The Nevada Wolf Pack will square off with the Western Michigan Broncos in the Quick Lane Bowl inside Ford Field in Detroit, Mich., on Monday, Dec. 27 at 8:00 a.m. PST. The game will be televised on ESPN.
The Wolf Pack, who finished 8-4, went 5-3 in Mountain West play, though all three of their losses — at the hands of Fresno State, Air Force and San Diego State — were by two points apiece.
Nevada ended the regular season on a good note, however, dominating the Colorado State Rams 52-10. Though a chaotic, unexpected twist, head coach Jay Norvell departed to Colorado State nine days later on a five-year, $9 million deal after getting paid $625K in 2021 with Nevada.
Norvell took nearly the entire offensive coaching staff and 14 combined players — nine on this year’s roster plus five recruits. Nevada hired Oregon co-defensive coordinator Ken Wilson, though current running backs coach and former Wolf Pack running back Vai Taua, brother of current running back Toa Taua (see below), will be its head coach for the bowl game.
Western Michigan went 7-5, but split its final four games of the regular season, including a 42-21 road win over eventual-MAC-champion Northern Illinois. It scored at least 23 points in each of its seven wins, including 40 or more points in its final three victories.
Nevada is 7-11 all-time in bowl games, winning in three of its last four bowl contests. The Broncos, however, are 1-9 in 10 total bowl games with its lone win coming in the Bahamas Bowl in 2015 over Middle Tennessee.
Monday marks the first ever meeting against each another. Though it marks the reunion with former Nevada running back Jaxson Kincaide, who spent four seasons with the Pack (2016-19) before the last two with the Broncos, where he’s recorded 593 combined rushing yards on 6.1 yards per attempt.
The Mountain West is 4-0 in bowl games while the MAC is 1-5. Will the Mountain West suffer its first 2021 bowl loss on Monday or will it continue its red hot streak? Let’s find out!
Quick Lane Bowl matchup: Nevada (8-4, 5-3) vs. Western Michigan (7-5, 4-4)
When: Monday, Dec. 27 at 8:00 a.m. PT
Where: Ford Field in Detroit, Mich.
Last Meeting: —————————
Matchup History: First ever meeting
Betting lines (All odds courtesy of the DraftKings Sportsbook):
- Spread: Western Michigan -7
- Over/Under: 56.5
- Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
When Nevada is on offense:
The Wolf Pack offense — personnel-wise — will look completely different than it did during the regular season, when it ranked atop the conference in scoring (36.7 ppg) and fourth in the country in passing (365.8 ypg).
A total of seven offensive starters — Quarterback and back-to-back Mountain West offensive player of the year Carson Strong, wide receivers Romeo Doubs, Melquan Stovall, Justin Lockhart and Tory Horton, tight end Cole Turner, left tackle Jacob Gardner, right guard Gray Davis — will not play in the bowl game.
Strong, Doubs and Turner have declared for the 2022 NFL Draft and will be preparing for the Senior Bowl on Feb. 5. Stovall, Horton, Gardner and Davis all followed Norvell to Fort Collins, as well as backup tight end Peter Montini and backup offensive lineman Trevyn Heil.
The Wolf Pack return just four starters: Taua and offensive linemen Jermaine Ledbetter (left guard, team captain), Aaron Frost (right tackle) and Tyler Orsini (center). Each of the three aforementioned linemen earned All-Mountain West honors this season.
Nate Cox, a 6-foot-9 signal caller who’s thrown 22 career passes in two seasons at the FBS level, is listed as the Wolf Pack’s starting quarterback. Cox, who has a big arm, completed 14-of-20 for 158 yards and one touchdown in three appearances this season.
Taua rushed for 704 yards on 5.1 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns this season, though he also set career highs in receptions (37) and yards (273) with one additional touchdown. Devonte Lee had a down campaign, tallying 246 yards on just 3.2 yards per carry, but added four rushing touchdowns.
Nevada’s top four returning receivers combined for 15 combined catches this season — led by Jamaal Bell, who had seven for 44 yards. Bell, its top kick returner, is one of Nevada’s highest recruits ever and will be the team’s starting X-receiver, per its depth chart.
Harry Ballard III, who transferred from Arkansas Pine-Bluff prior to this season, had six for 144 yards and two scores — a 43-yard touchdown against Idaho State and a 33-yard touchdown against New Mexico State.
The Broncos, who ranked first in the MAC in total defense (336.8 ypg), will play a 4-3 base defense — spearheaded by MAC defensive player of the year Ali Fayad, one of the most productive pass rushers in the country.
Fayad, listed at 6-foot-2, 250-pounds at the defensive end position, tallied conference-highs in sacks (11.5) and tackles-for-loss (16.0). His 11.5 sacks ranks No. 7 in the FBS.
Fayad’s registered 35 tackles, with two pass breakups, eight quarterback hits, one forced fumble and a pair of fumble recoveries. He has recorded at least one sack in all but three of his 12 games this season, including six (with nine TFLs) over the last six.
Ralph Holley, a second-team All-MAC honoree, has tallied 35 tackles, 14.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks as the team’s primary 3-tech lineman. He’s added two pass breakups, four quarterback knock downs with one forced fumble, too.
The two seniors have recorded a combined 206 career tackles, 96 tackles-for-loss and 50 sacks in five seasons apiece.
Linebackers Zaire Barnes and Corvin Moment — a third-team All-Conference member — were No. 1 and 2 in tackles, respectively. Barnes, the strong-side backer, had 67 — seven for loss — with 2.5 sacks, one quarterback hit, three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Moment had two fewer tackles, though added 13.0 tackles-for-loss — tied with Miami’s (Ohio) Ivan Pace for the most amongst MIKE linebackers in the MAC.
He also had 2.5 sacks, one quarterback hit, three pass breakups, three forced fumbles with one fumble recovery.
Junior Dorian Jackson, posting a team-high 11 pass breakups — third-most in the conference — is the team’s best cornerback. He tallied 23 tackles, 2.5 for loss with one pick on the season.
On the other side, Therran Coleman’s registered 25 tackles, three tackles-for-loss and four pass deflections. Free safety A.J. Thomas recorded 53 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one sack and five pass breakups in just 10 games.
When Western Michigan is on offense:
The Broncos feature a formidable run game with two good tailbacks in All-MAC second team honoree Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson.
After stringing together 653 combined rushing yards across his first two years with the program, Tyler led the team in rushing with 1,004 yards — the sixth-most in the MAC — with nine touchdowns on 6.1 yards per carry, fourth-most in the conference.
Jefferson got an even bigger share of carries, finishing with 21 more in the 12 regular season contests. Though Jefferson tallied just 836 yards on the ground, but had a team-high 10 touchdowns.
Its 19 combined touchdowns tied with Eastern Michigan’s young tailback duo of Samson Evans and Darius Boone Jr. for the most amongst running back duos in the conference.
Though Western Michigan ran the ball on over 60 percent of its plays this season, it will still air it out with redshirt sophomore signal caller Kaleb Eleby, who’s been good at limiting mistakes.
Over his last two seasons, he’s combined to complete 63.9 percent of his attempts for 4,814 yards, 39 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. In 12 starts in 2021, he completed 222-of-349 (63.6 percent) for 3,115 yards, 21 touchdowns and five interceptions.
In 2021, Eleby led in the conference in yards per attempt (8.9), was second in passing (259.7 ypg) and pass efficiency rating (155.9), placed third in touchdowns plus yards and ranked fourth in completion percentage.
His top target was All-MAC first team wideout Skyy Moore. Listed at 5-foot-10, Moore hauled in 92 catches for 1,257 yards — both placing second in the MAC — while tying a conference-best 10 touchdowns in 11 games. Moore ranked in the top-15 nationally in receptions (10th), yards (12th), receptions per game (8.4; 3rd) and yards per game (114.3; 5th).
Jaylen Hall and Corey Crooms finished second and third in receptions, respectively. Hall tallied 46 catches for 752 yards and three touchdowns; Crooms had 43 catches for 694 yards and five scores. No other Bronco receiver had more than 15 catches on the season.
Nevada’s defense won’t be as decimated as its offense, though it will be without arguably the defense’s top playmaker in linebacker Daiyan Henley, who transferred to Washington State. The All-Conference linebacker had team-highs in tackles (94), interceptions (4) and defensive touchdowns (2).
With a majority of its defense still intact, the Pack will still boast a defensive line powered by Dom Peterson, Sam Hammond and Tristan Nichols.
Nichols was third in the conference — trailing SDSU’s Cameron Thomas and Colorado State’s Scott Patchan — for the most sacks with 10.0 through 11 games after having six in his two prior seasons with Nevada. He added 28 combined tackles, one additional tackle-for-loss, one pass breakup, five quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.
One of his forced fumbles was returned by Peterson for his first career touchdown. Peterson led the trio in tackles with 39, adding 10.0 tackles-for-loss with six quarterback hits, three pass breakups, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble. Hammond recorded 37 tackles, nine tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks, two quarterback hits and one pass breakup. ‘
Defensive ends Kameron Toomer (9 tackles, 4 TFLs, 3 sacks) and Daniel Grzesiak (19 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks), plus defensive tackle Zak Mahannah (16 tackles, 2 TFL, 0.5 sacks) will receive a considerable snap share, too.
While Henley and Lamin Touray, arguably Nevada’s third-best linebacker who transferred to Eastern Washington, won’t be active, Nevada plans to start Lawson Hall — its second leading tackler behind Henley — with Trevor Price filling in the second starting slot in the Pack’s two-base linebacking scheme.
Hall tallied 82 tackles with 4.5 sacks, one tackle-for-loss, one interception, three quarterback, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Over his Wolf Pack career, Hall has recorded 262 tackles, 16 for loss with 4.5 sacks. Price had 34 tackles, one sack, one interception and one pass breakup.
Aside from cornerback AJ King, who followed Norvell to Colorado State, the Pack will retain most of their secondary that ranks No. 9 in opponents completion percentage, No. 7 in pass defense and No. 3 in defensive pass efficiency rating.
Hard-hitting safety Jordan Lee tops the secondary in tackles with 77 — third-most on team — five coming for loss. He’s added a team-high four forced fumbles with five fumble recoveries and four pass breakups. JoJuan Claiborne, in his first full season manning the free safety spot, tallied 54 tackles with a 0.5 tackle-for-loss, one interception, three pass breakups, one forced fumble and one quarterback hit.
Tyson Williams added 42 tackles with four tackles behind the line of scrimmage, a team-high three interception and one additional pass breakups, though he played just 10 games after missing two midseason with a knee injury.
This is a completely different Wolf Pack team, at least offensively, than what we saw throughout the course of the regular season. With the departure of nearly the entire offensive coaching staff, aside from Taua, they’ve been pretty tight-lipped about who is on the staff for strategic reasons. As they should! Will Taua upgrade analysts or other graduate assistants to become positional coaches or coordinators? Does he bring anyone in from the outside on its staff? Does Chris Ault make his return as the offensive playcaller? (Okay, that final rhetorical question is mostly a joke. I highly doubt that happens, though he is still very involved with the program. What a surprise that would be!) In my view, without knowing what the offense will look like, it’s unfair to properly make any judgement on it right now, for better or worse. It’s fair to say it won’t be as good without the “Three Amigos” (Strong, Turner, Doubs), but that’s an unfair comparison; plus, this new-look offense could still be good. Nobody knows! This will be an excellent opportunity to see what a few of the Pack skill position weapons plus a few lineman to showcase for next season, assuming those who are eligible to return do return. It will be a tall task, however, against Western Michigan’s defense. Defensively, Nevada will have to be strong against the run — which was hit or miss throughout the regular season. It will be without one of its best run-stoppers in Henley, but still has enough requisite talent to compensate for that. Again, in my opinion, I think there’s a “nobody believes in us” mentality heading into this game for the Wolf Pack, who were six combined points away from an 11-win season, albeit with a completely different roster opposed to now (Note: If there’s anything to look back on this season, Nevada’s got a bunch of good “What if?” questions, if you have any interest or time in such brain exercises.) I think it will be a closer game than the consensus with upset potential. Is that blissful ignorance? False optimism? Intellectual dishonesty? Or is it me demonstrating my (soon-to-be) psychic ability? Whatever it is, we can all agree one thing that’s certain: This will be the final page of a chaotic few weeks for Nevada. Maybe it leaves fans with a better taste in their mouths? Or it could leave the complete opposite. We’ll find out Monday! Prediction: Western Michigan 31, Nevada 27 (Season record: 7-5)
REQUIRED DISCLAIMER LANGUAGE: Odds/Lines subject to change. T&C’s apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.