Nevada running back Avery Morrow faces Boise State safety Tyreque Jones on Oct. 2, 2021, in Boise, Idaho. Nevada won 41-31. (AP Photo/Steve Conner)
Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 41-31 victory over the Boise State Broncos last Saturday in Boise, Idaho:
Carson Strong played well (263 yards, 25-of-38, one touchdown) and didn’t make any drastic mistakes that could have cost the Pack the game. But he didn’t win it either. Strong had just three completions of 20 or more yards and was more of a game manager than the explosive potential first-round draft pick some have predicted him to be. The Pack’s first drive, though, was all about Strong. He completed 6-of-9 for 70 yards and a 7-yard touchdown to Cole Turner. He also found Romeo Doubs for 16 yards on a key 4th-and-2 play from the Boise 39. The rest of the game, though, he played conservatively and smartly and completed 19-of-29 for just 193 yards (no touchdowns). But, thanks to some timely short fields, Brandon Talton’s strong leg and Boise-breaking long runs by Toa Taua, it was enough for the Pack to somehow put up 41 points.
RUNNING BACKS: A+
Make no mistake, the Wolf Pack’s obsession with the forward pass didn’t disappear for one afternoon on the Boise blue turf. And, no, the Pack didn’t finally devote itself to the run. That is never going to happen in the Jay Norvell-Matt Mumme era. So don’t be fooled by the rushing numbers (130 yards, three touchdowns). Much of that was simply Toa Taua reminding everyone that good things do indeed happen when you give him the ball. Taua was magnificent, playing one of the greatest and most important games of his career. Taua, channeling the Boise State Bronco-busting spirit of his brother Vai, gained 124 game-changing yards and scored two touchdowns on just 12 carries. He also caught seven passes for 44 yards and was Strong’s favorite target. Taua was, to be sure, the Pack offense on Saturday. He scored from 12 and 22 yards out. His 21-yard run set up a 33-yard field goal by Talton. The Pack doesn’t come close to the Broncos without Taua.
Boise State, it seemed, was determined to not allow the Pack receivers to dominate the game. The Pack receivers did dominate the game’s first drive as Cole Turner caught a 19-yard pass on the second play of the game and finished the drive with a 7-yard scoring grab. Melquan Stoval went for eight yards on the third play of the game and Romeo Doubs picked up 16 on a crucial 4th-and-2 play and 12 more on another catch to put the ball on the Boise 9. But Boise did, for the most part, contain the Pack receivers for the remainder of the game, taking the explosiveness out of the Pack offense (through the air). Justin Lockhart caught five passes for 94 yards and Turner finished with six for 67. Doubs had just three more catches after that first drive for a mere 17 yards. It seemed like the Pack and Strong missed the injured Elijah Cooks, especially in the red zone and had to settle for four field goals.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
Taua, because of five runs in the third quarter that netted 106 yards, made the offensive line look good. Yes, of course, Taua doesn’t get any of those yards without a block or two. But take away those five runs and 106 yards and the Pack ground game had a disturbing 24 yards on 25 carries the rest of the game. The ground game also had just seven yards on seven carries in the fourth quarter when the Pack was trying to kill the clock and put the game away (we are not including the 2-yard loss when Strong kneeled down to end the game). Strong was also sacked four times and had to spend much of the game tossing the ball to his possession receivers (Stovall, Lockhart) and Taua. The offensive line also continued to make more than a handful of mistakes with six penalties in addition to the four sacks. The front also opened up just enough room for Devonte Lee to gain just one yard on a 4th-and-2 play from the Boise State 40-yard line with just two minutes to play that would have secured the victory.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A+
Dom Peterson finally showed up on the stat sheet in a big way with two key fourth-quarter sacks of Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier. Tristan Nichols, who just might be the Pack’s best pass rusher, also had two sacks. Nichols made the play that changed the entire momentum of the game, sacking Bachmeier on the first play of the second half and forcing a fumble. Sam Hammond also added a key sack. The Pack defensive line didn’t have any tackles behind the line of scrimmage on any of Boise’s 22 carries by its running backs but there weren’t many huge holes for the backs to run through either.
Daiyan Henley continues to be one of the most underrated defensive players in the Mountain West. The converted wide receiver had seven tackles, intercepted a pass, broke up a pass and also recovered a fumble. He’s always had a knack of making plays. But now he’s making plays that change games. It was Henley that recovered Bachmeier’s fumble on the first play of the second half and his interception early in the fourth quarter kept the game in the Pack’s control. Lawson Hall was also active with nine tackles and Lamin Touray had five. This is about as well as the Pack front seven can perform against a quality opponent.
Bachmeier did complete 34 passes for 388 yards and four touchdowns. The Boise quarterback also had seven completions of 20 or more yards. So the Pack secondary had its difficult moments. But Norvell’s basketball players in shoulder pads (as he likes to think of them) also had their share of positive moments. Jordan Lee, stepping up in the absence of injured Tyson Williams, came up big all day with eight tackles. He forced and recovered a fumble by Boise wide receiver Stefan Cobbs early in the fourth quarter. Lee’s play gave the Pack a short field (the drive started on the Boise 29) and led to a Talton field goal and a 41-24 lead. Mikael Bradford had five tackles, A.J. King had four tackles and a sack and was called for a pass interference while Bentlee Sanders had three tackles, broke up a pass and also hurried Bachmeier once. Boise’s dynamic wide receiver Khalil Shakir did have four catches for 70 yards but just 20 of those yards came after the first quarter. Boise’s Cobbs, though, did have 10 catches for 132 yards and Octavius Evans got loose for six catches and 85 yards so Bachmeier didn’t struggle often to find the open areas in the Pack secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Talton came up big with four field goals from 33, 37 and 38 (twice) yards out. All four kicks were important, especially the 37-yarder on the final play of the first half to cut Boise’s lead to just 21-20 that gave the Pack momentum heading into the locker room. Shakir did break free for a 40-yard punt return that set up a Boise State touchdown and a 21-17 Broncos lead just 2:22 before halftime. But that was balanced by a 38-yard kickoff return by the Pack’s Jamaal Bell that set up a Nevada touchdown for a 17-14 Wolf Pack lead. Boise State’s touchdown on its first drive would not have been possible without a Wolf Pack special teams mistake (the Pack was off-side on a Boise punt that gave the ball back to the Broncos). But Boise has been wildly successful on special teams with huge game-changing plays over the past two years and the Pack didn’t allow that to happen.
Norvell and his staff were the difference in this game without question. The Pack was poised, patient and more focused than the Broncos were under first-year coach Andy Avalos. The reason Norvell was hired to take over the Pack program showed up in all of its glory on Saturday. The didn’t really play all that well and can play much better. But they won a game by 10 points in a difficult environment because they played the game in the image of their veteran coach. They were the adults in the room while Boise stumbled, bumbled and looked lost at times under their young and inexperienced head coach. The Pack simply forced Boise into mistakes and when that wasn’t possible merely waited for Boise to hand them a gift. And then they took advantage of all those gifts. It was the Pack, finally, that looked like the beneficiary of all that Boise blue turf luck that has haunted Nevada the past four-plus decades.
The Wolf Pack did not beat a good Boise State team on Saturday. That Boise State team we saw on Saturday just might be the worst Boise State team since the Broncos went 6-5 in 1998. It is certainly the most poorly-coached Broncos team since 1998. The Broncos’ unbelievable good fortune in hiring head coaches that started with Dirk Koetter and continued with Dan Hawkins, Chris Peterson and Bryan Harsin the past two-plus decades, might finally be coming to an end with Andy Avalos. That remains to be seen. But the team the Pack beat on Saturday was sloppy, undisciplined and confused most of the day. We tell you all this so you don’t confuse what happened on Saturday with the Mackay Miracle that took place in 2010. That Boise State team 11 years ago was truly great. That victory required a miracle that still can‘t be explained. The victory on Saturday simply required the Pack to be mature and listen to their wise coach. But anytime the Pack beats Boise (it’s happened just 14 times in 44 games), it is time to celebrate. More importantly, it is time for the Pack to take all of the confidence earned on Saturday and carry it all the way to a Mountain West title game, where they just might see Boise State once again in December, this time at Mackay Stadium.