Nevada football’s home opener against Wyoming on Saturday was a contest unlike any other.
The impact of the game goes beyond the box score— a 37-34 overtime win— it was a home opener without fans due to COVID-19. A handful of cheerleaders, band members and up to 250 family members of players and coaches filled the empty bleachers. The sound of a referee’s whistle echoed throughout Mackay Stadium.
It created an eerie atmosphere for those in attendance. But with so much uncertainty surrounding a college football season, Nevada head coach Jay Norvell was elated to see his team return in the fall.
“The atmosphere was different, but I think our guys just enjoyed being out there playing,” he said. “We’ve been looking forward to this opportunity. We will learn from this and adjust and be ready to these different challenges.”
On the field, the Wolf Pack avoided a potential second half collapse to secure its first win of the season. Nevada built a 28-6 lead early in the third quarter and staved off Wyoming’s second half comeback. Wyoming settled for a field goal in overtime, but quarterback Carson Strong connected with wide receiver Romeo Doubs for a nine-yard touchdown to clinch the game-winning score.
“Once we got into (overtime) I had a feeling we were going to come out with this win,” Strong said. “There wasn’t going to be a way we were gonna lose this game. Being able to win this one at that moment was really good.”
The Wolf Pack had 496 total yards of offense. Strong completed 39-of-52 passes for a career-high 420 yards and four touchdowns. Strong threatened Wyoming’s secondary with several deep throws to put Nevada well into scoring territory. He displayed supreme accuracy and poise in the pocket to lead the Wolf Pack’s offensive attack.
Strong and the Wolf Pack offense stumbled at times during Wyoming’s comeback, but the redshirt sophomore signal-caller rallied the team at key moments.
“We got a little complacent, we just need to keep our foot on the gas all game,” Strong said. “If we can do that and take every single drive like it’s our last and execute we can put up some serious points.”
Junior tight end Cole Turner hauled in seven catches for a career-high 119 yards and two touchdowns. Doubs added 12 catches for 117 and his overtime score. Running back Toa Taua was a late scratch from the game, but Devonte Lee and freshman Avery Morrow carried the load on the ground with 78 combined rushing yards. Morrow scored his first career Wolf Pack touchdown from 18 yards out in the third quarter.
“I’m really proud of how our young guys played tonight,” Norvell said. “We have a lot of new faces and it was great to see so many of them perform.”
Defensively, Nevada held Wyoming to 335 yards of offense. The Wolf Pack kept the Cowboy’s potent running game in check, holding Mountain West All-Conference running back Xazavian Valladay to just 87 yards on 22 carries.
Wyoming quarterback Sean Chambers injured his ankle on the first drive of the game and didn’t return. Redshirt freshman Levi Williams took over the starting role, passing for 227 yards while adding 40 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Despite Wyoming’s offensive onslaught in the second half, the Wolf Pack front seven collapsed the pocket and forced several errant throws. Nevada’s defense totaled two sacks forced six punts on the night. Senior defensive back BerDale Robins secured his first interception of the season in the fourth quarter.
Last season’s 31-3 loss to the Cowboys in Laramie left a sour taste in Norvell’s mouth. He emphasized the importance of learning from each loss, and it translated to a huge win to start the year.
“One of the things we’ve taken pride in is when we’ve lost games, we’ve taken the time to correct what’s hurt us,” Norvell said. “We were embarrassed by the way we played in Wyoming last year. We try to address those issues and we made a lot of improvement defensively.”
Nevada struck first with a 26-yard touchdown to Tory Horton in the back corner of the end zone, putting the Wolf Pack up 7-0 with 6:25 remaining in the first quarter. Wyoming cut the lead to 7-3 with a 27-yard field goal following a fumble recovery at Nevada’s 26 yard line.
The Cowboys opened the second quarter with a 36-yard field goal, trimming their deficit to 7-6. Before the end of the first half, Strong connected with Turner on a 50-yard score to put the Wolf Pack up 14-6.
Nevada opened the third quarter with a nine-play, 94-yard touchdown drive capped-off by Morrow’s scamper to the end zone. The Wolf Pack led 21-6 with 10:30 remaining. Wyoming chipped into its deficit with a 21-yard rushing touchdown from Williams. Nevada held a 28-13 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys trailed just 28-20 after a 22-yard touchdown to Gunner Gentry. Wyoming’s valiant second half comeback continued, as Williams’ second rushing score and two-point conversion tied the game 28-28 with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter.
Nevada’s defense rallied with an interception from Robins at the Wyoming nine yard line, setting up a field goal from Brandon Talton to recapture a 31-28 lead. Wyoming stormed its way down the field and sent the game into overtime with a 42-yard field goal.
Wyoming struck first in overtime with a 34-yard field goal to take a 34-31 lead. Strong and Nevada answered with a Doubs touchdown to secure the victory.
Up Next: Nevada, 1-0, hits the road to face in-state rival UNLV for the Fremont Cannon on Saturday, Oct. 31 at Allegiant Stadium. The university will allow a limited three percent capacity for the game, which equates to 2,000 fans.