San Diego State Aztecs vs. Nevada Wolfpack
Dignity Health Sports Park – Carson, CA
Kickoff: Saturday, November 13 @ 7:30 pm
TV: CBS Sports Network
No. 22 San Diego State takes on Nevada Saturday night on Homecoming weekend in a battle between the two teams tied atop the West Division standings. Nevada was picked to win the West Division in the preseason, and the winner of this game will have the inside track to represent the division in the conference championship game.
With their win against Hawaii, San Diego State matched its best nine-game start in the last 51 seasons, duplicating its 8-1 record in 2016.
Last year’s matchup in Reno ended with a thrilling 26-21 Nevada victory. The Aztecs scored all 21 of their points in the first half behind a strong performance by Lucas Johnson and held Nevada to its fewest points and total yards for the season up to that point. After a gift interception by Darren Hall deep in Nevada territory, the Aztecs offense failed to convert a first and goal opportunity from the four-yard line to win the game in the final seconds.
Nevada enters on a three-game winning streak against San Diego State by a combined 13 points.
The Aztecs are 2.5 point favorites in the game after Nevada started as a slight favorite at the beginning of the week.
Team: Nevada Wolfpack
City: Reno, NV
2021 Record: 7-2 (4-1)
Series Record Against SDSU: 6-7 (three-game winning streak)
In his fifth season leading the Wolfpack, head coach Jay Norvell is regarded as an innovative offensive play-caller who brings his own version of the Air Raid offense. His three decades of coaching before Nevada included stops at Iowa, Northern Iowa, Wisconsin, Iowa State, the Indianapolis Colts, the Oakland Raiders, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, UCLA, and most recently Arizona State.
While his coaching acumen is on the offensive side of the ball, Norvell was actually an All-Big ten defensive back at Iowa from 1983 through 1986 and spent one year with the Chicago Bears.
The Wolfpack won three of their four non-conference games, including both home games over Idaho State and New Mexico State, by a combined 104-38 score. They defeated California on the road, 22-17, to start their season, but fell to Kansas State, 38-17, after entering the fourth quarter tied at 17. Nevada surrendered 269 rushing yards in the contest.
The Wolfpack began conference play with an impressive 41-31 victory at Boise State followed by a home victory against Hawaii, 34-17. Their only conference loss came at Fresno State after failing to convert a two-point attempt with a couple of seconds remaining to tie the game. They bounced back by defeating UNLV and San Jose State at home, the latter on a last-second 45-yard field goal.
The Wolfpack returned all 11 starters from their prolific offense last season. “They’re a team that has some maturity about them,” Aztec head coach Brady Hoke said noting the amount of fifth and sixth-year guys on the team.
Junior quarterback Carson Strong was selected as the 2021 MWC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year after winning the award in 2020. After last season’s stellar performance, Strong rose up NFL Draft boards that projected him as a first-round pick.
Strong has completed 70% of his passes this season for 3,197 yards (fourth-best in FBS), 25 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. He commands the entire offense and has the ability to call plays at the line of scrimmage based on the coverage the defense is showing.
Coach Hoke described Strong as the prototypical pro quarterback. “He’s rangy, he’s tall, has a really good arm, gets rid of the ball, can make all the throws and moves well enough,” coach Hoke said.
Aztec cornerback Tayler Hawkins called Strong an NFL quarterback during Tuesday’s press conference citing his strong arm and accuracy throwing in the pocket and on the run. Hawkins admitted that he underestimated Strong before last season’s game but learned how accurate he was during the game. “I definitely have to come with my “A” game this year,” Hawkins said.
Unlike the recent dual-threat quarterbacks the Aztecs have faced, Strong has only rushed for 26 yards this season. Some of that is by design, but some may be related to two offseason surgeries to the same knee to clean up lingering issues from a major injury suffered in his senior year of high school. While Strong has not missed any games this season, he is not expected to be playing at 100%.
He was harassed and hit often by the San Jose State defensive front last week and was seen slightly limping at end of the game. An immobile Strong would certainly aid the Aztec pass rush without the worry of Strong breaking containment and making plays outside the pocket.
In addition to Strong, senior wide receiver Romeo Doubs and senior tight end Cole Turner also made the 2021 MWC Preseason All-Conference teams. Doubs and Turner are tied for the team lead with 55 receptions, with Doubs leading with 726 receiving yards and Turner with eight touchdowns.
“These receivers are definitely talented and have a lot of speed,” Hawkins said. “We have to stay disciplined in coverage and stay disciplined in our assignments because one little mistake could be a touchdown.”
Doubs tied a school record with 19 receptions against Fresno State this season, totaling a season-high 203 receiving yards. Doubs is also the primary punt returner on the team.
Senior running back Toa Taua leads the Wolfpack with 527 rushing yards and four touchdowns, but Nevada is ranked last in the conference in rushing.
Nevada’s offense protects the ball well, only committing eight turnovers through nine games, an average of less than one per game.
Nevada’s defense has forced 18 turnovers this season, 11 interceptions, and seven fumbles. They returned six of the 18 for touchdowns, four in the last two games. Senior linebacker Daiyan Henley leads the team with four interceptions, the most by any linebacker in the country. He also leads the team with 70 total tackles and tied with two fumbles recovered. He returned a turnover for a touchdown in each of the last two games, including a 50-yard interception return against UNLV.
On defense, the Wolfpack give up a lot of yards but are tied for fourth in FBS with 33 sacks. Senior defensive tackle Tristan Nichols leads the team with 9.5 sacks (no other teammate has more than five) and has chipped in two forced fumbles and four quarterback hits.
Junior kicker Brandon Talton was also recognized on the 2021 MWC Preseason All-Conference team. Talton has made 19 of 26 field goals, including two from 50+ yardage and all 35 of his point-after attempts. His 19 made field goals are third highest in the nation.
Players to Know
Senior tight end Cole Turner (#19).
Earlier this season, the Aztecs secondary battled against Derrick Deese, Jr. from San Jose State, one of the top tight ends in the country and a projected NFL player. Turner is no different. Despite playing alongside Strong and Doubs, Turner has stood out by his performance. In last year’s game against San Diego State, Turner caught eight passes for 50 yards and a touchdown. He collected 12 receptions for 175 yards against Hawaii and eight receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns against Fresno State this season.
Turner was a two-sport star in high school, also earning all-league in basketball his season year. His father, Kelly, played tight end at Purdue from 1987 through 1989.
Senior defensive tackle Dom Peterson (#99).
On a team that is loaded on offense with NFL-caliber players, Peterson should not go unnoticed. Peterson received his share of love from NFL Draft scouts and experts after collecting 16.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss at Nevada before his senior season. He earned All-Conference First Team as a sophomore and All-Conference Second Team as a junior. He collected three tackles for loss and two sacks in last year’s game against the Aztecs.
This season, Peterson has 8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, two pass breakups, five quarterback hits, and one fumble forced, which he recovered and returned 12 yards for a touchdown. His father, Darwin, played college football at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
“I feel it coming,” senior wide receiver Tyrell Shavers said when asked during Tuesday’s press conference whether the offense was ready to break out. After another performance where the offense was unable to generate yards and score more than one touchdown, the questions about what ails the offense continue.
“We haven’t had an explosive play in the last three weeks…we’ve got to get explosive plays,” coach Hoke said. Their longest play on offense against Hawaii was a 17 yard run by quarterback Lucas Johnson.
The passing offense is ranked 127 out of 130 FBS schools, with 132.6 passing yards per game. Johnson has passed for only 625 yards this season and five touchdowns.
The always dependable and, at times, dominant rush offense has also been stymied lately. After rushing for greater than 200 yards in each of their first five games, they have failed to meet that mark over the last four. Running back Greg Bell leads the team with 745 rushing yards and seven touchdowns but has found difficulty finding holes and getting to the second level.
When asked to assess the performance of the offensive line, coach Hoke said they have done a decent job but need to play better. He also pointed out that the success of the offense in the run game is not solely dependent on the five players on the offensive line but all 11 guys on the field. “The offensive line can do a hell of a job on a stretch play, but if the wideout doesn’t take care of the safety or the eighth man, then we have a problem,” coach Hoke said. “If the quarterback doesn’t do a great job of faking after giving the ball or taking the play all the way to its end, you’re not going to be as good.”
The offense, though, played a large role in holding a 34 to 26 minute time of possession advantage. “We had three drives (including penalties) that were a 19-play, a 16-play, and a 10-play drive [that] took a lot of the clock,” coach Hoke said.
The 16-play drive started with one minute remaining in the third quarter with the Aztecs up 14-7 and ended with seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter with the Aztecs up 17-7. Controlling the clock and keeping the ball out of the hands of Nevada’s high-powered offense will be crucial to an Aztec victory this week.
The Aztec defense is sixth in FBS, allowing 91.2 rushing yards per game, tenth allowing 16.7 points, and ninth allowing 299.9 total yards per game.
The defense bounced back after a poor performance against Fresno State by dominating the Hawaii offense, holding them to only ten points.
“I really thought our front three played their tails off, and they’re going to have to do the same thing this week,” coach Hoke said. He also noted that they rushed only three defenders more than they usually do, which allowed them to drop eight into coverage to defend the pass. If the Aztecs can get pressure on Strong by only rushing three, they will have a great opportunity to limit the explosive plays in the Nevada passing game.
Defensive end Cameron Thomas continues to shine for the Aztecs and is receiving national recognition. Dane Brugler, NFL draft analyst for The Athletic, ranked Thomas 43rd in his Top 50 NFL Draft rankings this week. Brugler wrote, “[Thomas] ranks No. 2 in the country in pressures (50), according to Pro Football Focus, using his lateral quickness to cross the face of blockers and win gaps.”
His running mates on the defensive line, Keshawn Banks and Jonah Tavai were equally as disruptive against Hawaii and will look to continue their success this week after the Aztecs did not register a sack against Nevada last season.
For the first time in several weeks, kicker/punter Matt Araiza shared the special teams spotlight after last week’s game. He booted a 79-yard punt, his third-longest punt of the season, but his nation-leading average dipped slightly to 51.9 yards per punt.
The biggest play of the game was a fake field goal in which holder Jack Browning kept the ball and ran it 13 yards for a touchdown. In a close, low-scoring game, the Aztecs greatly benefited from the additional points from the touchdown in lieu of the field goal. According to coach Hoke, they worked on the fake attempt in practice all season and waited for the right opportunity to use it. Don’t expect the Aztecs to run the play again this season, as opposing teams will now be on alert for it.
The Aztecs have not reported any injuries for the upcoming game.
The Wolfpack have one major injury concern, which could affect the outcome Saturday night. Tight end Cole Turner is currently in concussion protocols after being hit in the head in the second half on a targeting penalty by San Jose State. While coach Norvell is hopeful Turner will be available to play, it is unclear whether he will clear protocols in time for the game on Saturday.
Opponent’s San Diego Connection
- Sophomore kicker Mathew Killam attended Scripps Ranch High
- Sophomore Marquese Allen-Patmon attended Lincoln High
- Freshman wide receiver Dazure Paggett attended Lincoln High