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Three keys to Nevada football beating San Diego State

Carson Strong
Carson Strong needs to have a big game for Nevada to beat San Diego State. (Julian Del Gaudio/NSN)

When Nevada football coach Jay Norvell looks at San Diego State, his team’s opponent Saturday, he gets a little envious.

The Aztecs have the kind of program he wants to have one day. A team with championship pedigree, with physicality, with length and athleticism and smarts. He sees an old-school team.

“I just respect how they play,” Norvell said of SDSU, which is ranked 24th in the nation. “I think they’re a no-nonsense program. They're physical. They don’t try to trick you. That’s how you build things for the long term."

Here are three keys to victory for Nevada’s game at SDSU, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

1. The correct game plan

Norvell has taken over offensive play-calling duties for Nevada, and I’m intrigued to see how he tries to attack SDSU. The Aztecs are strong across the board defensively, but their run defense is exceptionally staunch. SDSU allows just 69.9 rushing yards per game (third best in the nation) and 2.59 rushing yards per carry (fourth best in the nation). Toss in the fact Nevada hasn’t been able to run the ball this season (just 3.30 yards per carry, 14th worst in the nation), and it seems unlikely the Wolf Pack is going to have a lot of success on the ground. Norvell has made it pretty clear he wants to run the ball – “Sometimes even if you’re not running the ball well, it’s important to run the ball,” he said this week – but will that formula work against SDSU? Norvell wants to protect his defense by trying to limit turnovers (hence fewer passes), but SDSU has been a little more vulnerable against the pass. Will Nevada stick with the run or get risky and let Carson Strong air the ball out?

2. Zero turnovers

The obvious risk of throwing the ball is turnovers. Nevada snapped a streak of seven straight games with multiple turnovers in last week’s win over New Mexico when the Wolf Pack didn’t have a giveaway. SDSU hasn’t been that great at taking the ball away (14 turnovers forced in eight games, 40th in the nation), but the Aztecs are a blitz-heavy team, and Nevada has not fared well against blitzes this season, in part because of its young offensive line, which has had communication issues but looked better against New Mexico’s blitzes. Nevada’s quarterbacks also have been turnover prone, so there’s a good chance SDSU brings the house against Strong, a redshirt freshman who has six interceptions in 214 passes, which is about an average interception rate. The Aztecs’ offense is limited to the point it is reliant on the defense to get good field position. If Nevada avoids turnovers and makes SDSU go the length of the field to score – and that means strong special teams play, too – the Wolf Pack could stick in this game for four quarters. But if Nevada turns the ball over, this game could snowball on the Pack quickly.

3. Stop the run

SDSU has been a better passing team than rushing team this season – it’s been a long time since we could say that – but the Aztecs still want to establish the run. SDSU has run the ball on 61.6 percent of its plays. That’s a really high number considering SDSU averages 3.40 yards per carry, its lowest number in several years. The Aztecs have two future NFL offensive linemen (center Keith Ismael and left guard Daishawn Dixon) as well as a preseason All-MW running back in Juwan Washington, so SDSU’s struggles to run the ball are perplexing. The Aztecs don’t have a great passing attack, either, ranking 82nd in the FBS in pass efficiency, so it’s going to lean on the run against Nevada, which must limit Washington if it going to win this game. The Wolf Pack’s run defense has been solid, although not spectacular. The team is holding foes to 4.32 yards per carry, which ranks 74th out of 130 FBS teams. The goal is four yards per carry. If the Nevada defense holds SDSU below that mark, it has done its job in terms of stopping the Aztecs’ preferred weapon.

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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