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Nevada vs. San Diego State: Three keys to victory and a prediction

Jamaal Bell
Nevada's Jamaal Bell returns a kickoff against Utah State earlier this season. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

The Nevada football team plays San Diego State on Saturday at Mackay Stadium in Las Vegas. Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray breaks down the game against San Diego State his three keys to victory and prediction. This feature is presented in partnership with Champion Chevrolet.

San Diego State (3-1) at Nevada (4-0)

When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.

Where: Mackay Stadium (capacity 27,000; 50 fans allowed)

Surface: FieldTurf

Weather: High of 52; low of 23

TV/Radio: CBS/94.5 FM

Betting line: SDSU by 1.5; total of 47

All-time series: SDSU leads 7-5

Last matchup: Nevada won, 17-13, on Nov. 9, 2019

Three keys for Nevada to win

1. ‘A’ offensive line effort: The weakness of Nevada’s offense is its line, which was manhandled for the most part last week against New Mexico, which runs the same defense as SDSU, only the Aztecs have much better players and more experience in Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 scheme (Long was SDSU’s head coach last year and is now New Mexico’s defensive coordinator). The Wolf Pack ranks 117th out of 126 teams in run offense (averaging just 3.77 yards per carry), and SDSU ranks seventh in the nation in run defense (allowing only 2.92 yards per carry). It’s highly unlikely Nevada is going to be able to run the ball, but the Wolf Pack offensive line must at least give quarterback Carson Strong time to get the ball down the field. SDSU is going to run a number of exotic blitzes, which New Mexico employed last week to get some early sacks of Strong and break the Wolf Pack’s rhythm. Nevada has the playmakers to do some damage against SDSU’s elite defense, but if the Wolf Pack offensive line does not play well, Nevada could be in for a long game (the Wolf Pack mustered just 226 yards and 12 first downs in its win over SDSU last year).

2. Make SDSU’s QB beat you: The Aztecs haven’t named a starting quarterback for this game with Carson Baker struggling. Baker has as many interceptions as touchdown passes (three) and ranks ninth out of 12 MW quarterbacks in passing efficiency. Georgia Tech transfer Lucas Johnson, a good runner, played a series last week as Baker completed just 4-of-13 passes for 30 yards with two interceptions in a 34-10 win over Hawaii. The bottom line is SDSU would prefer not to throw the ball given its great rushing attack that averages 280.2 yards per game (fourth in the FBS) and 5.75 yards per carry. In SDSU’s three wins, it’s averaging 340 rushing yards per game. In its one loss (to San Jose State), the Aztecs were held to 101 rushing yards and 2.2 yards per carry. If you can stop the SDSU rushing attack, the team is very vulnerable. That’s what Nevada did in its upset of then-No. 24 ranked SDSU, holding the Aztecs to 113 rushing yards and 2.9 yards per carry to win as a 17.5-point underdog. SDSU’s run game is better this season with an improved offensive line and a top-flight running back in Nebraska transfer Greg Bell. Nevada’s defensive goal is to make SDSU’s quarterback beat it, something that’s unlikely to happen if the Wolf Pack defends the run well.

3. Win ‘explosive plays’ battle: The biggest reason the Wolf Pack has a bigger margin for error in securing victories than SDSU is its offensive big-play ability. Nevada’s offense was largely bottled up in last week’s 27-20 win over New Mexico, but the Wolf Pack prevailed because of three deep scoring passes to Romeo Doubs (from 33, 59 and 61 yards). Nevada hasn’t been great in the red zone, and that’s probably not going to change against SDSU, which isn’t giving up many red zone chances (just nine in its first four games). Plus, the Aztecs rank seventh in the nation in red zone defense, allowing scores just 66.7 percent of the time when an opponent gets inside its 20-yard line. SDSU has not allowed an opponent to post more than 300 yards of offense in five straight games, so big chunks will be hard to come by. Nevada’s deep ball to Doubs has been huge this season, and it will need that element to beat the Aztecs. The Wolf Pack has 33 “explosive plays” through four games (that’s a run of 15-plus yards and throw of 20-plus yards). If Nevada gets seven or more “explosive plays,” it will be in a good position to win this one against SDSU’s ground-and-pound run game, which is more methodical in nature.

Prediction

Nevada 23, San Diego State 20: I was dead-set on picking SDSU earlier this week because the Aztecs should have the advantage in the trenches, and Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said earlier this week whoever plays better on the lines will win this game. I give the edge there to SDSU. But this one comes down to the quarterback for me. I always feel much more comfortable when I pick the team with the better quarterback, and there’s no doubt Nevada has a huge edge there. If SDSU gets competent quarterback play, the Aztecs should prevail. But I’ll put my money on the Wolf Pack's defensive line holding SDSU’s running game in check just enough for Carson Strong and Romeo Doubs to hit some big plays and give Nevada a narrow victory. Season record: 3-1.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMurray.

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