The New Mexico State Aggies are playing strong on the offensive side of the ball these days. But it's the defense that needs to find strength when they face off with the Nevada Wolf Pack on Saturday night in Reno.
That's because Nevada is led by stellar quarterback Carson Strong, a NFL player-in-waiting. Not exactly what the Aggies (1-5) need in their search to find some defensive confidence right now.
"Offensively, I feel good about where we are, and I think we are getting better each week," NMSU head coach Doug Martin told reporters. "Defensively, it's just a struggle right now. We are struggling in the back-end and not playing the run as well as we did early in the season."
Indeed, the spotlight is on the Aggies' defense with Strong putting together a case to be a first-round NFL draft choice next spring. The high-profile signal-caller has Nevada off to a 3-1 start (including 1-0 in Mountain West play) heading into their second home game of the season at Mackay Stadium.
The Wolf Pack are coming off of a satisfying 41-31 win over Boise State on the blue turf, but don't expect a lack of focus on Saturday night against New Mexico State, an FBS Independent.
“We're really excited to come back home and play at Mackay,” Nevada head coach Jay Norvell told reporters. “(New Mexico State) is a real talented team. Their record is not great right now, but they have athletes that run around and they're very aggressive defensively.”
But, of course, Strong is strong enough to make the Aggies pay.
New Mexico State at Nevada
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Nevada -30.5
When New Mexico State Has the Ball
Martin has every reason to be optimistic about his offense after last week's effort against the mighty San Jose State Spartans — a motivating 37-31 loss in the Bay Area. The Aggies racked up 386 yards and 23 first downs — five more than the host Spartans.
Here's hoping it means the offense is continuing to show improvement after opening the season with a couple of stinkers — three and 10 points respectively in losses to UTEP and San Diego State.
NMSU sits 100th nationally in total offense (352.5 ypg) and 104th in scoring offense (22.2 ppg). But the passing game has got it together behind junior quarterback Jonah Johnson. The Aggies are 45th in the FBS with 259 passing yards per game.
Johnson himself has completed 57.5 percent of his throws for 1,021 yards with as many touchdowns as interceptions (five each). The junior college transfer was solid against San Jose State, going 30-of-44 for 300 yards, three touchdowns, and a pick. The numbers added up to a career-best 143.4 passer rating.
His top target has been senior Jared Wyatt (26 rec., 308 yds.), but there's also talented sophomore Isaiah Garcia-Casteneda, who has amassed 304 yards on 18 grabs (16.9 ypr) and has a team-high four TD catches. Junior tight end Thomaz Whitford is next with 12 receptions for 144 yards and a score.
When the Aggies run the rock, there's promise in the backfield with backs Juwaun Price and O'Maury Samuels. Price, a freshman, has popped for 233 yards and a trio of TDs on 55 carries to go with 103 yards on 11 catches. Samuels, a junior, has rolled up 206 yards and a score on 59 attempts
Defensively, Nevada falls in the middle of the pack (pun intended) in the Mountain West in the four main categories but has done one thing exceptionally well. The Wolf Pack lead the conference and are tied for second nationally in sack rate at four per game. Fourteen of these have come in two games while they didn't record a single one against Kansas State, a game they lost 38-17.
Defensive tackle Tristan Nichols leads the sack barrage with five (in three games), plus he's forced two fumbles. Fellow defensive lineman Dom Peterson, a two-time All-Mountain West selection, leads a quartet of Nevada defenders with two sacks each. Peterson also had a scoop-and-score on a fumble recovery in the 49-10 rout of FCS Idaho State earlier this season.
When Nevada Has the Ball
As has already been mentioned, the Wolf Pack offense runs through Strong — and for good reason, as he's the reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. The junior QB is filling up the stat sheet yet again, completing nearly 68 percent of his passes for 1,218 yards with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Last week on the road against Boise State, he went 25-of-37 for 263 yards and a score. He's 11th nationally at 305 passing yards per game, an average that will probably only go up as the season progresses.
“He's got great anticipation of throws,” Martin told reporters. “He sees receivers coming open before they're open, and that's what all great quarterbacks have. They get the ball out on time and early. It'll be a great test.”
It also will be a steep challenge for Martin and the Aggies, especially given their defensive issues. It has been rather ugly — No. 115 nationally in scoring, surrendering 34 points per game, and No. 112 in total defense, allowing 447 yards per game.
However, bright spots include junior Chris Ojoh, who leads the team in tackles for a loss (seven) and sacks (four), and fellow linebackers Michael Bowe Jr. (team-high 33 tackles) and Trevor Brohard.
Martin will need that linebacking crew on high alert with not only the likes of Strong but running back Toa Taua a threat for Nevada as well.
Taua was named the conference's Offensive Player of the Week after gashing Boise State for 124 yards and two TDs on just 12 carries while also chipping in a team-high seven catches for 44 more yards. On the season, he's 10th in the Mountain West with 279 rushing yards while averaging a healthy 7.5 yards per carry.
The Wolf Pack, of course, boast a bevy of talented pass catchers, including tight end Cole Turner and wide receivers Romeo Doubs and Melquan Stovall. Doubs leads the way in both catches (22) and yards (304), while Turner's caught 20 balls for 202 yards and Stovall has posted 14 receptions for 139 yards. Not to be outdone, Elijah Cooks has hauled in a team-high four touchdowns.
With all that offensive firepower, it's no wonder Nevada is a 30-point favorite at home. But Norvell isn't expecting a walk-over against New Mexico State. He wants his team improving to 4-1 overall with a win that also would run the Wolf Pack's record to 14-2 all-time against the Aggies, so he's trying to keep his team pumped up and on alert.
"We have a good New Mexico State team coming to Reno this week," Norvell told reporters ahead of their first head-to-head meetings since 2011, when both teams were members of the now-defunct WAC. "They have good athletes on this team. They really do."
But can NMSU match Strong, Taua, and the rest of the Wolf Pack?
The Aggies will give it the ol' college try, but expect much of the same kind of results that was seen in their last meeting 10 years ago that ended in a 48-34 Nevada victory.
Prediction: Nevada 48, New Mexico State 21
Podcast: Week 6 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread