On Friday night, Carson Strong officially became Nevada’s quarterback.
There were plenty of stars in the Wolf Pack’s thrilling 34-31 victory over Purdue, the second-largest comeback for the program in the last two decades.
Cornerback Daniel Brown had two interceptions.
Running back Toa Taua accounted for 120 yards and a touchdown on 20 touches.
Receiver Elijah Cooks made two ridiculous catches and speared seven balls for 60 yards and two scores.
Punter Quinton Conaway won the battle of field position by averaging 48.5 yards per attempt.
And kicker Brandon Talton became a star with his game-winning 56-yard field goal.
But Nevada’s win would not have been possible without the strong play from Strong, the redshirt freshman quarterback who showed why he won the job out of fall camp and why he won’t be giving it back any time soon. In his first game since 2016 when he was a high school junior, the 6-foot-4, strong-armed gunslinger completed 30-of-51 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns with zero turnovers.
But this game wasn't about Strong's stats. It was about his poise, his leadership, his energy, his grit and his ability to lead a team out of a massive hole to score Nevada’s eighth win over a Power 5 opponent in 42 tries. Strong started slow but once he got rolling, it seemed inevitably he’d carry the Wolf Pack to a win.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our young quarterback,” head coach Jay Norvell said.
“He’s a gamer,” Cooks said.
“Carson is poised,” Brown added. “That kid looked like a three-year starter back there. You couldn’t tell he was a redshirt freshman. Once you’re out there, they don’t care how old you are, what class you’re in, as long as you’re playing good ball you have a chance.”
Only 19 years old, this is Carson Strong’s team. During his struggles early in the game, there were a few critics calling for Malik Henry, the former Florida State quarterback. But Norvell smartly stuck with Strong, who rewarded his coach’s confidence in him by playing his best in the game’s biggest moments.
“I just want to be known as a winner,” Strong said when he earned Nevada’s starting job. Against Purdue, he showed why he’s exactly that. After playing turnover-free-but-not-spectacular ball the first three quarters, Strong grew up in the game's final 15 minutes. In the fourth frame, Strong completed 13-of-18 passes for 167 yards and one touchdown. He converted 4-of-5 third downs and was 1-of-1 on fourth down, hitting Romeo Doubs on 21-yard pass on fourth-and-8 from Nevada’s 43-yard line with 1 minute, 26 seconds remaining.
Strong capped that drive by leading Nevada to the game-tying touchdown. And as Purdue’s fifth-year senior quarterback Elijah Sindelar struggled late, Strong completed 3-of-4 passes for 32 yards after Nevada got the ball on its 34-yard line with 38 seconds left to set up Talton’s game-winning field goal. In all, Nevada scored the game's final 20 points, including 10 in the final minute. Strong didn't melt when the game was on the line. He craved that moment and delivered.
“Carson Strong is a clear-eyed quarterback,” Norvell said. “He can see coverages. He knows where his routes are and where his checkdowns are. He scrambled when he needed to and he competed. He really competed. He put this team on his back and fought through at the end when we needed the will to win.”
Strong was clearly helped by his defense and special teams, which combined to give Nevada a plus-five turnover margin, which you can’t expect every game. He was aided by Purdue’s decision to play a prevent defense in the fourth quarter and the Boilermakers’ odd move to de-emphasis star receiver Rondale Moore after he opened the game with two electric series.
Strong credited his teammates for the win, but he also dug them out of bad situations after the offensive line repeatedly picked up penalties to put the offense behind the chains. By the end of the game, Strong's comfort level was exceptionally high.
“The first quarter it was moving a little bit fast,” Strong admitted. “I wasn’t seeing my reads as well as I needed to. As the game went on, it slowed down. By the end, it was moving basically in slow motion.”
That was too be expected considering Strong has played only one season in the previous four, his junior year of high school before losing his senior season to knee surgery. Strong also showed good mobility, rushing for 34 yards, as well as the ability to punt, averaging 45 yards on his four attempts.
Sometimes a first impression tells you everything you need to know about a quarterback.
Colin Kaepernick’s debut in extended play was electric as he accounted for 444 yards and five touchdowns in 2007 against Fresno State after taking over for an injured Nick Graziano, who never got the job back. In 2011, Cody Fajardo got his first elongated playing time against Texas Tech and ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries while completing 4-of-6 passes for 59 yards and a score. Shortly after, he was the team's starter.
Nevada can’t place the pressure of being those two stars on Strong, but he has the talent to return the Wolf Pack’s quarterback play to its once-lofty standard of all-conference production. And like Kaepernick and Fajardo, he's debuted as a freshman with a lot of room for growth.
The degree of difficult will ramp up next week when Nevada plays at Oregon, a better team than Purdue by a good margin. It will be Strong’s first experience in a road environment and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more difficult place to play on the West Coast than Autzen Stadium. There are going to be bumps in the road. But Strong showed Friday he’s a keeper. He’s the future of Nevada.
“The exciting thing is he has four full years to play," Norvell said. "He's just getting started."
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.