Like it's done to the rest of the college football landscape, COVID-19 has reared its ugly head in the lead-up to the Mountain West meeting between the Nevada Wolf Pack and New Mexico Lobos. But unlike in numerous other games, the pandemic is only indirectly affecting the affair rescheduled as a neutral-site game in Las Vegas.
Yes, coronavirus protocols in New Mexico moved the game from Albuquerque to Vegas' Sam Boyd Stadium, the temporary home of the Lobos since Nov. 2. And in the past few days, the virus has caused the Wolf Pack to split its team in two for practices after Washoe County dropped its cohort count from 250 to 50 people in the wake of spiking COVID numbers. That means Nevada's offense is preparing separately from its defense — just as it did during the summer months.
"If we can practice the way we need to practice and have good quality work and get everybody's attention, then we can play good," Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell told reporters. "But when we don't have the facility to practice or time or the ability to be together, that's really hard to play good when those things happen... We're really trying to find creative ways to be prepared."
So far, so good for Norvell's charges.
Nevada is currently the cream of the Mountain West, having won its first three conference games and coming off of a dominant 34-9 win last week over visiting Utah State. The Wolf Pack beat rival UNLV the week before and Wyoming to open this strange season.
"We played three teams that beat us a year ago," Norvell told reporters. "I'm just really proud of how we've responded and started this season. Our job is to play as well as we can, and we've scratched the surface with that. But we can play so much better and execute so much better — that's the ultimate goal."
The goal right now for New Mexico is just to find a way to win. Despite putting up good numbers, the Lobos are 0-2 on the year, having lost to Hawaii 39-33 last Saturday after falling to San Jose State a week earlier. Both were road conference contests after their first game at Colorado State was canceled due to COVID issues on the team.
Nevada vs. New Mexico (Las Vegas)
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 14 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas)
Spread: Nevada -17
When New Mexico Has the Ball
In addition to COVID-caused disruptions, the Lobos also are dealing with some key injuries. Quarterback Tevaka Tuioti will miss Saturday's game against Nevada because he is in the concussion protocol after getting hurt late in last week's loss to Hawaii.
This comes after the junior provided a spark to New Mexico's offense, going 17-of-31 for 181 yards and two touchdowns with another 71 yards on the ground. In Tuioti's absence, sophomore Trae Hall will get the start. He completed two of his six attempts for 39 yards with an interception after replacing Tuioti against the Rainbow Warriors.
"Trae Hall came in (last week) and threw a couple of good passes, got us in field goal range," Lobos head coach Danny Gonzales told reporters. "With a week of practice, he will get all the reps with the ones. He should be OK and give us a chance."
The good news for Hall is that New Mexico's offense will continue to revolve around the running game, with Nathaniel Jones and Bobby Cole coming off of strong games. A true freshman, Jones picked up 96 rushing yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in his first collegiate game, while Cole, a junior, ran for a career-high 96 yards on 14 attempts.
In total, the Lobos put up 499 yards of offense against Hawaii with 279 of those on the ground. Senior wide receiver Jordan Kress paced the passing attack with 93 yards and two touchdowns on just three catches.
Special teams also did its part as sophomore kicker George Steinkamp connected on four field goals — two from more than 40 yards out — on five attempts.
New Mexico will need all of the points it can muster — and then some — facing a Nevada defense that held Utah State to just 210 yards last week with junior linebacker Daiyan Henley registering a career-best eight tackles in the strong effort.
"Real proud of our defense," Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell told reporters. "Our defense basically controlled (Utah State's) offense. Was excellent on third down, getting off the field. Didn't give up really any big plays and managed their offense really well."
When Nevada Has the Ball
The Wolf Pack have the Mountain West's top offense in terms of total yards, points (tied with Boise State), and passing yards per game, and a big reason why is the success of the Carson Strong-to-Romeo Doubs connection.
Strong, a sophomore, leads the conference in passing yards (1,181), completions (96), and touchdowns (nine) and is averaging a sparkling 393.7 yards per game through the air. Doubs, a junior, is No. 1 in the three major receiving categories — receptions (26), receiving yards (473), and touchdowns (five).
The duo hooked up seven times for 137 yards and three touchdowns — including ones from 42 and 52 yards — in last week's victory over Utah State, as part of a 542-yard day for Nevada's explosive offense.
"Really proud of Carson," Norvell told reporters of his quarterback's sterling 36-of-52, 411-yard performance. "After getting a slow start, he started getting his rhythm and found his playmakers and spread the ball out to playmakers and kept his composure.
"Romeo was outstanding. Romeo's an amazing football player, and him and Carson have great chemistry. The big plays that he made early really gave us our confidence back."
As if the production alone wasn't enough, Nevada also converted four of five fourth-down attempts last Thursday in the dominating performance against the Aggies.
And while the running game hasn't been needed much because of the production through the air, getting 107 yards and a touchdown from junior running back Toa Taua had to be a welcome sight. Sophomore wide receiver Justin Lockhart also chipped in with 95 yards on six catches.
It will be tough for New Mexico to shut down this Wolf Pack offense, especially considering the Lobos have already surrendered eight plays of 40-plus yards in their first two games. Linebacker Devin Sanders, who had six solo tackles last week, and safety Jerrick Reed II, who had two interceptions against Hawaii, will lead the charge on defense.
"It's going to come down to the same thing..." Gonzales told reporters. "If we can make plays in the secondary, we will have a chance. But if we can't, we will get embarrassed."
Pressure will be on the new guy at quarterback to turn the tide in favor of New Mexico. Or at least for the run game to carry the play and slow the tempo down in an effort to limit the number of possessions Nevada's potent offense gets.
But that won't be a simple task with Jay Norvell's defense proving to be up to snuff. In fact, the only hiccup in Nevada's game has been a few too many penalties — a total of 28 in the first three games, most in the Mountain West.
But even with all of those flags, the Wolf Pack have proven themselves to be worthy of all the preseason hype — through COVID stresses and all. That won't change Saturday in Las Vegas.
Prediction: Nevada 41, New Mexico 20
Podcast: Week 11 Preview and Predictions
(Carson Strong photo courtesy of @NevadaFootball)