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Carson Strong, Nevada squeak past Cal 22-17 in season-opener

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NCAA Football: Nevada at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Years after attending games at Cal Memorial Stadium as a kid, Nevada quarterback Carson Strong stepped foot in the stadium once again Saturday, but this time as the opposing player.

Now, Strong can say he’s won a game there.

Strong and the Nevada Wolf Pack depart Berkeley, Calif., with a 22-17 victory over the Cal Golden Bears on Saturday. Down 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, the Pack put up 22 unanswered en-route to Nevada’s third-ever victory against a Power-5 foe on the road (in 28 games). Its last such win? Also against Cal, nearly a decade ago (31-24; Sept. 1, 2012); the Pack have swept their last three meetings against the Golden Bears (2010, ‘12, ‘21).

Saturday’s win comes amidst a chaotic last several weeks for the Wolf Pack, who’s been forced to practice at seven different venues — including Stanford University — since the beginning of fall camp in early August due to unhealthy air quality across Northern Nevada.

Saturday snaps head coach Justin Wilcox’s perfect 9-0 record against regular season non-conference opponents.

As a team, Nevada totaled 373 yards of offense compared to Cal’s 330, both logging 65 total plays. The Pack registered 19 first downs to Cal’s 17.

Strong, the reigning Mountain West’s Offensive Player of the Year, completed 22-of-39 for 312 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Saturday was his ninth career 300-yard performance and his 12th with multiple touchdown passes.

Nevada’s Toa Taua was only able to muster up a team-high 37 yards on 10 carries — one more yard with one fewer carry than cohort Devonte Lee.

Cole Turner hauled in a team-high seven receptions for 75 yards, while Romeo Doubs finished with six catches for 83 yards and a score. Tory Horton added three receptions for a team-most 96 yards.

In his first game back, Elijah Cooks, who was limited to one half due to shoulder surgery in 2020, had two receptions for 23 yards — including a 16-yard score.

Cal quarterback Chase Garbers went 25-for-38 for 177 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Saturday’s loss drops Garbers to 14-6 when under center for more than half the game.

The Golden Bears’ backfield, dominant when it was called upon, was led by Damien Moore. He tallied 15 carries for 79 yards (5.3 ypc) and a score, including three receptions for 16 yards.

Christopher Brooks (formerly Christopher Brown Jr.) had three carries for 25 yards, while DeCarlos Brooks had two carries for 46 yards.

Nikko Remigio registered a team-high seven receptions for 22 yards and Cal’s only receiving touchdown of the evening. Trevon Clark hauled-in four catches for 35 yards. Tailback Marcel Dancy added four catches as well, but for 21 yards.

The Golden Bears’ play calling left much to be desired. Its four tailbacks averaged 7.5 yards per carry on 21 attempts. Seven plays of its opening 15-play, 63-yard drive were running plays (for 33 yards; 4.7 ypc), swallowing 9:17 off the game clock — capped-off by Moore’s one-yard rushing run.

Five of its nine plays on its second drive — which ate 4:08 off the clock — came on the ground, too, this time for 42 combined yards — equating to 8.4 yards per attempt. The drive ended in Remigio’s two-yard touchdown reception, the sixth of his career.

Cal’s formula for success was simple: Establish the run game, eat time and prevent one of the nation’s most explosive offenses, led by an NFL-bound quarterback, from taking the field.

It did just that.

Claiming the Golden Bears dominated the opening quarter might be an understatement. Its stout ground game allowed to extract all but 1:39 of the 15 minutes, stringing together 135 yards and eight first downs; conversely, Nevada had a measly six yards in its only first-quarter drive, a three-and-out.

Cal called just six run plays on its ensuing five drives (18 plays), totaling just two first downs (one from a penalty). It had eight in its opening two series.

Thus, Nevada flipped the script on both ends of the football.

Though its nine-play second-quarter sequence didn’t result in six, its first points came from its leading scorer over the past two seasons: Placekicker Brandon Talton.

Talton, who’s converted 89.5 percent of his attempts inside 50 yards across his first two collegiate seasons entering Saturday, cut Cal’s lead to 14-3 with his 43-yard attempt. The Pack’s first sack of the season — courtesy of backup defensive end Daniel Grzesiak — stalled Cal’s third drive.

Strong’s 43-yard touchdown strike to Doubs, a connection dominated the Mountain West in 2020, cut the Wolf Pack’s deficit to 14-10 with 6:15 left in the opening half.

Cal had an opportunity to re-up the lead with two minutes to go, but an abrupt three-and-out — coupled with Doubs’ 39-yard punt return — granted Nevada with prime position to convert.

Two consecutive incompletions to Lee and Turner stalled its drive on the outskirts of the red-zone. Talton converted on the 35-yard try, making it 14-13 entering halftime.

A 46-yard dime to sophomore wideout Tory Horton followed by a 16-yard touchdown connection to Elijah Cooks rewarded the Wolf Pack with their first lead of the game. Their two-point conversion failed, leaving it as 19-14 three minutes into the second half.

Talton’s third field goal of the game came with 6:26 left in the third, widening Nevada’s advantage to 22-14. He missed his third-and-final field goal attempt, this time from 47 yards out, on Nevada’s ensuing drive.

Cal’s first points since its second possession came in a 24-yard field goal from Dario Longhetto, trimming it to 22-17. It had an opportunity to go for it on fourth-and-3 at Nevada’s six, but elected to put three on the board instead.

Miles Williams intercepted Strong on Cal’s one-yard line on Nevada’s next possession. Wolf Pack defensive end Sam Hammond spurned Cal’s 90-yard march with a 13-yard sack, subsequently ending in Longhetto hooking its 40-yard field goal attempt wide left.

Wake Forest transfer Isaiah Essissima picked-off Garbers with 4:29 to go, but the Wolf Pack punted with just under two minutes remaining — giving Cal one final possession.

Two clutch tackles by Wolf Pack linebacker Daiyan Henley and JoJuan Claiborne kept Cal, without any timeouts, in-bounds. Garbers’ attempt to Dancy on 4th-and-5 went right through Dancy’s hands, sealing the Wolf Pack victory.