A 3-0 start to the 2021 season is on the line as the Kansas State Wildcats welcome the Nevada Wolf Pack to Manhattan on Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats seek their third season-opening three-game win streak since 2015, while the Wolf Pack have only started 3-0 three times in the last 30 years. Saturday afternoon will mark the first time these two programs collide, with Nevada in the middle of a stretch of three road games in four weeks while Kansas State is playing a second straight at home.
Not only are the teams' records the same, but they've also navigated nearly identical paths to this point, squaring off with Pac-12 competition in Week 1 and FCS opponents in Week 2. Nevada began its 2021 slate by outlasting California in Berkeley before taking down FCS foe Idaho State, and Kansas State opened plenty of eyes with a 24-7 win over Stanford in Arlington, Texas, followed by a close win at home over Southern Illinois.
Nevada at Kansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 2:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Nevada -2
When Nevada Has the Ball
Carson Strong entered the fall with plenty of eyes on him as a top NFL draft prospect, and he hasn't disappointed. His 346.5 passing yards per game and six touchdowns are both the second-best marks in the Mountain West, trailing only Fresno State's Nick Starkel and Jake Haener, respectively, in those categories. The Wolf Pack have certainly welcomed his high totals in the early going, especially as Nevada rushed for just 66 yards against Cal in the opener and were bolstered by Strong's 381-yard, four-touchdown game against Idaho State last week.
After the Golden Bears limited Toa Taua to just 37 rushing yards, Taua bounced back with 103 yards on nine carries while Devonte Lee notched the team's first — and, thus far, only — rushing touchdown of the season. Elijah Cooks also bounced back from a modest opening performance that saw him catch two passes for 23 yards and a touchdown with 89 yards and a pair of scores on seven receptions this past Saturday. Romeo Doubs and Tory Horton each totaled 55 receiving yards while Harry Ballard III dove in the end zone for a 43-yard touchdown on his only catch of the game, his first reception at Nevada since his transfer from Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Kansas State's defense has wreaked havoc in the early stages of the 2021 season, notching a Big 12-best 10 sacks — the fifth-highest total in FBS — and five takeaways in the first two games. Defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah leads the conference with three sacks and has forced two fumbles in as many games, while Khalid Duke and Eli Huggins have collected two sacks apiece.
When Kansas State Has the Ball
Despite "super senior" Skylar Thompson managing just 144 passing yards in the season opener against Stanford, Kansas State's rushing attack — including Thompson — more than made up for the meager totals through the air. The Wildcats rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns against the Cardinal and followed up with 208 yards and four more touchdowns against the Salukis.
Deuce Vaughn has led the way with 39 rushes for 6.3 yards per carry and four touchdowns. He'll be called upon to do more of the same as Thompson suffered a knee injury against Southern Illinois — his second serious injury in as many seasons — and is out indefinitely, according to head coach Chris Klieman. Will Howard struggled after taking the reins on Saturday, completing just eight of his 17 passes for 76 yards and an interception after replacing Thompson. Howard did score from a yard out to cap out the drive during which Thompson got hurt.
While its offense has been making plenty of noise in the passing game, Nevada's defense stands alongside Kansas State's among the nation's best at bringing down opposing quarterbacks. The Wolf Pack have collected a Mountain West-high 11 sacks thus far and trail only LSU (14) and Marshall (12) nationally. Defensive tackle Tristan Nichols has collected four by himself, second to Army linebacker Andre Carter II (4.5) across the entire FBS.
With defense being the calling card for both of these two schools, it will certainly be interesting to see how the difference in offensive game plans comes into play. Howard's starting experience as a true freshman in 2020 will undoubtedly provide a boost, while Strong's wealth of experience and early-season fireworks will be a big test for the Wildcats' above-average pass defense.
Prediction: Nevada 30, Kansas State 20
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.