Nevada beat San Jose State, 41-38, on Saturday to pick up its first conference win of the season. The Wolf Pack improved to 4-2 on the season and 1-1 in the Mountain West. Here is a Monday review of the game and a look-ahead to Nevada's next opponent, Utah State.
Just the facts
The Wolf Pack, which has struggled in the first half this season, got off to a tremendous start before holding on for dear life late in the game. Nevada was up 14-0 after the fans had settled into their seats and had a 24-3 edge right before halftime when SJSU scored a touchdown with 27 seconds remaining, which turned the momentum to a degree. The Wolf Pack opened the second half with a 75-yard touchdown pass from Malik Henry to Romeo Doubs before the Spartans stormed back, turning a 31-10 deficit into a 31-31 tie midway through the fourth quarter. The teams traded touchdowns again before Brandon Talton booted the game-winning 40-yard field goal as time expired for his second walk-off win in six career games, giving Henry a victory in his starting debut.
Now that was an exciting game. I've begin to realize football played at the Group of 5 level is really about entertaining the fans. It's not like any team from the G5 will ever get into the College Football Playoff, so there's a ceiling on what you can accomplish on the field. But you can give your fans something enjoyable to watch to help boost attendance (which was announced at 15,311 fans for Saturday's game). It also was a much-needed victory. The Wolf Pack moved within two games of bowl eligibility, which is key because Nevada still has four road games remaining in which it will be a sizable underdog, starting with at Utah State this week. If the Wolf Pack just beats New Mexico and UNLV at home, it will be bowl eligible. In the larger picture, the MW's West Division remains wide open. Every West team already has one loss after Hawaii was routed by Boise State and Fresno State was bushwhacked by Air Force.
For the fourth time this season, Talton was Nevada's single-game MVP, including the wins over Purdue, Weber State and SJSU as well as the loss to Hawaii (heck, you could have made him the MVP for the Oregon game, too, since he scored all of Nevada's points). Talton, the true freshman who walked on at Nevada, is 12-of-12 in field-goal attempts and now has two walk-off winners, which leads to one question: Where does he pick up the Heisman Trophy he will inevitably win? Joking, of course, but Talton has been phenomenal. Against SJSU, he scored 11 points (two field goals, five extra points) and gave Jay Norvell enough confidence when Nevada got inside the 35-yard line late in the game, the Wolf Pack didn't have to press and risk things. It knew Talton would deliver. The Vacaville, Calif., native is working his way toward All-American honors and potentially the Lou Groza Award.
You could go with Henry here as he was solid in his first career start, especially late in the game (22-of-37, 352 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions). But I'll go with Toa Taua, who Norvell and Co. leaned on heavily in this game. The Wolf Pack made the decision to try and run the ball and use play action off that. That's not traditional Air Raid, but Nevada had a bye week to try and tinker with its struggling offense. Taua was fed a career-high 34 carries for 160 yards and a touchdown. He added two catches for nine yards. Taua did have a crucial fumble through the end zone that cost Nevada seven points, but he redeemed himself with a huge run to spark Nevada's game-winning drive. This should have been a loss of five yards but instead was a gain of 27 that put the Wolf Pack in field-goal range.
Nevada's defense had an excellent first half before the pass defense melted down in the second half. The Wolf Pack held the Spartans to three points in the first 29 minutes before giving up 35 points in the final 31 minutes. Predictably, Nevada's run defense was excellent, holding the Spartans to 15 yards on 16 carries (I say "predictably" because SJSU cannot run the ball and the Wolf Pack's run defense is stout). The Spartans decided to throw the ball the entire second half, which was wise as Josh Love finished with 405 yards and three touchdowns. We'll give the defensive MVP award to Austin Arnold, who I doubt graded out the best of Nevada's defenders, but he certainly had the biggest play, a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown early on to stake Nevada to a 14-0 lead. It was the first pick for the junior, who added two tackles. The play is below. I'm pretty sure that is a pass interference by Nevada's Lucas Weber, who drills the intended receiver five yards down the field, which led to the ball being throw directly to Arnold. But Nevada will certainly take that break.
352 - Malik Henry's 352 passing yards in his starting debut is the most for a Nevada quarterback making his first start since the turn of the century. That's since 2000 for those scoring at home. It includes 16 quarterbacks in all. The previous high on that list was Ty Gangi's 301-yard game at New Mexico in 2016. Carson Strong threw for 295 yards in his starting debut this season against Purdue, so two of the top three totals for first-time starters for Nevada since 2000 have come this season.
The Wolf Pack's schedule kicks up a notch Saturday when it travels to Logan to play Utah State, which is 3-2 overall and 2-0 in the MW with wins over Stony Brook, Colorado State and San Diego State and losses to Wake Forest and LSU, two teams who have been in the Top 25 this season (LSU is ranked second currently). The Aggies aren't nearly as strong as they were last season when they went 11-2 and finished 22nd in the nation, but they're still formidable and have a potential draft pick at quarterback in Jordan Love. Nevada opened as a 21.5-point underdog, its second-largest spread this season. It was a 24-point underdog at Oregon.