Nevada quarterback Carson Strong would like to go for it on fourth down at every opportunity.
"Sometimes I just got to ignore him and send the punt team out there," Nevada coach Jay Norvell said with a laugh.
But Norvell also has pushed the enveloped on fourth down more often in recent games, with the trend in modern football, both in college and the NFL, having teams attempt more fourth-down conversion. Nevada did so in last week's win against San Jose State, going for it on fourth-and-9 with 30 seconds remaining, a play the Wolf Pack converted to set up Brandon Talton's game-winning field-goal kick. Nevada went for it on fourth down three times against the Spartans, converting twice.
The week prior, Nevada went on fourth-and-2 from its own 34-yard line on its second drive of the game against UNLV, a play it also converted. Norvell said part of that aggressiveness is fueled by the presence of Strong, one of the nation's top quarterbacks.
"It's all calculated, and to me it's not a risk when you have a guy that throws for 70 percent," Norvell said. "I think you have a 70 percent chance of of completing it and making it. So there's times where we need to kick it or punt it. But Carson's had success in that, and we do believe in our players."
Nevada has converted 9-of-16 fourth downs this season, a 56.2 percent conversion rate, which is tied for 54th in the nation. The Wolf Pack's 16 attempts on fourth down rank 60th in the nation, so it hasn't been crazy aggressive comparatively, but it all has converted some key fourth downs in recent outings.
"There's an old saying: 'In times of crisis, you think players not plays,'" Norvell said. "There's a lot of truth to that. (Carson's) a good player, and he's proven that."
With Nevada without Cole Turner late in the SJSU game after he took a hit to the head, the Wolf Pack went to another key-down pass-catcher late against the Spartans, that being Melquan Stovall, who caught the 12-yard pass on fourth-and-9 in the final 30 seconds despite taking a big hit as the ball arrived. Stovall had exited the game earlier due to an injury but returned to make two huge plays on Nevada's final two series, including a 46-yard catch on third-and-10 on the Wolf Pack's penultimate drive.
"I can't say enough about Melquan Stovall," Norvell said. "Melquan got hit early in that game. He was gimping around for about a quarter. But he was in there and the plays he made in that game were so crucial. And the big fourth-down play that he had at the end of the game to get into field-goal range was a huge play by Melquan. We've got good players. They've been in a lot of tough situations, and it's got to help you in these tough competitive stretches at the end of games where you need plays to be made."
Carson Strong showing toughness
Strong has been lauded for a number of things over the last two seasons, but his toughness has been on display in recent games. Opponents have taken advantage of a leaky Wolf Pack offensive line that has allowed its quarterback to be hit repeatedly, especially in Saturday's win over SJSU.
"He's a tough kid," Norvell said of Strong, who is playing on a knee that was surgically repaired this offseason and isn't 100 percent. "I just don't think anybody can doubt Carson Strong's toughness, the things that he's had to do this year."
While Nevada's offense struggled for most of the game against SJSU, the Wolf Pack scored 10 points on its final two drives to sneak out of a 27-24 win. Strong has been highly effective in those two-minute-drive scenarios.
"Some kids are just like that, and some kids are real passionate and they love those types of situations," Norvell said. "Carson has always loved those end-of-game situations. He's always loved the two-minute drills because he can do the things that he really feels natural doing. And he's experienced. His very first game, his very first start, he had to go down to the two-minute drill versus Purdue and and put the team in position to win. In those situations, it comes down to the competitiveness of your quarterback and the execution of your players, your skill players and your protection and all those things. He's done it over and over again in his career, so it's never a surprise."
Strong did not have a banner game against San Jose State, although he did complete 36-of-54 passes for 314 yards. Strong threw two first-half interceptions, just his second multiple-pick outing in the last 25 games. But he finished strong, throwing a touchdown pass to Romeo Doubs on the team's second-to-last possession before getting Nevada into game-winning field-goal territory on the game's last drive.
Norvell offered Strong an anecdote after the rough first half against the Spartans.
"I told him a story," Norvell said. "I love telling guys these old stories, but the famous game, the 'Catch Game' with the 49ers, everybody remembers that Joe Montana pass. But I told Carson, 'Joe Montana threw three interceptions in that game.' Nobody talks about that. They don't talk about the problems that you had for the first three-and-a-half-quarters. All they remember is the great play at the end of the game that won the game. As long as there's time on the clock, you can do that.
"Tom Brady against Atlanta in the Super Bowl. He threw a pick-six in the first half of that game. He rarely ever throws a pick-six. But he continued to do the things that he knew he could do and his team could do and when it really counted later in the game, he made critical plays that helped his team win."
Cole Turner going through protocols
Turner, the Wolf Pack's star tight end, is going through concussion protocols after taking an illegal hit to the head in the second half of the SJSU game.
Turner was hit in the head by the helmet of Alii Matau, who was ejected from the game for targeting. Turner was helped off the field and didn't return. His status is uncertain for Saturday's game against San Diego State.
"Cole's being evaluated, and we'll kind of see day by day," Norvell said. "No final decision has been made yet, but we're hopeful he can be available for Saturday."
Norvell said there's no day Turner must be cleared by to be available for Saturday's contest, but he'll be monitored as the week progresses.
"It's all determined to his symptoms," Norvell said. "There's a return to play aspect that every player has to go through and there's a series of tests. Some of those are physical, some of those are our mental. And so Cole started that (Monday) and hopefully as the week goes along he'll be available."
Turner has set career highs in catches (55) and receiving yards (618) this season while adding eight touchdowns, all ranking among the top five in the nation for tight ends. Against SDSU last season, Turner caught eight balls for 50 yards and a touchdown in Nevada's 26-21 win.