San Diego State vs. Nevada: Three Keys To A Wolf Pack Win
Nevada faces their toughest test yet in hosting the Aztecs. Here’s our preview of how the Wolf Pack can take down SDSU.
The Wolf Pack won’t have it easy this week.
WEEK 12: San Diego State Aztecs (3-1) vs. Nevada Wolf Pack (4-0)
WHEN: Saturday, November 21 — 12:30 PM PT/1:30 PM MT
WHERE: Mackay Stadium; Reno, NV
STREAMING: Fans can sign up to receive a free one-week trial of Fubo, which includes CBS, by following this link.
You can also find the audio broadcast on TuneIn.
RADIO: The Nevada broadcast can be found in and around Reno on 94.5 FM and elsewhere on the Wolf Pack Radio Network. The San Diego State broadcast can be found on 101.5 FM (KGB) and XTRA 1360 AM.
SERIES RECORD: San Diego State leads the series 7-5. However, in the last meeting on November 9, 2019, the Wolf Pack defeated the Aztecs, 17-13, in San Diego.
LAST WEEK: Nevada defeated New Mexico at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, 27-20, while San Diego State beat Hawaii at home in Carson, 34-10.
ODDS (as of 11/17, via Vegas Insider): San Diego State -1.5
SP+ PROJECTION: San Diego State by 1.4 (53% win probability)
FEI PROJECTION: San Diego State by 5.0
The weekend in Mountain West football has been somewhat diminished by the ongoing pandemic, but perhaps the biggest game of Week 12 is still set to take place in Reno between the Nevada Wolf Pack and the San Diego State Aztecs.
The Aztecs took a hit in losing at home to San Jose State two weeks ago, but their blowout win over Hawaii last Saturday proved that they are still very much a force to be reckoned and, for Nevada’s part, they represent the stiffest test yet for Jay Norvell’s team.
Here’s how Nevada can keep their undefeated season alive and beat the Aztecs.
Three Keys to a Nevada Victory
1. Stop the Aztecs run game, especially on first downs.
One of the things that had made San Diego State so efficient on offense, despite a consistent passing game, is that the revitalized offensive line and the stable of running backs behind them have often put the attack in a position to succeed early. On the year, SDSU has averaged 6.28 yards per carry on first down, a figure which ranks in the top ten nationally.
It’s not a coincidence, then, that the one team to beat the Aztecs so far, San Jose State, has been the only team to put the clamps on that running game on first-and-ten, holding SDSU to 72 yards on 20 such carries (a 3.6 YPC average). It’s also not a coincidence that, as a result, Carson Baker has struggled when forced to make plays on later money downs. To date, he’s compiled a 56.14 passer rating on 25 third-down pass attempts and, more importantly, just six first downs.
While it’s possible that head coach Brady Hoke has decided to make a change at quarterback — Lucas Johnson saw some playing time late against Hawaii, but Hoke has said he won’t show his hand before kickoff on Saturday — it shouldn’t matter too much who is under center if the Wolf Pack defense can create passing downs for the Aztecs to reckon with.
2. Don’t stray from being aggressive on those same early downs on offense.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that no one in the conference has had more opportunities to throw on first down than Carson Strong. The better news? He’s been pretty good at it because he currently sports a 74% completion rate while averaging 11.5 yards per attempt, and while Romeo Doubs deserves a huge amount of credit for that production (he’s already fifth among FBS receivers with 425 yards on first down despite playing half the games of the other players in the top five), the reality is it’s been a group effort: Tight end Cole Turner has ten catches for 177 yards, too, while sophomore receiver Justin Lockhart has 13 for 125.
This is all to say that while the Aztecs secondary represents a much tougher test than, say, Utah State or Hawaii, their splits suggest that Nevada could still soften them up by finding success on those same first downs. Their completion rate allowed through four games is 70.2% and that figure drops 59% and 37.1% on subsequent downs, so business as usual might be Nevada’s ideal game plan.
3. Prepare to play a field position game.
One thing that both Nevada and San Diego State have in common after the first month is that they’ve gotten good performances from their special teams. Brandon Talton might give the Wolf Pack an edge in the kicking game and Jordan Byrd might do the same for the Aztecs on kick returns, but if the defenses play to a stalemate then the punters might have a huge say in how the game unfolds.
Tanner Kuljian hasn’t had that many opportunities to kick for SDSU, but he’s made his ten punts count with a 45.3 YPP average and a net of 40.67 that ranks 30th nationally. For Nevada, it hasn’t seemed to matter much whether it’s Julian Diaz or Matt Freem handling punt duties since the Wolf Pack still rank sixth overall with a 44.46 net average. What does matter here, though is that the Aztecs have actually been better than the Wolf Pack on a per-drive basis when it comes to getting points after being pinned deep.
When starting from inside the 20, SDSU has averaged 3.09 points per drive compared to Nevada’s 2.28. Closing that gap even a little could make a big difference.
This should be the game of the weekend in a lot of respects and both teams have a lot of strength-on-strength matchups that make predictions difficult. That said, the Aztecs have dealt with high-powered offenses plenty of times before and, more often than not, they’ve found ways to bog those attacks down. San Diego State’s defense should find a way to keep them in the game, even if they fall behind early, and they appear more likely to force Nevada into a mistake than vice versa.
It’ll be close one way or another, but I think SDSU will play their way back into contention for the Mountain West championship game with a big-time victory.
San Diego State 24, Nevada 21