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Spartans & Wolf Pack history, analysis & game preview

By the numbers & by the tea leaves 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Tulsa at San Jose State Photo by Larry Placido

Location: Mackay Stadium – Reno, NV

Date/Time: Saturday, November 6th @ 7 PM PDT

Broadcast: Fox Sports 2

Radio: KTRB (860 AM, San Francisco) & Sirius XM Radio Channel 989

Head-to-head history: Nevada (6-2, 3-1 MW) is 22-10-2 over San Jose State (5-4, 3-2 MW) in a series that technically started two centuries back in 1899.

Fast forward 120 years, well-regarded Nevada head coach Jay Norvell is up 3-1 over Spartan head coach Brent Brennan’s teams.

“Jay Norvell is an excellent head coach and that shows year in and year out,” said Brennan. “His teams have played high-caliber football and go to bowl games consistently. We’ve had crazy battles and his teams are just tough and play with physicality and discipline.”

Brennan added, “I’ve told Jay that I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good he is. I really believe he’s one of the better coaches in the country and certainly in this conference and he doesn’t always get that kind of love.”


Behind what love there is are numbers

Like last year’s Wolf Pack team; Nevada has some scary numbers again this year led by a sure-bound NFL Carson Strong at quarterback. Strong is leading the third-ranked passing offense in the nation:

  • 384.1 yards per game
  • 71% completion rate
  • 158.52 passing efficiency
  • 46% third down conversions
  • 91% scoring efficiency in the redzone
  • 456.5 yards game average of total offense

How the Spartan defense contrasts the Nevada offense:

  • 212 passing yards average allowed per game
  • 39% success rate stopping third down conversions
  • 353-yard average of total offense given up per game

A couple of possible Nevada weaknesses the Spartans certainly know about:

  • 8 penalties per game average (giving up 67 yards per game)
  • 129th in the nation in rushing with 72.4 yards per game

It might be grasping at straws on the last two, where the Spartans have gotten their opponents’ best; given the revenge factor and the Mountain West champion targets on their backs.

For example, Wolf Pack running back Toa Taua has only broken 100 yards once and that was in Nevada’s big win over Boise. Taua’s breakout potential is always there given that Wyoming’s Xavavian Valladay collected only 172 rush yards in Wyoming’s three previous games until Valladay rushed for 172 yards all at once on the Spartans last week.

Each conference game for the Spartans has been competitive one-score games regardless if teams were winless or nationally ranked. It could mean teams are playing up to the Spartans or vice versa. Or both. Or it’s the parity factor. Or all of the above.

Last year’s shell shocker factor

In the first half of last year’s game, favored Nevada was doing what most everyone knew they could do after a 20-7 halftime lead.

Then the second half hit and so did Spartan returner Shamar Garrett and running back Tyler Nevens with a 98-yard kickoff return and 69-yard TD run, respectively. Nevens rushed for a career-high 184 yards in that 30-20 win for San Jose State.

In that second half last year, Nevada didn’t score and only managed 122 yards of offense. The Spartans ended with 506 yards of total offense then.

On TV, you could still literally see the Wolf Pack could not shake off the shell-shockedness of what was happening to them.

This year Norvell is not going to let them happen again. Wolf Pack thinking caps will be on.

How the Spartans can pull it off again this year

Since we’re going back in time, the 2019 game was one of those shoulda-woulda-coulda won games for the Spartans with a then QB Josh Love led team (Love also just signed onto the Carolina Panthers practice squad).

Down 21 points on miscues and turnovers two years ago, the Spartans lost that one on a last second field goal 41-38. So, theoretically, let’s pretend a 2-2 record between the head coaches is another should have been and this 2021 game shoulda-woulda been the coaches’ tiebreaker.

Back to reality: this year, it’s the same stuff needed, as with any game, any year, any time - minus the penalties, turnovers and especially, dropped balls - even on potential interceptions.

The 2021 Spartan defense has been getting stronger with each game and overall, slowly minimizing penalties and increasing turnovers.

But also, turnover differential is potentially a huge factor this time around. The Spartans are at –7. The Wolf Pack +9. That must equalize out for San Jose State to have a good chance.

The assumption is that same Spartan defense will do its job and then some, as it’s going to be about more than just motivation.

The Spartan offense now hinges on QB Nick Nash and each week we’re seeing growth.

We’re seeing more game-winning plays and game-affecting performances, but Nash can still do much, much more with his arm.

“Week by week we start to see more of his comfort in the scheme,” said Brennan on Nash. “And a little bit more of his aggressive decision-making where he’s throwing the football to or pulling it down to make a play, so I’m really excited about his progress.”

Asked on QB Nick Starkel’s upcoming availability, Brennan added, “I absolutely hope he’s available sometime soon and you’re going to see him before the season is over with.”

We know Nash will be looking for 6’4, 235 lb. TE Derrick Deese Jr. Deese is also among eight finalists for the 2021 John Mackey National Tightend Award (Nevada would beg to differ with their own star tightend, 6’6, 240 lb Cole Turner with equal or greater numbers).

In front of Nash, the unsung heroes of any game or any team will be the offensive line. If they’re consistently solid and hold true, you’ll see Nash and Nevens and company do damage.

More importantly, great Spartan O-line play allows the offense to hold their own and to make it a highly competitive game and another likely crazy battle.

The bean counters have Nevada favored anywhere from one to two touchdowns.

We’ll not disagree but say the game should be much closer than that, since analysts can’t quantify intangibles.

The expectation is a Nevada win at less than a touchdown margin, but would be glad to eat crow – cooked, of course.