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Three keys to victory when Nevada football plays at Oregon

Brandon Talton
Brandon Talton and the Wolf Pack take on Oregon on Saturday. (Byrne Photo/Nevada athletics)

The Nevada football team’s thrilling win over Purdue is no longer the Wolf Pack’s concern.

“It's great that we won the first game,” quarterback Carson Strong said, “but you're only as good as your last game. If we don’t do good on Saturday, then we’re not very good.”

A blunt assessment but perhaps the mindset Nevada must take as it gets ready to battle No. 16-ranked Oregon. The Wolf Pack enters the game 0-17 all-time on the road against Top 25 teams while Oregon has won 24 straight non-conference home games, so it makes sense Nevada is a 24-point underdog entering the contest.

Here are three keys to Nevada's game with Oregon, which kicks off at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

1. A faster start

Nevada got off to a slow start against Purdue, going three-and-out on its first two drives, three of its first four series and four of its first six possessions. In all, Nevada had just five first downs in its seven first-half possessions and trailed by 17 points at intermission as a result. Yes, the Wolf Pack was able to rally to victory, fueled in large part thanks to four forced turnovers in the second half. But that won’t be the case if Nevada falls behind early at Oregon. The Wolf Pack can’t let the Ducks get off to a fast start to get its huge crowd into the game. “I just want to be consistent from the start,” Strong said. “I don’t want to come out slow and have to come back like we did. I’d rather come out from the jump scoring points. We really put our defense in tough spots. We were going three-and-out, which is not good as an offense. They were getting good field position and our defense was getting put in tough spots. We really need to move the ball and focus on that at the beginning.” During its 14-game season-opening win streak, Oregon has out-scored opponents, 224-51, in the first quarter, so fast starts are a Ducks specialty.

2. Defensive line play big

You might figure the Wolf Pack secondary is the key part of the Nevada defense’s attempt to slow down QB Justin Herbert and the Ducks’ offense, but I think the defensive line is the bigger factor. Nevada’s line needs to slow down Oregon’s run game (think 4 yards per carry or less) and get some pressure on the 6-foot-6 Herbert, who is a good athlete, to give the Wolf Pack secondary a chance at success. If the Ducks are running the ball well and Herbert has a clean pocket and time to throw the ball, I wouldn’t be surprised if Oregon put up 60 points (the Ducks have averaged 57.1 ppg in its last 14 home openers). Nevada did a good job of limiting Purdue’s rushing attack, but the challenge with Oregon is more difficult. The Ducks have an elite offensive line with four senior starters as well as sophomore Penei Sewell, a freshman All-American in 2018. It’s a huge group that has multiple future NFL players. The Wolf Pack didn’t get much pressure on Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar, who was sacked just once in 52 passing attempts. The front must do a better job of getting into the backfield to have success against Herbert.

3. Plus-three turnover margin

Nevada had a plus-five turnover margin in the win over Purdue, which was the difference in the game. Without that turnover margin, the Wolf Pack would have lost by 20-plus points. Those takeaways were huge as Nevada out-scored Purdue, 13-0, in points off turnovers. The Wolf Pack must be equally opportunistic against Oregon, which was plus-five in turnover margin last season and plus-one in its opener against Auburn. Herbert has been really good in avoiding interceptions with just 17 picks thrown in 30 career games. Strong was excellent in avoiding mistakes in his starting debut. I would be shocked if Oregon did not blitz more than Purdue did to try and hassle Strong into some big mistakes. Nevada’s offensive line is still pretty inexperienced, as is Strong, so Ducks defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who has coached against Nevada in each of the last two seasons while at Boise State, will probably dial up some pressure to force miscues. Nevada must play clean and force some mistakes to hang in this one.

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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