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San Diego State squeaks past Nevada 23-21, secures first place in West

NCAA Football: Nevada at San Diego State Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In a battle for first place in the West Division, the San Diego State Aztecs persevered, squeaking past the Nevada Wolf Pack, 23-21, on Saturday evening at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif.

San Diego State secures first place in the division, moving to 5-1 in Mountain West play (9-1 overall). Meanwhile, Nevada drops to third at 4-2 and 7-3 overall.

With their 34-32 loss to Fresno State on Oct. 23, the Pack’s two conference losses to SDSU and Fresno State — who moves into second place in the West at 5-2 — have come by a combined four points. Brutal, right?

In order to make the Mountain West title game, scheduled for Dec. 4, Nevada will have to win out while Fresno State (vs. New Mexico, @ SJSU) and San Diego State (@ UNLV, vs. Boise State) would both need to lose out.

In the event that Fresno State and San Diego State tie, Fresno State holds the tiebreaker because of the Bulldogs’ 30-20 victory over the Aztecs on Oct. 30. In the event that all three tie, given that the Mountain West’s first three-way tiebreaker is determined from the “Winning percentage in games played among the tied teams, including forfeits,” Nevada’s 0-2 record against both wouldn’t give them the benefit of the doubt, but I digress.

Nevada commanded the 21-20 lead with 4:33 to go. San Diego State immediately faced a pressure fourth-down situation, but converted on the fourth-and-4 courtesy of a six-yard pass to Jesse Matthews. It faced just one more third down the remainder of the drive: An incomplete heave to Tyrell Shavers at the back left-corner in the end zone.

Matt Araiza, who’s also SDSU’s kicker despite attracting several well-deserved national headlines as an all-worldly punter — nailed the 35-yard field goal to put the Aztecs ahead 23-21 with 1:21 to go.

Nevada’s Carson Strong opened the ensuing drive with two 16- and 8-yard completions to Justin Lockhart and Toa Taua, advancing to midfield and nearing the brink of field-goal range for All-Conference placekicker Brandon Talton.

Strong, who finished 34-of-48 for 350 yards and three touchdowns, had incompletions on the final three attempts — including on the final attempt to Melquan Stovall, who got popped upon the ball’s arrival to cause the incompletion.

The Pack totaled 358 yards of offense — 350 through the air — and 19 first downs on Saturday. Once again, their ground game struggled. Taua recorded nine carries for 31 yards, though he added five receptions for 31 yards.

Nevada was without star tight end Cole Turner (concussion), who went through pre-game warmups with the team. Romeo Doubs effectively filled in with Turner’s absense, tallying game highs in catches (9) and yards (127) with two touchdowns. It was his 5th career multi-touchdown performance.

Tory Horton had eight catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. Melquan Stovall had five catches for 48 yards; Justin Lockhart had four catches for 31 yards.

San Diego State had 362 yards and 19 first downs in the winning effort.

Lucas Johnson had one of the most efficient games of his career, completing 21-of-34 (61.7 percent) — surpassing his previous career-highs of 16 completions and 31 attempts — for 176 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions.

Greg Bell led the Aztecs’ staunch rushing attack, recording 16 carries for 104 yards (6.5 ypc). Chance Bell had 12 carries for 55 yards and a touchdown.

Elijah Kothe had a team-high six receptions for 71 yards. Daniel Bellinger, the program’s leading receiver entering Saturday, tallied five catches for 26 yards and a touchdown. Jesse Matthews hauled in four catches for 41 yards.

For the second consecutive, Nevada, tied with Colorado State for the conference lead in sacks (33), failed to record a sack. In its three losses this year, it’s tallied just one sack.

After a three-and-out on its first drive, Greg Bell’s 50-yard run kicked off a lengthy 12-play drive. Nevada’s blocked field goal from the 5-yard line was nullified due to a defensive holding penalty, forming a fourth-and-goal situation from its own 3-yard line instead.

SDSU gambled and cashed in with a three-yard touchdown to Bellinger, the game’s first score with 3:42 left in the first quarter — completing the 99-yard drive.

Strong opened the second quarter with a 28-yard touchdown to Horton, tying it at seven. A 48-yard field goal from future All-American Matt Araiza — an all-worldly punter and kicker — made it 10-7.

After consecutive timeouts were burned, hesitancy on fourth-and-3 near midfield with 1:43 left in the half induced a Wolf Pack punt. Greg Bell’s nine-yard run followed by Johnson’s 28-yard completion to Kothe put the Aztecs in plus-territory.

The Aztecs gained five yards on its next three plays, forcing a 55-yard attempt from Araiza with one second remaining. The attempt swayed wide left and was returned for 17 yards by Pack returner and corner Bentlee Sanders.

Nevada gained 143 yards — 123 through the air — and nine first downs in the opening half; the Aztecs garnered 199 yards with eight first downs.

San Diego State drove 75 yards on eight plays on its first second half drive — capped by Bell’s five-yard rushing touchdown, rewarding it the 17-7 lead.

Strong’s consecutive completions — One 21-yarder, two of 17 yards, one of 13 yards and another eight-yarder — put Nevada inside SDSU’s five-yard line. After an incomplete fade to 6-foot-9 backup quarterback Nate Cox, Strong connected with Doubs for the five-yard touchdown, trimming the Aztec lead to 17-14 with 2:20 left in the third quarter.

Despite obtaining favorable field position off Jordan Byrd’s 19-yard return, the Aztecs were forced to settle for three. Araiza’s 39-yard field goal made it 20-14 with 11:58 remaining in regulation.

Cooking up its oft-scoring recipe in 2020, Strong connected with a wide open Doubs for the 54-yard score — taking the 21-20 lead, its first lead of the evening. After San Diego State re-took the lead, Strong pieced together an promising start to the drive, but the Aztec defense tightened and escaped with the massive victory on their own turf.

Next up: Nevada heads home for senior night on Friday, Nov. 19, when it takes on the Air Force Falcons. Kick-off will be at 6 p.m. PST on Fox Sports 1.