. Mardner’s hauled in 24 catches with team-highs in both yards (492) and touchdowns (3). His 20.5 yards per reception tops the Mountain West and ranks No. 13 nationally.

Turner and Mardner are the Rainbow Warriors’ only two receivers who have surpassed 200-plus yards receiving through six games. Hunter’s added 143 yards on 15 catches; Jared Smart, the team’s top reception leader in 2020 (36), has totaled 189 yards on 10 catches with one touchdown.

Nevada ranks No. 67 in the FBS in total defense (374.2 ypg), No. 41 in rushing defense (122.0) and No. 98 in passing defense (252.2 ypg).

Nevada’s defensive front is catapulted by Tristan Nichols, a Hawai’i native, plus two All-Conference honorees in Sam Hammond and Dom Peterson.

Six of Nichols’ 10 tackles have been sacks — matching his sack total from 2019 and 2020 combined — with two forced fumbles. His six sacks — T-5 most nationally — trails only Air Force’s Vince Sanford (6.5) for the most in the conference.

Hammond’s second on the team in sacks with four with 10 total tackles as well. Peterson tops the trio in tackles (15), adding 3.5 sacks with 5.5 tackles-for-loss and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.

The aforementioned trio has played a massive part in the Wolf Pack ranking No. 5 in the FBS in sacks (22.0) and No. 2 in sacks per game (4.40, trialing only Troy (4.5). They only generated 15 sacks in eight regular season contests a year ago.

All that said, Nevada’s linebacking duo of Daiyan Henley and Lawson Hall have been on par — or close to it — from a production standpoint. Henley and Hall are Nevada’s top two tacklers, with 47 and 34 total tackles respectively.

Henley’s recorded 1.5 tackles-for-loss with one interception, two additional pass breakups and one fumble recovery. Hall’s totaled one sack with one forced fumble.

Jordan Lee, JoJuan Claiborne and Bentlee Sanders have stepped up in Nevada’s secondary.

Lee’s third on the team in tackles with 28, adding three tackles-for-loss, two pass deflections, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Claiborne’s totaled 25 tackles — the fourth-most — with one pass deflection and 0.5 tackle-for-loss. Sanders, a former USF transfer, has 19 tackles with two pass breakups.

When Nevada is on offense:

The Wolf Pack sport a top-10 passing offense (357.0 ypg), led by quarterback Carson Strong, who’s coming a career-high six touchdown performance.

In addition to his six touchdowns, Strong completed 25-of-32 (78.1 percent) for 377 yards and one interception. His most recent performance earned him Mountain West offensive player of the week for the second time in 2021.

On the season, Strong’s completed 69.3 percent of his passes for 1,595 yards, 14 touchdowns, three interceptions with a passer rating of 159.98 — each placing in the top-3 amongst Mountain West quarterbacks.

Toa Taua and Devonte Lee have split the reigns in the backfield throughout the year, though Taua’s seen more success. He’s rushed for 307 yards on 44 carries (7.0 ypc) with two touchdowns.

Lee’s utilized more often in Nevada’s heavy packages in short down-and-distance scenarios. He’s tallied 133 yards with three rushing touchdowns on four fewer carries.

Nevada’s top receiver, Romeo Doubs, missed last game due to injury — but is expected to suit up Saturday. Doubs and tight end Cole Turner tie for the team-lead in receptions with 22; Doubs has tallied a team-most 304 yards with a score, while Turner’s added 228 yards and four touchdowns.

Turner’s four touchdowns ties Elijah Cooks — who’s out for the season with a Lisfranc foot injury — for a team high. Cooks, Turner and Harry Ballard III (2) are the only Pack players with multiple receiving touchdowns.

Coming off a career-high 155 yards (on 7 catches) with his first career touchdown, junior receiver Melquan Stovall has stepped up in Cooks’ absence. He has one fewer reception than Doubs and Turner for 294 yards and a touchdown. Justin Lockhart has 16 catches for 235 yards and a touchdown. Tory Horton’s hauled in 13 catches for 198 yards.

Stovall and Lockhart (103) became the first pair of Wolf Pack receivers to tally 100-plus receiving yards in the same game this year.

Meanwhile, on the other side, Hawai’i safety Khoury Bethley is its most dynamic player defensively.

Bethley’s tallied a team-high 38 tackles with five tackles-for-loss and three sacks. He’s also accumulated four pass breakups, two interceptions, three forced fumbles with one fumble recovery.

In its comeback victory against Fresno State, the 5-foot-10 safety had nine tackles with two interceptions and one forced fumble; he accounted for three of the Bulldogs’ six turnovers. He earned the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week, the Bronco Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week and Paycom Jim Thorpe Award Player of the Week — the latter two being national weekly awards.

Hawai’i and Boise State are tied for the conference-lead in turnovers forced with 16 — a figure that trails only Iowa (20) and Middle Tennessee (17) for the most in the FBS.

Defensive lineman Jonah Laulu ties Bethley for the team-most in sacks (3), adding 14 total tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery.

O’tay Baker has 15 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks. Djuan Matthews is third in tackles (30) and second in forced fumbles (2).

Led by Bethley, the Rainbow Warriors’ back-seven is where their most dangerous. Linebacker Darius Muasau, posting a conference-most 104 tackles in 2020, is second in tackles (36) and tackles-for-loss (4.0). He’s got a pair of sacks and pass breakups with one forced fumble.

Eugene Ford’s in fourth in tackles with 25 and has one forced fumble with a tackle-for-loss. Cortez Davis is fifth with 23 tackles, though he’s recorded a Mountain West-best nine pass breakups in six contests. Quentin Frazier adds 23 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two pass breakups and one forced fumble.

Prediction:

The Rainbow Warriors have had Nevada’s number over the last couple of years. They mitigated Nevada’s explosive offensive attack, limiting Nevada to just 21 points and 168 yards passing, its lowest marks up to that point. Hawai’i was playing its best version of “don’t let Strong fling it 50 yards”, and it worked! Taua had his best outing of the season — but that’s not Nevada’s most optimal way for success if the air attack is essentially shut down. I don’t foresee that happening again. Throughout this year — last week especially — Nevada’s upped its frequency in the usage of quick screens, designed swing passes and other short-to-intermediate routes. Strong will take shots from time-to-time, but the eye test suggests he’s fared better with simpler passes than in the past. With Hawai’i’s quarterback situation in flux, I think the Wolf Pack come out on top. Nevada 37, Hawai’i 24 (Record: 2-3)