By Neil Patrick Healy
Time to celebrate Wolf Pack Nation! Why? Nevada is bowl-eligible. After the debacles of the UNLV and Wyoming games earlier this season, the Pack qualified for a bowl game for the tenth time out of the last 11 years with their win against the San José State Spartans last Saturday. The seniors went home happy after their last home game, the 17,215 fans that made the trip to Mackay Stadium (lowest attendance since 2011) got to see an entertaining matchup and the Spartans didn’t get to metaphorically Spartan kick head coach Brian Polian into the pit of despair like the Persian messenger in “300.” In what turned out to be a thrilling, watch from the edge of your seat kind of game, Nevada pulled off a huge 37-34 win in overtime, and the Pack stand at 6-4 with two more games left on the schedule. The final stretch of the season is a grueling one, with a road trip to play the Utah State Aggies up first. Utah State is a team that is tough to diagnose. The Aggies pulled off an enormous win against Boise State and played close with PAC-12 contender Utah, but have dropped the game against New Mexico and were creamed by San Diego State 48-14. Tough to diagnose indeed.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Nevada leads the all-time series against Utah State 17-5, but the Aggies won the last matchup with a 21-17 win back in 2011 that ended a Wolf Pack six-game winning streak. After coming off a close 35-28 loss at Air Force, the Aggies sit at 5-5 with the Pack being their lone game remaining before taking on in-state rival BYU. Despite the so-so record, Utah State ranks in the top 40 nationally in 11 different categories. The most noteworthy stats come on the defensive side of the ball, where the Aggies rank 27th in opponent third down conversions (.331), 31st in first downs allowed (18.2 per game) and 29th in total defense (341.8 yards per game). But the most important aspect to keep in mind is Utah State is one of the toughest opponents to beat at home. The Aggies are currently riding a 12-game home winning streak and have only lost two home games since 2012.
LEADING THE PACK
Can we just take a minute and point out that tight end Jarred Gipson was completely wide open on the game-winning touchdown in overtime? I’ve been saying all season that Gipson is arguably the most important piece for the success of the offense and he came up with a huge game. Gipson finished with three catches for 55 yards and the clinching touchdown in overtime go along with his two huge plays on the game-tying touchdown drive in regulation. First was his 27-yard grab to set Nevada up with first and 10 on the Spartan 12-yard line and then he drew a pass interference call two plays later to set up first and goal at the two.
Besides Gipson, most of the offense gets kudos for their performances. The two-headed monster at running back with Don Jackson and James Butler set the tone on the ground, with Butler tallying 119 yards and a 58-yard touchdown on 16 carries while Jackson tacked on 84 yards and the tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Both backs are inching closer to eclipsing the 1000-yard mark for the season (Butler with 997 and Jackson with 897) and are leading a team that averages 5.1 yards-per-carry. Quarterback Tyler Stewart had his most complete game of the season with three touchdown passes while throwing 16-for-26 for 174 yards while also having a huge 4-yard run to convert on fourth down and kept the game-tying drive alive.
KEYS TO THE GAME
This game all comes down to the offensive line of Nevada and the front seven of Utah State. Who will be able to establish themselves? Nevada’s running game is coming in with a lot of momentum, especially Butler who has run for over 100 yards in four out of the last five games. Utah State has a stout run defense and out of the Aggies’ five wins, only Wyoming’s Brian Hill ran for over 100 yards (201 yards on 26 carries). The run defense of Utah State only allows 3.7 yards-per-carry and 159.2 total rushing yards. Let’s not forget that this is the defense that forced Boise State to commit eight turnovers (five fumbles and three interceptions).
Tyler Stewart showed last week that he is capable of leading come-from-behind drives and performing in the clutch, but can he do it if the running game is neutralized? When Stewart has thrown 29 times or more, Nevada is 0-4. This is an important statistic because if the Aggies shut down the Pack’s running game he will have to make plays through the air.
Styles make fights and this matchup is actually a very intriguing one, but the Aggies have too much going for them to give up their first home loss in two years. This will be a close one, however. I’m not totally sold on this pick because of what Nevada managed to do in crunch time last week against the Spartans. If Nevada steals this win and San Diego State somehow manages to lose to UNLV, then the season finale will have the West Division title on the line.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter@NeilTheJuiceMan.