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Grades: Nevada defense plays spectacularly in Arizona Bowl win

Arizona Bowl
The Wolf Pack celebrates its Arizona Bowl win over Arkansas State. (Arizona Bowl handout)

Grades from Nevada’s 16-13 overtime win over Arkansas State on Saturday in the Arizona Bowl in Tucson, Ariz.

Offense

D+ — There was a lot going on here. First, we must point out the Wolf Pack was really down in numbers. It was without three starting receivers if you count McLane Mannix’s transfer and injuries to Kaleb Fossum and Romeo Doubs. It was down two starting linemen after Jake Nelson and Anthony Palomares suffered mid-game injuries. Nevada was basically without five starters and it definitely showed. The Wolf Pack’s offense was completely inept for most of the game, but it came up with gigantic plays on its final two series with a number of walk-ons making big plays. Ben Putman, Dominic Christian, Reagan Roberson and Crishaun Lappin entered this game with one combined catch this year. In the Arizona Bowl, they had 11 catches for 163 yards and the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Ty Gangi, the game’s offensive MVP, completed 18-of-34 passes for 200 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown, an 11-yarder to Roberson for the walk-off overtime win. Putman, a little-known walk-on coach Jay Norvell put on scholarship after the game, had two crucial 44-yard catches and reeled in four passes for 114 yards. The Wolf Pack totaled just 285 yards (3.9 yards per play) and couldn’t run the ball (2.1 yards per carry against a team that allowed 5 yards per carry during the regular season). It also was 3-of-16 on third down. If not for a heroic defensive effort, Nevada gets blown out in this game (11 of the team’s 17 series went for four plays or fewer). But we also must acknowledge how clutch Nevada was, including a game-saving 15-yard pass from Gangi to Christian on fourth-and-7 with 1:44 remaining in regulation. The Wolf Pack offense got plenty of opportunities and was able to cash them in at the end of the game, both with its final drive in regulation and with the game-winner in overtime.


Defense

A+ — I don’t carry about the stats with this one. Nevada’s defense was exceptional in this game, as it was for most of the season. Taking in the macro view, this was one of the three or four best defensive units in Wolf Pack history. In the micro view, Nevada had its back against the end zone all game long, in part because of the Wolf Pack offense, and continued to make big play after big play. The Wolf Pack had three interceptions of Justice Hansen, who threw just six interceptions all regular season, with only one coming in his last six outings. But Nevada picked him off in the end zone twice and was absolutely great for the majority of the game. It did allow a last-minute length-of-the-field drive that led to a game-tying field goal as regulation ended, but the unit had to be gassed by then after being on the field for 93 plays. The defense held firm in overtime, forcing a field goal, to set up the game-winning touchdown a couple of minutes later. Arkansas State did rack up 499 yards, including 224 on the ground, but Nevada got key stop after key stop, three times holding the Red Wolves without a point after they got inside the 10-yard line. Special kudos to Nevada’s secondary, which played some great ball, including a two-interception game from Justin Brent, a senior who transferred in from Notre Dame prior to last season as a receiver. The Wolf Pack loses a lot of seniors off this defense, but it’s one of the great units in school history.

Special teams

B — Special teams played a big factor in this game. Arkansas State’s Blake Grupe missed two early field goals, one from 25 yards and another from 47 that he flubbed and came up well short on. That led the Red Wolves to go for a questionable fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line in the second half that backfired. Grupe did hit a field goal at the end of regulation and another in overtime, but his early-game struggles clearly changed Arkansas State's game plan due to a lack of trust. That was beneficial for Nevada, which played a solid special teams game. Ramiz Ahmed made his lone field-goal attempt, a 36-yarder, and Quinton Conaway averaged 44.8 yards on nine punts (and a tremendous 44.3-yard net average). Nevada didn’t have any kick or punt returns, but its coverage unit was excellent. The Wolf Pack definitely won the special teams battle.

Coaching

B — The Wolf Pack's defensive staff, led by coordinator Jeff Casteel, has been superb all season, and it was no different on this day. I do have some quibbles with late-game calls – not going from it on fourth-and-inches with 9:40 remaining; going for it on fourth-and-17 with 4:10 remaining rather than taking a field goal; not bleeding the clock on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 1:06 remaining; playing prevent defense on the last series of regulation to allow Arkansas State to go down the field for the game-tying field goal – but a bowl win is a bowl win, and Nevada doesn’t have many of those in its history (this was its sixth overall and the fifth of its modern era). The Wolf Pack was a little more pass-heavy early on than I would have preferred, but it wasn’t like the run game was doing much. The staff was short-handed with players, though. The bottom line is Nevada won eight games for the first time in its Mountain West history and it showed the resiliency — #NevadaGrit — Norvell has worked hard to instill as his culture. Overall, it was a really good season for the Wolf Pack.

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