Junior defensive tackle Chris Green, wearing a blue No. 54 jersey, prepares for a play against Purdue. In the foreground of the image, Purdue's Rondale Moore runs towards the ball prior to the snapping of the football.
Jayme Sileo/Nevada Sagebrush. Nevada football’s defensive line prepares for a play against Purdue on Aug. 20, 2019. Nevada’s defense finished the game plus five in the turnover margin.

Nevada football was down 24-7 at halftime of their season opener versus Purdue. By the end of the game, Nevada walked off the field a winner, propelled by the foot of a freshman. 

Freshman placekicker Brandon Talton nailed a 56-yard field goal as time expired to cap off a historic 34-31 comeback victory for the Pack. It was Nevada’s largest comeback since the 1996 season. 

The Vacaville, Calif., native was not offered a preferred walk-on spot until July. Across fall camp, Talton battled with senior Spencer Pettit for the starting kicker job. Talton wasn’t notified until 11 a.m. on gameday that he earned the starting role. After the game, the placekicker earned the best possible prize, a scholarship. 

“It still doesn’t feel real,” Talton said after earning his scholarship. “[Head coach Jay Norvell] said here’s your game ball, and now you’re on scholarship. I looked at him in awe. It’s still crazy.” 

The 56-yard field is the third-longest field goal in school history, and the longest since 2001.

Friday’s game was the second consecutive game when a Pack player was put on scholarship. Norvell placed wide receiver Ben Putman on scholarship last season after the walk-on collected 114 receiving yards on four catches in a 16-13 overtime victory versus Arkansas State in the Arizona Bowl. 

“I’m making this a habit,” Norvell said. “He earned it, he really earned it. It’s nice to have one available for something like that. But it was just an amazing job what [Putnam] did,”

Nevada overcame a 31-14 third quarter deficit, their second largest comeback since 1996, and their largest since 2010 when Colin Kaepernick led a 17-point surge on senior night versus Boise State. Ironically, the Kaepernick led comeback also featured a 34-31 final score.

The game-winning drive was set up by an interception by Daniel Brown—his second interception of the night—with 32 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Brown, rated atop the Preseason All-Mountain West team according to Pro Football Focus, had his first career multi-interception game. Nevada finished plus-five in the turnover-battle on the evening. Interestingly, the last time these teams played, Nevada finished plus-four, but lost by double-digits. 

Carson Strong, the first Nevada freshman quarterback to start a season-opener since 1998, struggled early. An electric Purdue pass rush led by highly-touted freshman defensive end, George Karlaftis and senior linebacker Markus Bailey, flushed Strong out of the pocket and rushed him into multiple early throws. Five of his first eight passes were completions, but went for zero yards. 

“In the first quarter, it was moving a little bit fast. I wasn’t seeing my reads as well as I need to,” Strong said. “But as the game went on, as each drive went on, it started slowing down for me. By the end of the game, it was moving in basically slow motion,”

Strong showed leadership, resilience and perseverance in his first start since his junior year of high school. The 6-foot-4 gunslinger finished 30-for-51 with 295 yards and three touchdown passes. 

In the fourth quarter, he completed 13-of-19 of his passes for 167 yards. He had previously thrown 128 combined yards over the first three quarters. 

“[Strong] is a gamer,” said junior receiver Elijah Cooks.

Cooks said Strong’s high energy and high confidence didn’t fluctuate throughout the game, despite the rough first quarter. 

Toa Taua, reigning Mountain West freshman of the year, led the Pack with 56 yards rushing on 12 carries and two scores. Taua also served as a checkdown threat in the backfield with eight receptions for 64 yards, both team-highs.

Senior running back Kelton Moore, who unexpectedly started the game in the backfield, orushed for 16 yards on five carries. 

Four players have five catches each on the night, including Taua, Cooks and Kaleb Fossum. Romeo Doubs also had five catches, averaging 9.4 yards per catch. Cooks had a career-high seven catches for 60 yards and two touchdowns. 

Nevada’s first two drives ended in three-and-outs, combining for five total yards. Their first 1st down didn’t come until the final minute of the first quarter.

Purdue on the other hand, got off to a quick start. Senior quarterback Elijah Sindelar led Purdue’s offense on a long and methodical 12-play 70-yard drive. The drive was capped off by a two-yard touchdown grab by Brycen Hopkins from Sindelar. Purdue marched down the field two drives later, but the Pack’s defense forced a 32-yard field goal from J.D. Dellinger, giving the Boilermakers a 10-0 lead. 

Getting his third consecutive season-opening nod, Sindelar impressed. Despite the two interceptions, he threw for 423 yards and four touchdowns, completing 34 of his 52 passes. 

Nevada responded with a score of their own.

The Pack offense broke through on a fourth-and-seven, as Strong completed a 38-yard touchdown to Dominic Christian to put the Pack on the board, trailing 10-7 with 4:43 remaining in the first half. 

After two more touchdown passes from Sindelar—a 38-yarder to Jackson Anthrop and a 39-yarder to All-American Rondale Moore—the Pack were in a 24-7 hole heading into halftime. 

The Pack defense surrendered 340 total yards in the first half, including 268 yards through the air. Moore’s 114 yards receiving were more than Nevada’s 99 total yards accumulated in the first half.

Moore had himself quite the game, despite hauling in a lowly three receptions for ten yards in the second half. The 5-foot-8 speedster finished with 124 yards receiving and 180 yards from scrimmage on 18 touches. 

The third quarter started slow for both teams offensively, but Purdue made costly mistakes throughout the quarter. The Pack recovered a fumble that ricochet off a Purdue player during a punt return, leading to a 21-yard dime by Strong to Cooks. Cooks had to battle to complete the catch, as a defender was draped all over him. The score cut the lead to 24-14 with 6:49 remaining in the third quarter. 

The Boilermakers were quick to strike back, as freshman receiver David Bell—the top offensive recruit from Indiana in the 2019 class according to ESPN—hauled in his first career touchdown on a 49-yard flea flicker from Sindelar, giving Nevada a 31-14 lead with 6:19 remaining in the third quarter.

This was the final time Purdue found the endzone. 

Purdue’s second muffed punt came later in the quarter, this time courtesy of Moore. The Pack earned premier field position, but were unable to find the end-zone. After miscommunication—involving Nevada’s field goal unit trotting onto the field without the holder—Talton nailed his first career field goal from 34-yards out. 

Following a defensive stand, the silver-and-blue strung together their longest drive of the game. They advanced 74 yards in just over five minutes, resulting in Taua going untouched into the endzone from seven-yards out. The score brought the contest to a one-score game with 6:56 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The Pack’s defense stood their ground when the team needed them most, earning an opportunity to tie the game with 3:32 remaining.

Nevada faced a fourth and long, but Strong scampered and completed a 21-yard pass to Doubs to keep their hopes alive. Shortly after picking up the first, Strong threaded the needle to Cooks from 20-yards out for the equalizer.

A second Brown interception set up the game-winning drive. Strong remained poised and drove Nevada down 37 yards in 35 seconds. 

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm iced Talton after the first kick, which came up short. Talton featured plenty of the leg the second go around.  

The 56-yard game winning field goal was Talton’s personal long, eclipsing a previous-high of 47 yards. 

“I think that practice kick helped him,” Norvell said. “He kicked the second kick way better than he kicked the first one.”

Looking ahead

Nevada looks to build off the momentum, as they travel to Eugene to take on No. 11 Oregon on Saturday, Sept. 7 at 4:30 p.m. This will likely be Nevada’s toughest task of the season.

Senior quarterback Justin Herbert poses a big threat for the Pack. Herbert completed 59.4 percent of his passes last season for 3,151 yards, slinging 29 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Additionally, Herbert is being talked about as a potential Heisman trophy candidate. 

Oregon brings back one of the best offensive lines in the country, along with two stud running backs in CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. Graduate transfer, receiver Juwan Johnson, gives Herbert another weapon on the edge. The 6-foot-5 target, who previously played at Penn State, has accumulated 1,123 yards on 81 career receptions and two touchdowns. 

The Ducks are just as good defensively, finishing in the top 50 in total defense, scoring defense and turnovers forced a year ago. They bring in former Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who is familiar with Nevada’s system. Oregon also brings in Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 1 recruit in the 2019 class per ESPN

Nevada has played Oregon seven times since 1947, with six of those games in Eugene. The last time Nevada walked out Eugene with a win was in the same year the series started.

Matt Hanifan can be reached at rfreeberg@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.