By Neil Patrick Healy
Under the bright lights during primetime on Thursday night football on ESPN and with bowl hopes hanging in the balance, the Wolf Pack stepped up on the road and beat the Fresno State Bulldogs 30-16. The game was full of big plays from the Pack and it’s a win that got the fan base excited, but let’s not forget something: Fresno State is absolutely terrible. Sitting at an atrocious 2-7 after the loss to Nevada, the Bulldogs were the easiest game remaining on the schedule. While the win last Thursday was huge in terms of qualifying for a bowl game, the rest of the schedule is far less forgiving. In the final home game of the season, the San José State Spartans come marching into Mackay Stadium and both teams are in must-win mode. In college football, November is for contenders, and both teams need this game to contend for a bowl.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The last time the Spartans beat the Wolf Pack was in 2007 and I was a freshman in high school. It’s a funny story actually. I made the trip down to the Bay Area because my dad was doing play-by-play for Nevada and when San José State pulled the upset over freshman quarterback Colin Kaepernick, I stormed the field with their fans because I just wanted to celebrate with whomever. Despite the upset loss in 2007, Nevada has an all-time record of 18-8-2 against San José State and is currently riding a six game winning streak. That being said, this San José State team may be one of the better teams on the field since the 11-2 season in 2012.
The Spartans’ season has been on the back of one man: running back Tyler Ervin. Currently third in the nation in rushing yards with 1239, Irvin is the key to this team’s success. In three of the Spartans five losses, Ervin was held below 100 yards (93 against Oregon State, 22 against San Diego State and 80 against BYU). But when he is on, the Spartans are a tough team to beat. In a 49-23 win over Fresno State back in September, Ervin had 42 carries for 300 yards and three touchdowns. Arguably the best running back in the conference and a top running back in the nation, the game will be won or lost on Ervin’s play. Last week in the loss against BYU, San José State went for the two-point conversion to win the game in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. The call was a halfback pass designed for Ervin. Actions speak louder than words, and the play calling in crunch time shows that this is Ervin’s team.
LEADING THE PACK
Some of the usual suspects come into play here. Running backs Don Jackson and James Butler both eclipsed 100 yards for the game (Butler with 122 and Jackson with 140) and Hasaan Henderson had a monster game with five catches, 136 yards and a huge 73-yard touchdown. Despite the playmakers on offense stepping up, the star of the game was freshman safety Dameon Baber and his three interceptions. Since making his debut start against Buffalo back in late September, Baber has tallied 34 tackles and six interceptions. After such a stellar freshman campaign, Baber will certainly be considered for some All-Mountain West second team or honorable mention honors when the regular season ends later this month.
KEYS TO THE GAME
This is going to be a game run-heavy game and Nevada’s front seven will have their hands full with defending one of the best running backs in the country. That being said, I have a feeling that the key to the game is quarterback Tyler Stewart. Will he be able to execute the play-action pass and take advantage of San José State’s defense when they load up the box to stop the run? Nevada’s no. 1 receiver (either Henderson or Jerico Richardson) will be covered by one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Cleveland Wallace III. A transfer from the University of Washington in 2013, Wallace was second-team All-Mountain West last season and is on pace to do much of the same in 2015. With three interceptions, including a key pick-six late in the second quarter against BYU last Saturday, Tyler Stewart cannot afford to leave any passes up for grabs with a ball hawk corner like Wallace roaming around the secondary.
The hunt for that elusive sixth win will have to continue for the Pack. Ervin is too good of a running back not to expose Nevada’s defense. Just like Arizona’s Nick Wilson (183 yards and three touchdowns), Texas A&M’s Tra Carson (137 yards) and Wyoming’s Brian Hill (188 yards), Ervin will gash huge holes in the defense. Nevada will probably start slow in the first half like usual, which will force Stewart to make plays in the air and that is always trouble for Nevada (0-4 this season when Stewart throws the ball 29 times or more). San José State will control time of possession with Ervin and the Pack will have to beat either Utah State or San Diego State, which is a very tall order.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NeilTheJuiceMan.