It was the morning of December 6, 2021.
The Nevada Wolf Pack football team was nine days fresh off a 42-point victory over the Colorado State Rams, preparing for the Quick Lane Bowl against Western Michigan, which was scheduled for three weeks later on Dec. 27.
Early that Monday, a bombshell rippled across the Mountain West — Nevada head coach Jay Norvell is headed to....Colorado State? The team they just beat by 42 — 52-10 — mere days prior? Not even to a Power 5 school, but a program with hardly any recent success in the same conference?
Indeed he did — for more money, more resources and a brand new multi-million dollar stadium. Now, Norvell — and 11 players he poached from last year’s roster, plus multiple (offense-oriented) coaches — return for the first time in what could be the most highly-anticipated game Nevada has all season (yes, perhaps even more than UNLV). Both teams have been underwhelming, but it’s still set to be one of the best Mountain West matchups this week.
Wilson threw a little bit of shade Norvell’s way, while Norvell downplayed it after the fact. Get your popcorn ready. Without further ado, let’s hop into it!
Week 6: Nevada (2-3) vs. Colorado State (0-4)
When: Friday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. PT
Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.
TV: Fox Sports 1
Spread: Nevada -3.5
Series History: CSU leads 12-5
Last Meeting: Nevada won 52-10 (Nov. 27, 2021)
When Colorado State is on offense:
Colorado State has been the Mountain West’s worst offense so far. It’s last in the conference in total offense, yards per play, scoring offense, passing offense and second-worst in first downs gathered per game and third-down conversion rate.
Behind center is first-year starter Clay Millen, one of the near-dozen players to follow Norvell to Colorado State, who had a cup of coffee behind Carson Strong. He’s completed 73.9 percent of his attempts for 667 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions. His two most sought-out targets are former Pack receiver Tory Horton — who tops the team in receptions with 23 for 427 yards and five touchdowns — and Ty McCullouch, who’s got 13 catches for 119 yards.
No other Ram receiver has reached double-digit catches. A’Jon Vivens and former Nevada tailback Avery Morrow are their top tailbacks on the ground, but have both recorded less than 3.5 yards per carry without a rushing score through four contests.
Nevada’s defense begins with defensive lineman Dom Peterson, who’s in line for another All-Mountain West honoree at this pace. He’s recorded four sacks — no other Pack player has more than one — with 5.5 tackles-for-loss and two fumble recoveries.
The Wolf Pack’s primary two linebackers are Naki Matealona and Maurice Wilmer, with Peterson, nose tackle James Hansen, defensive tackle Louie Cresto and Marcel Walker along the line of scrimmage.
Mateialona and Wilmer are No. 6 and 7 on the team in tackles with 20 and 15, respectively. Though the strongest unit of the Wolf Pack defense are its back five, buoyed by Bentlee Sanders — one of the top playmakers in the Mountain West through five games — Tyson Williams and Jaden Dedman.
As an offense, locating where No. 6 (Williams) and No. 20 (Sanders) is paramount. Sanders has recorded 32 tackles — including two tackles-for-loss and four interceptions, including one for a pick-six. Williams has two fewer tackles, with three tackles-for-loss and one sack through five games.
When Nevada is on offense:
Through five contests, with an entirely new offensive line and system, Nevada has struggled to find its offense as well.
It has split time between two quarterbacks: Nate Cox and Shane Illingworth. Cox has completed 56.8 percent of his attempts for 502 yards and two touchdowns, adding 100 rushing yards with three additional scores on the ground. Illingworth has yet to throw a touchdown this season, going 32-of-53 (60.1 percent) for 234 yards and just one interception.
Nevada’s focused on the ground game much more than it did under Norvell’s air raid scheme; Toa Taua tops the team in attempts with 85 for 350 yards (4.1 ypc) and five scores. Devonte Lee has rushed for the other four scores on 4.3 yards per attempt.
Jamaal Bell has hauled in a team-most 20 passes for 181 yards without a touchdown, while no other Pack receiver has more than 10. Former Illinois transfer Dalevon Campbell has 10 for 112 yards; BJ Casteel has nine for 112 and one score; Jacob Munro has seven for 65 yards.
The Rams have a combined 73 starts along their defensive line, led by CJ Onyechi and Muhamed Kamara. Onyechi has 21 tackles — including four for loss — with 2.5 sacks so far. Kamara, on the other hand, leads the team with six tackles-for-loss and four sacks — with one forced fumble and fumble recovery.
The Rams’ two-base linebacking core is spearheaded by veterans Dequan Jackson — who’s second on the team in tackles with 33, including 1.6 for loss — and Cam’Ron Carter. He’s fourth on the team in tackles (26) with 0.5 sacks and one fumble recovery so far in 2022.
Safety Jack Howell has been the most productive player in the Rams secondary, leaing the team in tackles (45) and has hauled in all three of the Rams’ receptions on the season.
Nevada’s defense has been on again, off again over its first five games. Colorado State’s offense has yet to be on, even with the highly-touted Millen and a decent crop of skill position threats surrounding him. Colorado State has yet to eclipse 20 points while the Pack have allowed at least 40 points in two of their last three contests. Nevada has also yet to execute its newfangled identity while CSU has struggled, for the most part, containing offenses. In other words, this might be a higher-scoring game than some people expect, but I expect the Wolf Pack — in one of the program’s most anticipated games in recent memory — to speed the game up on the ground and squeak out a narrow victory over its former head coach. Nevada 28, Colorado State 24 (Season record: 4-1, ATS: 1-4)