Two of the Mountain West’s top offenses — the Nevada Wolf Pack and the Fresno State Bulldogs, who both boast two of the conference’s most lethal skill positions squads — will duel it out this upcoming weekend on Saturday, Oct. 23 at 4:00 p.m. PT on Fox Sports 2.
Nevada enters at 5-1 and 2-0 in Mountain West play. It travels to Fresno, Calif., after a brief two-game home trip against New Mexico State and Hawai’i, outscoring them 89-45. It has scored 30-plus points in three straight and in four of its last five after a 22- and 17-point display against California and Kansas State (both road games).
Fresno State, on the other hand, has pieced together two of its worst offensive performances of the season over the last two weeks.
Two weeks ago, it committed six (yes, six!!!) turnovers — four interceptions and two fumble losses — en route to a road 27-24 loss at Hawai’i. Last week, it fashioned season-lows in passing yards (96), total yards (259) and first downs (15) — though it still limped its way to a 17-0 victory at Wyoming.
Fresno State is 3-0 at home with two blowout victories against UConn (45-0) and Cal Poly (63-10) and one not-so-blowout victory over UNLV (38-30).
Nevada’s 2-1 on the road with two wins at Cal (22-17) and Boise State (41-31) — its first win on the blue turf since 1997.
Could the Wolf Pack hand Fresno State its first home loss of the year? Let’s dive into the matchup and find out!
Matchup: Nevada (5-1, 2-0) vs. Fresno State (5-2, 2-1)
When: Saturday, Oct. 23 at 4:00 p.m. PT
Where: Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, Calif.
TV: Fox Sports 2 (FS1 if ALCS doesn’t advance to Game 7)
Spread: Fresno State -3.5 (William Hill)
Money line: Nevada +145, Fresno State -165
Last Meeting: Nevada won 37-26 (Dec. 5, 2020)
Matchup History: Nevada leads 29-22-1
When Fresno State is on offense:
Quarterback Jake Haener and Fresno State boasts one of the conference’s most prolific passing attack through the first seven weeks.
Haener, arguably the conference’s leading candidate for Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year (if the season ended today, which it doesn’t), leads the Mountain West in completions (179), passing yards (2,326), yards per attempt (8.8), passing touchdowns (20) and pass efficiency rating (162.3). He ranks second behind Nevada’s Carson Strong (see below) in completion percentage (67.8).
With that, the Bulldogs have one of the conference’s most dynamic tailback in Ronnie Rivers.
Rivers, a two-time All-Mountain West honoree, has rushed for 493 yards on 4.4 yards per attempt with three rushing scores, adding 25 catches for 254 yards and an additional receiving score. His 747 yards from scrimmage trail Utah State’s Deven Thompkins (847) and Air Force’s Brad Roberts (818) for the most in the Mountain West.
Jalen Cropper, who leads the entire FBS in receiving touchdowns (10), leads the litany of skillful Bulldog wideouts. In addition to his 10 touchdown catches, he’s third in the conference in receptions (48) and fourth in yards (546).
Josh Kelly is second on the team in receptions (30) and yards (462) with a pair of scores. Keric Wheatfull’s tallied 18 catches for 325 yards and a touchdown, while Zane Pope’s hauled in 15 catches for 293 yards and three touchdowns.
Fresno State’s offensive line, which has had its hands full the last couple of weeks, won’t have an easier test Saturday.
In regards to getting home and accumulating sacks, the aggressive Wolf Pack defensive front has been amongst the nation’s best. The group tops the FBS in sacks (27) and sacks per game (4.5) through six games — led by Tristan Nichols, who leads the nation in sacks with eight.
Nevada’s two All-Conference linemen — Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond — have benefitted from Nichols’ stout rush. Peterson is second on the team — T-6 in the Mountain West — in sacks with 4.5, while Hammond’s tallied four.
Nichols (13), Peterson (19) and Hammond (10) have combined for 42 total tackles. Nichols tops the team in tackles-for-loss (9.0), while Hammond’s second with seven and Hammond is third with four.
Wolf Pack linebackers Daiyan Henley and Lawson Hall been quite productive as well; Henley has tied the conference-lead in interceptions (3), including two against Hawai’i, with a team-high 52 — T-8-most in Mountain West. He’s tallied 1.5 tackles-for-loss with a fumble recovery through six games as well.
Hall’s tallied 40 tackles with a pair of tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception and one forced fumble.
Nevada safeties Jordan Lee and JoJuan Claiborne rank No. 3 and 4 in tackles, respectively. Lee’s tallied 33 with 3.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, in addition to three pass deflections, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Claiborne’s totaled 32 with 0.5 tackle-for-loss with one pass deflection.
Wolf Pack corner AJ King’s tallied 18 tackles with two tackles-for-loss, one sack and a team-most five pass deflections. Bentlee Sanders has totaled 20 tackles with two pass deflections.
When Nevada is on offense:
The Wolf Pack place No. 28 in total offense (448.5 ypg) and No. 85 in rushing offense (85.0 ypg), though it is third nationally in passing (363.3 ypg).
Though Strong barely sports a higher completion percentage (67.9) than Haener, he ranks second in yards (1,990), yards per attempt (8.1), touchdowns (16) and pass efficiency rating (154.86). Since the start of last season — a 14-game sample — Strong’s completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 4,577 yards, 38 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, sporting a 155.6 passer rating.
Nevada’s rushing attack is led by Toa Taua, who’s rushed for 391 yards on 65 carries (6.0 ypc) with four rushing touchdowns. All of his four rushing scores have come in the last three weeks, including two against Hawai’i. He’s tallied 236 yards on 5.9 yards per attempt with 11 catches for 74 yards and an additional score over that span, too.
Devonte Lee, Nevada’s best back in short yardage situations, has totaled 160 rushing yards with three touchdowns, in addition to seven receptions with 56 yards and a receiving touchdown on the year.
Cole Turner, coming off a 12-reception, 175-yard outing, has racked up team-highs in receptions (34), receiving yards (403) and receiving scores (4) through six games.
Melquan Stovall is second on the team in receptions (28) for 365 yards and a score. Doubs is third with 26 receptions, but is third in yards (387) with two touchdowns. Justin Lockhart and Tory Horton also have a touchdown apiece; Lockhart has 20 catches for 275 yards while Horton’s tallied 16 receptions for 208 yards.
Like Nevada, the Bulldogs possess a fearsome, elite trio up front: Arron Mosby, Kevin Atkins and David Perales. They are the top benefactors of Fresno ranking No. 3 in the FBS in both tackles-for-loss (56) and tackles-for-loss per game (8) — tallying at least eight in five of their seven contests.
Mosby, T-4 with Atkins in tackles (25), has recorded a team-high nine tackles-for-loss with three sacks. Atkins is second in tackles-for-loss with 8.5, though he tops the team in sacks with five.
Perales has added 20 tackles, six tackles behind the line of scrimmage and two sacks. Leonard Payne Jr.’s tallied 17 tackles with four tackles-for-loss and three sacks.
Also similarly to the Wolf Pack, the Bulldogs run a two-base linebacker scheme — headed by Levelle Bailey and Tyson Maeva, who rank No. 2 and 3 on the team in tackles, respectively. Maeva’s tallied 37 combined tackles, 4.5 for loss and one sack with one pass deflection. Bailey’s posted 30 tackles with 6.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks, four pass deflections and one interception.
Fresno State’s surrendered the second-fewest passing yards (183.3) and boast the third-best pass efficiency rating allowed (112.24) through seven weeks — so Strong will be tested.
Its top tackler is Evan Williams with 46, the fifth-most amongst Mountain West defensive backs. The 6-foot free safety’s racked up two sacks and a team-high two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Along its back-five, the Wolf Pack must also account for strong safety Elijah Gates, who’s broken up the most passes (5) as well as its top corner, Bralyn Lux.
This will arguably Nevada’s best opponent to date. Fresno State’s offensive performance last week was, I think, an aberration and should be much better on Saturday. Entering 2021, I was really bullish on its offense and the type of still position threats — Rivers, Cropper, Wheatfall, etc. — it possesses. Fresno State’s given multiple teams trouble, especially by getting out to quick starts and putting opponents in early holes. Saturday will feature a game of the offenses — and, specifically, a battle between the quarterbacks: Who will be better? Though both have strong pedigrees and will be going up against aggressive fronts, I don’t see Haener getting shut down for a second consecutive week. Fresno State 35, Nevada 31 (Season record: 3-3)