In a national spotlight game, the spotlight in the end was on the Nevada Wolf Pack's defense.
That defense was the difference in the Wolf Pack's 26-21 win over San Diego State on Saturday at Mackay Stadium on CBS, the program's first game on network television since 2016.
After a offensive-oriented first half, yards became hard to come by in the second half, especially for the Aztecs as Nevada's defensive clamped down before getting one final game-winning stop in the waning second to keep the Wolf Pack undefeated at 5-0, its best start since 2010.
“Really proud of our players,” Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said. “Games like this are a combination of a lot of hard work.”
SDSU debuted a new quarterback, Lucas Johnson, a transfer from Georgia Tech who put forth a good effort in the first half. Johnson completed 14-of-24 passes for 184 yards and one touchdown and also ran for a score, with almost all of the damage coming in the first half as he missed two series in the second half with cramps and couldn't help SDSU move the ball when he was in the game.
Nevada held SDSU to just three third downs in the second half, allowing just 41 yards on 32 plays after intermission
“Our defense was outstanding in the second half,” Norvell said. “Really proud of the adjustments they made. I challenged the D-line last night and boy, they really responded.”
With Nevada leading 26-21 with 3 minutes, 23 seconds remaining, Carson Strong's pass to Romeo Doubs went off the hands of his intended target, Romeo Doubs, before being picked off by Darren Hall, giving SDSU the ball on the Nevada 26-yard line with a chance for the go-ahead touchdown. The Aztecs gained two first downs to set up first-and-goal at the 4-yard line but was denied by the Nevada defense.
After an incomplete pass on a fade and a 2-yard loss on a run, Johnson had an opened Jesse Matthews for a touchdown but threw the ball before him for an incomplete pass. On fourth down, Johnson threw the ball well out of bounds after being pressured by Nevada's defensive line to seal the Wolf Pack win.
Nevada’s defensive back Mikael Bradford said having only 50 fans at Saturday’s game didn’t stop the Wolf Pack from finding the energy they needed to pull off a win.
“It still feels the same," Bradford said. "The energy my teammates bring on the sidelines makes us feel like we have a million people in the stands."
Nevada’s defensive tackle Dom Peterson recorded two sacks in the game, both in the second half. Peterson now has a team-leading four sacks on the year and a total of 16 in his career. He’s a half-sack shy of entering the Nevada top 10 for career sacks.
It was a back-and-forth game offensive in the first half as SDSU had little trouble moving the ball en route to three touchdowns. Nevada fired back with a couple of deep balls from Strong to Doubs, which has been its ace in the hole this season. Strong’s MW-record streak of consecutive games with 300 passing yards or more came to a halt at six, but he still completed 31-of-48 passes for 288 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Doubs recorded 133 receiving yards on five receptions, extending his streak of consecutive games with 100 receiving yards or more to five, which is tied for fourth in MW history. Doubs caught two more passes of 50-plus yards, the first one setting up the Wolf Pack's first touchdown and the second one going 50 yards for a score to put Nevada up 23-21.
Another notable highlight was senior punter Julian Diaz, who booted all five of his punts 50 yards or longer, including a game-long punt of 63 yards that pinned SDSU at its own 2-yard line with Nevada ahead 26-21 in the fourth quarter. He averaged 55.2 yards per punt and landed four of his five punts inside the opponent 20-yard line.
"I thought our offensive line played outstanding," Norvell said. "Really proud of Julian Diaz."
Kicker Brandon Talton made 4-of-5 field goals, his lone miss coming late in the game on a 51-yarder that gave SDSU some hope before the Nevada defense sealed the victory. That missed broke Talton's run of 18 straight made field goals.
"I feel like I got the best kicker in the league," coach said.
The victory put Nevada is a good position to reach its first MW championship game with only three contests left this season, including road games at Hawaii and San Jose State and a home contest with Fresno State. The loss dropped SDSU to 3-2 and basically eliminated the Aztecs from title contention. It was Nevada's third straight win over SDSU, each coming as a betting-ling underdog.
"Our team has character," Norvell said. "We don't take shortcuts. We get in these situation and it really comes down to believing in one another and doing what you're coached to do. We talk about it all the time you gotta trust your training, when you get in these situations. I’m just so proud of our guys for hanging in there. You don’t win these games by accident that’s a good football team."
With three MW games being canceled this week due to COVID-19 protocols, Norvell said he's just thankful to be able to play games. The Wolf Pack is one of four MW schools yet to have a game canceled due to the pandemic, and it's put itself in a great position to close out the year in historic fashion.
"We’re just so fortunate to be able to get our games in," Norvell said. " We want to finish the season out and we want to get our games in and see how good we can be."
The Wolf Pack heads to Hawaii (2-3) to take on the Rainbow Warriors on Saturday on a game that will air on Nevada Sports Net. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. Pacific time.
"I feel fortunate to have won the game," Norvell said. "Very happy to be 5-0. Looking forward to moving forward to our game."