The fountain of optimism heading into Nevada’s 2016 season wasn’t gushing, but it had a healthy stream.
That stream has reduced to trickle, at least for now.
At one point in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s lopsided loss at Hawaii, Nevada trailed 38-3. Two garbage time touchdowns created the mirage of a 38-17 final score in both team’s Mountain West opener.
Nevada (2-3, 0-1) has now lost three of four since needing overtime to escape Cal Poly in week one.
The Pack returns to Mackay to lick its wounds on Saturday afternoon against the Bulldogs. Fresno State is in the same boat as Nevada. It is 1-4, 0-1 and has lost three straight, including a 45-20 defeat at UNLV last week.
Saturday’s winner will be back on track in a bad Mountain West – West. Front runner San Diego State is even fighting adversity. The Aztecs are fresh off a head scratching 42-24 loss at South Alabama.
The loser, however, will be in serious jeopardy of their season spinning out of control and missing out on bowl eligibility.
Must-win is a term thrown around too lightly. It’s hard to put the second conference game of the season (for both teams) in that category. But considering the holes both teams have dug, it would be useful to win this one.
We’ll call it a ‘you are strongly advised to win’ game.
Kickoff on Saturday at the newly renovated Mackay Stadium (where Nevada is 2-0 this year) is at 4 p.m. The game can be streamed online on ESPN3.
About the Bulldogs
Coach: Tim DeRuyter (fifth season, 30-27)
2016 Record: 1-4, 0-1 Mountain West – West
2015 finish: 3-9, 2-6 fifth in Mountain West – West
Quarterback: Redshirt freshman Chase Virgil is emerging as one of the most dangerous dual threat quarterbacks in the conference. Fresno boasts the Mountain West’s second most prolific passing attack in terms of yards per game. He’s thrown for 1,169 yards (233.8 per game) to go along with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Fresno has trailed a lot this year, leading Virgil to get aggressive down the field. As a result, he’s completing just 47.1 percent of his passes. He’s second on the team in carries (48) and tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns (two), although he’s netted just 46 yards.
Weapons: Fresno has struggled mightily to run the ball this year. Again, the team has been behind a lot so at times the run game was completely abandoned. That no doubt factors in the Bulldogs rushing for a conference-low 104.6 yards per game. Dontel James gets the bulk of the carries. He’s ran for 299 yards (59.8 yards per game) and two touchdowns on 91 touches. A trio of Fresno receivers present the biggest challenge: KeeSean Johnson, Jamire Jordan and Aaron Peck. Johnson ranks 13th in nation with 6.2 grabs a game. Peck is 23rd in the nation with 462 receiving yards, including a 194-yard showing in the loss to UNLV. And Jordan’s 21 receptions (for 355 yards) are the least of the three, but he already has a pair of 100-yard games this season.
What to look for?
-Who can stop the run? Both teams have been awful slowing the other team’s rushing attack, taking the bottom two spots in the Mountain West in rushing yards surrendered per game. Nevada is allowing 272.6 yards per game on the ground (Hawaii averaged 8.6 yards per carry last week). Only Fresno has been worse. The Bulldogs are giving up 281.2 rushing yards per game. The Wolf Pack has been much better running the ball this year than Fresno, so it appears this in area Nevada has an edge.
-Turnovers will play a large role in this one. The last 16 times Nevada and Fresno have met, the winner of the turnover battle won the game. This is another area Nevada has to feel good. The Wolf Pack is 13th in the nation with +1.20 turnover margin and has turned the ball over just once all year, which ranks second in the country. On the other sideline, Fresno has forced just four turnovers in five games. However, the Bulldogs have forced seven total turnovers in their last two trips to Mackay. Both trips resulted in wins for the guests. Nevada has won the turnover battle its last two times out, but hasn’t been able to translate the big plays to wins. The Pack won the turnover battle 4-0 at Purdue and 1-0 at Hawaii.
-The battle between Fresno’s talented receivers and Nevada’s secondary may be the most intriguing matchup of the afternoon. The Pack is allowing 183.8 passing yards per game, second best in the conference. The Bulldogs actually lead the conference, allowing 182.8 passing yards per game. Those numbers are deceiving. Opposing offenses have ran the ball incredibly well against both teams, so there hasn’t been a need to air it out. Last week, Nevada allowed Hawaii quarterback Dru Brown, making his first start, to complete 15-of-18 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns. The secondary will have to slow Fresno’s dangerous trio of Johnson, Peck and Jordan. The three have combined for 1,148 yards and grabbed all eight of Virgil’s passing touchdowns.
-Can Nevada’s offense develop some consistency? The Wolf Pack has managed just 31 points the last two weeks, and 14 of those were against Hawaii’s backup’s backups in the fourth quarter. Scoring 21.8 points per game, Nevada ranks dead last in the conference. Saturday presents an opportunity, at home, against a reeling defense, for first-year offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey to open up the playbook and develop some confidence for senior quarterback Tyler Stewart. With the Pack’s defense going through issues of its own, the offense can take some heat off the defense by putting points on the new beautiful scoreboard at Mackay.
I’m not sure where to go here. I’ve picked Nevada the last two weeks and could not have been more wrong, especially last week. Conventional wisdom says James Butler should have plenty of room to run, which will allow the Pack to control the pace and keep Fresno’s potent passing attack off the field. Conventional wisdom also said this was the year Nevada will break the 7-6 mold, yet here it sits at 2-3. I’ll take the Pack again, at home, but I don’t feel good about it.
Nevada 31, Fresno State 27