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San Diego State thumps Pack 23-7, handing Nevada sixth straight loss

Nevada falls to 2-6.

Syndication: Reno Gazette Journal JASON BEAN/RGJ / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Nevada Wolf Pack football team suffered their sixth straight loss Saturday, this time at the hands of the San Diego State Aztecs, 23-7, at Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev. The Wolf Pack now move to 2-6 with a winless 0-4 record in conference play, while SDSU moves to 4-3 and 2-1 in Mountain West play.

Here are a few immediate takeaways from the contest!

1. Wilson shifts to Shane Illingworth once again.

After the Wolf Pack’s fourth drive — which went 31 yards over eight plays, ending in its third punt up to that point — Nevada head coach Ken Wilson benched Nate Cox, who finished 2-for-8 for 11 yards, for the remainder of the game.

Former Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth, who had struggles of his own entering Saturday, completing 60.4 percent of his attempts for 234 yards without a touchdown in three games, replaced Cox. He went 21-for-33 for 181 yards, accounting for the team’s only touchdown on the evening.

Even though he was immediately placed in a 2nd-and-16 just plays into his first drive, Illingworth was able to string together completions of 16 and 26 yards, respectively, to get Nevada into plus territory. The drive was capped off by a 20-yard touchdown connection from Illingworth to Spencer Curtis — both of their first touchdowns at Nevada, which was its first passing touchdown all year against an FBS opponent — to cut it to 13-7. As previously noted, it was its only score of the game.

2. Illingworth has to be the guy moving forward.

That leads me to my next point. Was Cox the better quarterback in the five games beforehand? There’s a certainly a compelling argument to be made. But in a lost season with still plenty of retooling and competition not only for the rest of this season, but for beyond, Illingworth needs to be the guy behind center. It’s not that he was better Saturday, but more reps, more in-game comfortability with the offensive line, the wide receivers and the playcalling are what’s important here. This is about 2023 and beyond.

It may not always fashion the most promising results, but Cox won’t be on the roster next year (out of eligibility). The transfer portal has raised more confusion about what rosters will look like in the preceding years. But Nevada still needs to tinker for 2023. Whether Illingworth ends up starting or not next season, getting him — and the other young Pack players — reps is paramount at this stage of the season. It’s time to lean into those opportunities while they’re still here.

3. Third down production makes a difference.

One of the things I keyed on Saturday was the third down production. Both teams were in the bottom-third nationally in third down conversion rate heading into Saturday: Nevada converting at a 35.8 percent clip (No. 90) compared to SDSU’s dismal 23.2 percent (No. 129; third-worst). But that story was flipped Saturday night.

The discrepancy wasn’t that large — but there was one nonetheless, which became more important for SDSU than Nevada in the end. While SDSU’s average third down distance was marginally further than its counterpart’s — 9.4 to 9.3 yards — the Aztecs went 6-for-16, including 6-for-12 in the first three quarters, on third down. Jalen Maydor, who went 12-for-25 for 156 yards, had five completions of 10-plus yards on such downs Saturday — all of which resulted in first downs. And that’s not even including a 32-yard video game-like scamper for the endzone in the final quarter, sealing the victory.

Nevada went just 3-for-14 — all three of those conversions came in the second quarter on Illingworth’s first drive. Two of such plays were completions were 16 and 26 yards to Curtis on 3rd-and-16 and 3rd-and-8, respectively.

Both teams’ defenses have been below average in preventing such conversions this season. But the Pack offense struggled to convert on important opportunities against a Aztec front that overwhelmed them more often than not — especially since Nevada was playing behind the 8-ball practically the entire game.

4. Pack couldn’t establish run game without Lee

It was reported by Nevada Sports Net’s Shannon Kelly before the game that running back Devonte Lee was not in uniform (undisclosed).

The Wolf Pack have been an objectively bad team running the ball this year, and the struggles were further brought to light Saturday. Nevada finished with just 35 yards on 1.7 yards per carry. Taua had 43 yards on 3.6 yards per attempt; Sure, SDSU’s Chance Bell wasn’t much better, recording 55 yards on 4.6 yards per attempt. But with a better defense, more dynamic quarterback with better skill position players, it’s easier for the Aztecs to mitigate that struggle. It’s not that way for Nevada.