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Wolf Pack Week 11 preview and prediction: San Diego State Aztecs

NCAA Football: Fresno State at San Diego State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In a battle for first place in the West Division, the Nevada Wolf Pack travel to Southern California to take on the San Diego State Aztecs on Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. PST. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.

Both squads are knotted up at 4-1 in Mountain West play; San Diego State is 8-1 overall — with its lone loss coming in a 30-20 upset against Fresno State on Oct. 30 — while Nevada is 7-2. The Aztecs rank No. 22 in the latest college football playoff rankings.

They enter off a grind-it-out 17-10 victory over Hawai’i, where they tallied just 228 total yards and 15 first downs. Nevada earned a nail-biting 27-24 victory over San Jose State last weekend, courtesy of Brandon Talton nailing a game-winning 45-yard field goal with three seconds remaining.

Its 27 points were the fewest it’s scored since it had 17 against Kansas State on Sept. 18. Nevada’s recorded 27-plus points in six of its last seven conference bouts.

In last year’s meeting, the Pack picked their third straight series win over the Aztecs, 26-21, after dropping seven of the previous eight. Will their winning streak continue? Let’s dive into the preview and find out!

Matchup: Nevada (7-2, 4-1) vs. No. 22 San Diego State (8-1, 4-1)

When: Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. PT

Where: Dignity Health Sports Park Stadium in Carson, Calif.

TV: CBS Sports Network

Spread: San Diego State -3

Money line: Nevada +130, SDSU -150

Last Meeting: Nevada won 26-21 (Nov. 21, 2020)

Matchup History: San Diego State leads 7-6

When San Diego State is on offense:

It’s evident that San Diego State and Nevada sport two contrasting styles.

While Nevada’s boasts one of the nation’s best passing attacks (376.3), San Diego State features the fourth-worst (132.6); the Aztecs, however, sport the nation’s 37th-best rushing attack (191.7 ypg) while Nevada’s has the second-worst (70.3 ypg) rushing attack.

Similarly to the past, San Diego State has rotated throughout multiple quarterbacks this season. Lucas Johnson, the team’s primary starter, has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 625 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. Jordon Brookshire’s completed 48.2 percent of his attempts for 560 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Will Haskell saw action two weeks ago, but hurled just seven pass attempts (four completions) for 47 yards.

The Aztecs make a majority of their money in the run game — having generated 57.7 percent of their yards on the ground against FBS opponents, the seventh-highest frequency nationally.

Greg Bell, who generated four 110-yard performances in his first five games, has slowed down in the thick of Mountain West action. In total, he’s totaled 743 yards on 4.6 yards per carry with seven touchdowns, though he’s generated just 223 rushing yards on 3.3 yards per attempt with two touchdowns across his last four games.

Chance Bell (40 car., 206 yards, three TDs), Kaegun Williams (45 car., 202 yards, 2 TDs) and Jordan Bell (30 car., 197, 3 TDs) have all provided capable secondary production behind Greg Bell.

No Aztec receiver has hauled in more than 25 receptions. Tight end Daniel Bellinger’s leads the team in receptions (21) and receiving yards (257) with one touchdown.

Jesse Matthews is the only Aztec with multiple touchdown catches (2), adding 17 receptions for 151 yards. Elijah Kothe’s tallied 13 receptions for 179 yards and a touchdown while Tyrell Shavers has 11 catches for 142 yards and a touchdown.

The Aztecs will square up against a Nevada defense that ranks No. 39 nationally against the run (130.7) and T-69 in opposing yards per attempt (4.0). Nevada’s surrendered at least 160-plus rushing yards on 6.0 yards per carry in three of its last four contests.

The Pack are led by Tristan Nichols, who ranks top-10 in the FBS in sacks (9.5), Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond.

Peterson’s totaled 22 tackles with five sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, one pass deflection and one fumble recovery for a touchdown. Hammond’s recorded 15 tackles, six for loss, four sacks and one pass deflection.

Wolf Pack linebacker Daiyan Henley leads the team in tackles with 70, two coming behind the line of scrimmage. He’s also recorded four interceptions — leading all FBS linebackers — and two defensive touchdowns (one pick-six, one fumble recovery). Lawson Hall is second with 63 tackles, adding four tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Jordan Lee, JoJo Claiborne and AJ King have the Pack’s most active members in the secondary, though safety Tyson Williams has recorded two interceptions in as many weeks after missing time due to a knee injury.

Each are No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 in tackles, respectively: Lee has 50 tackles, Claiborne has 45, King has 30 while Williams has 24.

Lee’s recorded five tackles-for-loss with three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Claiborne’s tallied 45 tackles with three pass deflections and a pick, while King’s recorded two tackles-for-loss, one sack and a team-high seven pass deflections.

When Nevada is on offense:

As I mentioned above, Nevada quarterback Carson Strong leads one of the nation’s most prominent aerial attacks, which ranks third in the FBS in passing (376.3 ypg). He was recently named as one of the 20 semifinalists for the Davey O’Brien Award, annually given to the nation’s best quarterback.

Strong ranks atop the Mountain West — and places in the top-10 nationally — in passing yards (3,197), passing yards per game (355.2), passing touchdowns (25) and completion percentage (70.5). He’s second in the Mountain West — No. 36 in the FBS — in pass efficiency rating (152.7).

The Wolf Pack have recorded the second-fewest rushing yards (70.3) and the fourth-fewest yards per carry (2.8 ypc) in the FBS. Toa Taua’s rushed for 527 yards on 101 carries — good enough for 5.2 yards per attempt — with four rushing touchdowns. Devonte Lee’s rushed for 191 yards on 2.3 yards per attempt with three scores.

Cole Turner, who exited its game last week with a head injury, and Romeo Doubs top the team in receiving with 55 receptions apiece. Doubs has a team-most 726 yards with five touchdowns, while Turner’s totaled 618 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns.

No other active Pack receiver has more than two touchdown receptions. Nevada receiver Elijah Cooks, who underwent season-ending foot surgery in Sept., had four touchdowns in three games.

Melquan Stovall’s had a career year, tallying 46 catches for 535 yards — both ranking third on the team — with one touchdown. Tory Horton’s hauled in 32 receptions for 350 yards and two touchdowns. Justin Lockhart has 30 catches for 433 yards and two touchdowns.

San Diego State boasts one of the nation’s top defenses.

It ranks No. 9 in the FBS in total defense (299.9 ypg), No. 43 in passing defense (208.7 ypg), No. 7 in pass efficiency allowed (105.1), No. 6 in rushing defense (91.2 ypg) and No. 10 in scoring defense (18.7 ppg).

The Aztecs possess an elite defensive line that includes Cameron Thomas, Keshawn Banks and Jonah Tavai — who all rank within the top-4 on the team in tackles-for-loss.

Thomas leads the team — and the Mountain West — with 13.0, in addition to his 6.5 sacks and 47 tackles. Tavai is second with 7.0 tackles-for-loss with 3.5 sacks and 29 combined tackles. Banks has six tackles-for-loss with 26 tackles and two sacks. Caden McDonald, who holds down the other defensive end spot, has recorded 28 tackles, 5.5 coming behind the line of scrimmage with 3.5 sacks.

Michael Shawcroft, who’s fifth on the team in tackles with 32, and Andrew Aleki hold down SDSU’s two-base linebacker slots. Aleki’s totaled 28 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one sacks and one interception. Shawcroft’s recorded 6.5 tackles-for-loss with three sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles.

The Aztecs’ stout secondary is led by Tayler Hawkins and Cedarious Barfield. Hawkins has broken up a team-high six passes with two interceptions, in addition to his 41 tackles (one for loss) and one forced fumble. Barfield’s recorded 38 tackles, two tackles-for-loss and three pass breakups.


Though it hit a dead patch offensively against San Jose State, Nevada hasn’t faced any Mountain West defense of this caliber up to this point. San Diego State’s defense, just like its running game, is elite relative to other Mountain West programs. Strong went 31-for-46 for 288 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in last year’s meeting — a respectable stat line — against a familiar front with Darren Hall and Tariq Thompson heading the secondary. And he’s shown that he’s capable of taking what the defense gives him, for better or worse. Nevada’s offensive line hasn’t protected Strong as well, nor has its run defense been as proficient this season — two things that will be paramount for a win Saturday. The Pack are capable of dropping 35-plus against most defenses, but that might not be in the cards this weekend. They must showcase a near-perfect two-way display in order to snatch first place from SDSU’s grasp. Nevada 28, San Diego State 27 (Season record: 6-3)