One of the best games of the year in the Mountain West Conference is set for Saturday afternoon as the San Diego State Aztecs will head up to Reno to take on the undefeated Nevada Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium. This game has been moved to CBS after the Ole Miss-Texas A&M game was postponed due to COVID-19 issues. This will be a heck of an opportunity for both programs to showcase themselves in front of a national television audience. It’s also an important game for both teams who are jockeying for position at the top of the conference standings.
San Diego State (3-1) is coming off a resounding 34-10 win over Hawaii last Saturday at their temporary home of Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. The Aztecs sprinted out to a 28-0 lead against the Rainbows and never looked back. Greg Bell and Jordan Byrd led a ferocious running attack that piled up 326 yards on the ground as a team. Defensively, San Diego State continued to play at a high level, holding what had been a potent ground game for the Rainbow Warriors to just 66 yards on 35 carries — or fewer than two yards per rushing attempt.
Nevada (4-0) survived a dogfight against winless New Mexico, overcoming a 13-10 halftime deficit to rally and defeat the Lobos 27-20. Carson Strong finished with 336 passing yards and three touchdowns, while Romeo Doubs exploded for 172 receiving yards and three touchdowns on just five catches. The Wolf Pack defense held New Mexico to just 3.2 yards per carry, something they will need to do against the Aztecs.
San Diego State at Nevada
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Nevada -1
When San Diego State Has the Ball
Success on offense will start with a continued relentless commitment to running the football. Establishing the run with Bell and the rest of the running backs will allow the offensive line to tee off on the Nevada defensive front over the course of 60 minutes. The Aztecs need to be able to move the ball on the ground, as Carson Baker is coming off of a game in which he completed just four of 13 pass attempts for a grand total of 30 yards with two interceptions. He needs to at least keep the Wolf Pack defense honest or they will load up the box to stop the run.
Jesse Matthews leads SDSU with a modest 10 catches for 173 yards. He and Kobe Smith (9 receptions, 90 yards, TD) will need to find a way to make some plays and help move the chains so that Bell, who is leading the Mountain West with 537 rushing yards, Chance Bell (6.2 ypc, 3 TDs), and Jordan Byrd (13.6, 2) don't have to do all of the heavy lifting. For its part, Nevada is middle of the pack in the conference against the run, giving up 126.0 rushing yards per game.
When Nevada Has the Ball
Head coach Jay Norvell and his offensive staff will face their stiffest test of the season by far, as San Diego State ranks second in the nation in total defense at just 242.8 yards per game allowed. This is definitely strength vs. strength: it's the Mountain West's No. 1 offense going up against the No. 1 defense. The Wolf Pack will need Strong to continue his strong play this season. One of the nation's top passers thus far, the sophomore is completing 71.0 percent of his attempts (eighth in FBS) for 379.3 yards per game (second) with a sparkling touchdown-to-interception ratio of 12:1. The Aztecs boast the nation's third-ranked pass defense, one that’s yielding only 152.3 yards per game through the air. They also have a productive pass rush led by Caden McDonald and Jonah Tavai, who have combined for 7.5 sacks thus far.
Strong will look to continue to do a lot of damage by hooking up with Romeo Doubs. Doubs leads the nation with 161.3 receiving yards per game even though he's tied for 58th with 31 catches. He's taking full advantage of his big-play ability, averaging 20.8 yards per reception with eight touchdowns. The matchup between him and San Diego State's secondary, led by standout safety Tariq Thompson, will definitely be one to watch. Strong also can target Cole Lockhart, a quality pass-catching tight end who will need to find a way to stress the Aztecs' linebackers in the middle of the field. Early success through the air by the Wolf Pack could open up things some for running back Toa Taua, who is averaging 6.5 yards per carry. But overall, running the ball has not been a strength for Nevada, which is last in the Mountain West in rushing offense (99.0 ypg) while SDSU is No. 1 against the run (90.5 ypg).
This should game should feature a little more scoring compared to last year's 17-13 win by Nevada at SDCCU Stadium. Both offenses are capable of moving the ball and putting up points on the other team, provided they execute and avoid unnecessary mistakes. Look for a back-and-forth game that will hang in the balance well into the fourth quarter. In the end, the Carson Strong-to-Romeo Doubs connection will be the difference for the Wolf Pack, which will find a way to stay undefeated with a close win over a solid San Diego State team.
Prediction: Nevada 27, San Diego State 24
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— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Parler @Scottwhittum