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Nevada’s two-way display leads to 34-17 win over Hawai’i

Ryan Levy || Nevada Athletics

A commanding two-way performance from the Nevada Wolf Pack rewarded them the 34-17 victory over the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors on Saturday at Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

Though it had 130 yards of offense, the Pack tallied just three first-quarter points for the second consecutive game. They quickly strung together 31 points and 277 yards in the game’s middle two quarters, with zero points and 72 yards in the final 15 minutes.

In total, Nevada generated 477 yards of offense with 25 first downs. Hawai’i, entering T-3 in the nation in turnovers gained (16), forced zero.

The Wolf Pack, who entered No. 2 in sacks per game (4.40), posted its third straight game with five-plus sacks. Tristan Nichols had a team-high two sacks, bumping him up to a team-most eight sacks in 2021.

“Whenever you have the ability to get after the quarterback, it changes the game,” Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said. “Our defense has been doing that. It’s going to be a big factor going down the stretch.”

Hawai’i tallied 393 yards with 17 first downs, though it finished minus-five in the turnover margin.

“The five turnovers were huge,” Norvell said. “Us not turning the ball over was the big difference in the game.”

Nevada’s Carson Strong finished just shy of 400 passing yards, tallying 395 while completing 34-of-54 with two touchdowns, equating to a 137.5 passer rating.

Toa Taua had 74 rushing yards on 20 carries with a pair of scores; Devonte Lee added 27 yards on 11 carries. Both Taua and Lee had two catches for eight yards apiece.

Cole Turner hauled in a 12 receptions for 175 yards — both career highs. It was Turner’s first career game of double-digit receptions.

“With me and Carson, it was long overdue,” Turner said after the game. “With our receiving core and with all the weapons we have, we take turns and have big nights ... Luckily tonight, Carson was able to feed me the ball a couple of times.”

Coming off a career-best 155-yard performance, junior receiver Melquan Stovall had seven catches for 71 yards. Romeo Doubs, who missed last game due to injury, returned, totaling four receptions for 83 yards.

Justin Lockhart had four catches for 40 yards. Tory Horton added three receptions for 10 yards and a touchdown.

For Hawai’i, there was pre-game speculation who would start at quarterback: Chevan Cordeiro, who missed its last game against Fresno State due to an undisclosed injury, or true freshman Brayden Schager, who started in-place of Cordeiro in the comeback victory against the Bulldogs (with a pair of touchdowns) on Oct. 2.

Schager started, posting 205 yards at a 56.4 completion rate with no touchdowns and four interceptions.

“Our coaches had us ready for any situation,” said Nevada linebacker Daiyan Henley, who had two of the four interceptions. No Pack player has recorded two-plus interceptions since Daniel Brown had two in the 2019 season-opener against Purdue.

“What we’re taught is ‘when a play comes to you, make the play’ ... Because I was doing my job, the plays came, and I made them when I had to.”

Henley, who entered as the Pack’s top tackler with 47, added five combined tackles in the winning effort.

Rainbow Warrior tailback Dae Dae Hunter rushed for a career-high 174 yards and two touchdowns — both career highs. He racked up touchdown runs of 75 and 81 yards, marking the sophomore’s first multi-touchdown performance.

Hunter did, however, leave the game after two quarters with an injury and did not return.

Calvin Turner Jr. had a season-high eight receptions for 83 yards. His eight receptions were the most since he had since he had a career-high 10 against the Wolf Pack last year. Jared Smart totaled two catches for 24 yards.

Nevada moves to 5-1, including 2-0 in Mountain West play; Hawai’i drops to 3-4 and 1-2 in conference play.

The Pack’s encouraging first drive didn’t amount to six points. The Pack’s 74-yard opening drive lasted 13 plays, though they couldn’t convert on four plays inside the 10-yard line. Brandon Talton’s 22-yard field goal created an early 3-0 lead.

Meanwhile, Hawai’i wasted no time getting on the board — well, except nine seconds. Its first play of the game came at the hands — or feet, rather — of Hunter, who’s 75-yard touchdown immediately put the Rainbow Warriors ahead 7-3.

Toa Taua’s six-yard rushing score capped-off the Pack’s nine-play, 84-yard drive. Hawai’i immediately re-took the lead after Hunter darted 81 yards to the house, untouched — giving it the 14-10 lead with 12:42 of the first half.

His 149 rushing yards and two touchdowns, up to that point, already surpassed his previous career highs of 128 yards and one touchdown previously recorded this year.

Nevada’s sixth drive was set up inside the redzone after Hawai’i’s muffed punt. Three consecutive rushes from Taua — the last being a nine-yard touchdown scamper — put the Pack ahead 17-14 with 9:39 left in the half.

After three straight goal-to-go blunders — including a false start penalty — on Hawai’i’s ensuing drive had placekicker Matthew Shipley tying the contest at 17 with a 28-yard field goal.

Turner, on Nevada’s special team’s punt unit, blocked Hawai’i’s punt attempt with under a minute to go, putting Nevada at the Rainbow Warriors’ 35-yard line. Though it wasn’t able to strike for six, Talton’s 45-yarder made it 20-17.

“That felt better than scoring a touchdown,” Turner said when asked about blocking the punt. “I’ve never done that in my life before.

“I wish I would’ve gotten a little more on the ball so the ball would’ve gone backwards instead of straight up in the air, but we’ll take the block.”

Nevada would have one more opportunity to strike before half after Daiyan Henley’s first interception of the evening. Talton hooked it wide-left as time expired, as the Wolf Pack waltzed into halftime ahead 20-17.

They had 283 total yards with 13 first downs at the break; Hawai’i accumulated 264 yards with seven first downs.

Nevada’s second interception in as many Schager pass attempts came on the second play of the half, landing in linebacker Lawson Hall’s arms.

This time, however, the Wolf Pack converted for six — capped-off by Strong’s 28-yard touchdown heave to Romeo Doubs. Schager’s third interception came on the ensuing drive, this time inside the red zone.

The Wolf Pack proceeded to march 91 yards down the field, resulting in Strong’s three-yard touchdown pass to Tory Horton on fourth-and-goal. It extended their advantage to 34-17 with 2:25 remaining in the third quarter.

It would ultimately be the game’s final score. Talton’s second missed kick of the evening came from 48 yards out with 8:35 remaining. Henley intercepted Schager once more — his second of the night and third of the season — to cap off the winning performance.

Next up: Nevada hits the road to take on Fresno State (5-2, 2-1) on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 4:00 p.m. PT.