First place in the Mountain West's West Division will be on the line when the Nevada Wolf Pack travel to take on the San Diego State Aztecs Saturday night. Nevada improved to 7-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play with its 27-24 victory over San Jose State last week. The Aztecs, currently sitting No. 22 in the College Football Playoff rankings, beat Hawaii 17-10 to improve to 8-1 overall and 4-1 in league play.
These two teams have played each other 13 times, most of those happening in the past eight years as conference mates. San Diego State holds a slim 7-6 edge, but Nevada has won the past three meetings, all by five points or fewer.
Nevada at No. 22 San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 13 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: San Diego State -3
When Nevada Has the Ball
Quarterback Carson Strong has earned the attention of NFL talent evaluators for his big arm and productive track record. Strong has completed 70.5 percent of his passes for 3,197 yards and 25 touchdowns with seven interceptions this season, giving him a Mountain West-best 355.2 passing yards per game that also rank fourth nationally. However, Strong isn't the only future pro on the Nevada offense. Wide receiver Romeo Doubs and tight end Cole Turner share the team lead with 55 receptions, with Doubs ahead in yards (726 vs. Turner's 618) and Turner pacing the unit with eight touchdowns (to Doubs' five).
Though Turner left last week's win with an injury and is questionable to play against the Aztecs, Strong has an even longer list of teammates to distribute the football to. Three other receivers have at least 30 receptions: Melquan Stovall (46 rec., 535 yds., TD), Tory Horton (32, 350, 2), and Justin Lockhart (30, 433, 2) while running back Toa Taua has chipped in with 29 catches for 207 yards and a score in addition to his 527 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
When San Diego State Has the Ball
There are fewer stars on the San Diego State offense, but the Aztecs have a strong rushing attack with Greg Bell leading the way. Bell ranks fourth in the Mountain West in rushing offense (82.8 ypg) having gained 745 yards with seven touchdowns on 161 carries. He started the season with four straight 100-yard performances against FBS opponents but has been held to 56.3 yards per contest over the last four. Bell has been limited by a nagging injury in recent weeks but carried the ball 24 times against Hawaii, his second-heaviest workload of the season.
Quarterback Jordon Brookshire began the season as the starter but was sidelined by injury in September and then lost the top job to Lucas Johnson last month. Johnson has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for a modest 625 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions. And though the Aztecs haven’t stretched the field much (Johnson’s 5.7 yards per pass attempt would rank outside the national top 100 if he qualified for the FBS leaderboard), he can contribute as a runner with 178 yards on 35 carries.
The San Diego State defense is elite. The Aztecs rank No. 2 nationally in points per drive allowed (1.06), filtered for garbage time against FBS opponents, as well as fourth in Expected Points Added per play (0.005) and in success rate (33.9 percent). Against FBS opponents, the Aztecs rank third in yards allowed per play (4.33) and No. 4 in yards per pass attempt (5.4). The San Diego State offense ranks 96th or worse in each of those five categories, so the team’s defense and special teams units — spearheaded by Matt Araiza, who leads the nation with 51.95 yards per punt and is 10-for-16 on field goals — have been vital.
Both Nevada and San Diego State are 4-1 in Mountain West play, with each having fallen to Fresno State in October. The Bulldogs are 4-2 in the league, meaning the loser Saturday would fall into third place in the division given the tiebreaker. In other words, this is essentially a must-win game for both squads in terms of the conference title picture. It's a home game for San Diego State, but the team's temporary digs in Carson is far from campus and negates some of the home-field advantage most teams enjoy. Nevertheless, familiarity is worth something and Nevada is just 2-2 away from home this season.
Strong is easily the best quarterback the Aztecs will have faced, but San Diego State should also pose his toughest test of the season. The battle for first place should be close, but expect the Aztecs to score just enough to win.
Prediction: San Diego State 26, Nevada 24
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