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Three keys to Nevada football beating San Diego State

Kelton Moore
Kelton Moore and the Wolf Pack take on San Diego State on Saturday. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

The Wolf Pack football team hasn’t given up hope of winning a Mountain West championship this season.

But Nevada knows it must be perfect for the remainder of the season to have any shot of achieving that goal, this Saturday’s game against SDSU (6-1, 3-0 MW) being the toughest tilt remaining for the Wolf Pack (4-4, 2-2).

“We’re into the ninth game of the season,” second-year head coach Jay Norvell said. “There’s a lot that will be decided in the next month in this conference. That’s the one thing that we understand. A lot of the top teams in the league still have to play each other. This conference will not be decided in October. It will be decided in November. We want to continue to play and play well one week at a time and keep our focus at what’s at hand, and that certainly for us is San Diego State.”

Linebacker Lucas Weber, a senior in his final season at Nevada, understands the Wolf Pack doesn’t control its destiny in the MW title race, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a shot.

“We just have to keep winning,” Weber said. “There are other teams that have some tough games ahead of them. We kind of have to see what happens to those teams, but we’re still in the race for the Mountain West championship.”

Here are three keys to Nevada's game against San Diego State, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Mackay Stadium.

1. Avoid the big turnover

SDSU’s bread and butter over the years has been its big-play defense, and while the Aztecs’ defense has been as strong as ever, it’s been poor at taking the ball away. SDSU’s turnovers created have fallen from 34 in 2015 to 29 in 2016 to 20 in 2017 to just eight in seven games in 2018. That doesn’t mean the Aztec defense isn’t great. It is. The team is 19th in the nation in scoring defense (18.4 ppg), 14th in total defense (306.9 ypg) and fifth in rushing defense (83.6 ypg). But the big turnover has been lacking, largely because SDSU has recovered only one fumble (it has seven interceptions, a good number). SDSU’s offense is struggling – 18.7 ppg in three MW contests, all wins – so if Nevada doesn’t turn the ball over and give the Aztecs short fields, it’s unlikely SDSU crosses the 20-point barrier. Wolf Pack QB Ty Gangi has been productive against SDSU, averaging 354 yards and throwing five touchdowns in two games versus the Aztecs, but he’s also thrown four interceptions in those games. If Nevada plays a turnover-free game, it wins.

2. Sturdy in the run game

Playing with its backup quarterback for much of the season, SDSU has been even more run heavy than usual this season, keeping the ball on the ground nearly 70 percent of the time. That rushing game has been average, however. The Aztecs were able to replace star Donnel Pumphrey with star Rashaad Penny and Juwan Washington did a great job of replacing Penny earlier this season before he broke his clavicle. That will keep him out against Nevada on Saturday. SDSU is averaging just 4.10 yards per carry, which ranks ninth out of 12 MW teams. The Wolf Pack defense, meanwhile, ranks fourth in the MW in fewest yards allowed per carry at 3.52. SDSU has posted rushing totals of 474 yards, 320 yards and 289 yards in its last three games against Nevada (all wins), but the Wolf Pack is much better equipped to slow down the Aztecs’ bruising rushing attack. SDSU has been able to pierce the Nevada defense with play-action passes in the past, but that’s unlikely to be the case with its backup quarterback starting. Nevada is 1-9 under Norvell when being out-rushed, including 0-2 this year, so ground yards is a big stat for the Wolf Pack and will be key in this one.

3. Make the big plays late

SDSU’s last five games have been decided by a touchdown or less, the average margin of victory in those games being 4.6 points. And SDSU has won all five of them. The Aztecs are used to waging close battles and making the winning plays in the end to win. Nevada hasn’t been as good in close games (3-4 under Norvell in games decided by a touchdown or less), but it did seem to shake its fourth-quarter bugaboo in last week’s win at Hawaii in which it scored in the fourth quarter for the first time in a month. This should be a low-scoring game. The over/under of 45.5 points is the lowest for Nevada this season by a wide margin (the previous low was 58.5 against Fresno State). As such, don’t expect either team to run away with the game before the final 15 minutes. There will surely be big momentum plays throughout the game, but the contest will be decided by which team stands up in the big moments in the end.

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

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