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Position preview for Nevada-San Diego State: Who has the edge where?

AJ King
AJ King and the Nevada secondary has been strong this season, albeit against lesser quarterbacks. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

Nevada Sports Net columnist Chris Murray breaks down Nevada’s football game against San Diego State at Mackay Stadium with a position-by-position analysis.

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

Position-by-position

Quarterback: Both teams start quarterbacks named Carson, but the Wolf Pack’s version – Carson Strong – has been much better. Strong has completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,517 yards, 12 touchdowns and one interception. SDSU’s Carson Baker went 4-for-13 for 30 yards with two interceptions last week. Don’t be surprised if Georgia Tech transfer Lucas Johnson, a better running threat, starts in his place Saturday. Edge: Nevada

Running backs: For SDSU, Nebraska transfer Greg Bell has been excellent (537 yards, 6.3 ypc, six TDs), and he’s spelled by another good back in Chance Bell (203 yards, 6.2 ypc, three TDs) and speedster Jordan Byrd (177 yards, 13.6 ypc, two TDs). Nevada’s Toa Taua (255 yards, 6.5 ypc, two TDs) has been solid this season and will have to get a lot of yards on his own because SDSU’s defensive line should be on him quickly. Edge: SDSU

Wide receivers/tight end: One team has Romeo Doubs and the other doesn’t, so that team is getting the check mark. TE Cole Turner’s 6-foot-6 frame down the middle of the field makes it much more difficult to double team Doubs, although the Wolf Pack needs a second receiver to step up with Elijah Cooks (shoulder) out for the season. Jesse Matthews leads SDSU with 10 catches for 173 yards; the Aztecs have two good tight ends. Edge: Nevada

Offensive line: SDSU is without starting center Dominic Gudino (hand/wrist injury), but this group is much improved over the 2019 iteration. Even without Gudino, SDSU’s starting five has 63 career starts. The guards (William Dunkle and Oregon transfer Jacob Capra) are excellent. SDSU’s Brady Hoke raved about Nevada left tackle Jacob Gardner: “I think one of their best players is their left tackle, and he's a true freshman.” Edge: SDSU

Defensive line: Both defensive lines are good, but SDSU’s three-man front is the Mountain West’s best. DT Cameron Thomas and DE Keshawn Banks have combined for 10 quarterback hurries, and the Aztecs allow just 90.5 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry. Nevada’s D-line was the key to last year’s upset of No. 24-ranked SDSU. Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond must come up big in this one. Edge: SDSU

Linebackers: SDSU’s Caden McDonald has created a lot of havoc this season with 21 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, and a team-high 4.5 sacks. Expect to see him blitzing quite often in this one. MLB Seyddrick Lakalaka (19 tackles, 5.5 TFL) has been good as a first-year starter. Per usual with SDSU, this group is smaller but very athletic and fast. Nevada’s group, led by Lawson Hall (24 tackles, three TFL), must be elite versus the run, especially if Lucas Johnson starts. Edge: SDSU

Secondary: SDSU’s secondary starters have 106 career starts, so if anybody is going to slow down Carson Strong and Romeo Doubs, this is the group. Tariq Thompson is one of the nation’s top safeties. He has 12 career interceptions and six forced fumbles. SDSU ranks ninth in the nation in pass efficiency defense; Nevada is 16th in that category, so the secondaries has been good, albeit against lower-level passing attacks. Edge: SDSU

Special teams: Both teams have elite kickers with Nevada’s Brandon Talton (29-of-34 FGs in his career) and SDSU’s Matt Araiza (28-of-34 FGs). SDSU is averaging 46.7 yards per punt; Nevada will get P Julian Diaz (illness) back after he missed two games. The Aztecs have had a punt and kick blocked and has muffed four punts, losing three of them. That’s a major concern for SDSU, which gives the edge to Nevada, which has been cleaner from making big mistakes. Edge: Nevada

Coaching: SDSU rehired Brady Hoke after Rocky Long resigned in the offseason. Hoke has won 81 games in his career with stops at Ball State, SDSU (twice), Michigan and Tennessee (interim head coach). Former Nevada head coach Jeff Horton is the Aztecs’ associate head coach/running backs coach. Nevada’s Jay Norvell has been aggressive on fourth downs this season. We’ll see if that continues against an elite defense in what could be considered the biggest game of his four seasons with the Wolf Pack. Edge: Nevada

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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