Who has the edge? Nevada Edition
LARAMIE — People like to say that the game of football is
not played on paper.
They are right — but it’s still fun to look.
Today, we will breakdown the offenses of the Nevada Wolf Pack (4-3, 1-2) and Wyoming Cowboys (5-2, 2-1). The two squads will meet Saturday at noon at War Memorial Stadium.
So, who has the edge on offense?
Let’s break it down real quick.
Sean Chambers eclipsed the 60-percent completion mark for the first time this season in last Saturday’s victory over New Mexico. Most wouldn’t jump for joy about that. Well, the Wyoming offense in 2019 is not most. The redshirt freshman completed just 9-of-15 passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. He made timely throws. He made accurate throws. He also extended drives with throws. What else could you ask for? Oh, yeah, a win. Well, he got that, too. It was his eighth in his first 10 collegiate games. Most impressive was the way Chambers orchestrated yet another big-time rushing day for the Cowboys offense. There was no Eric Abojei, Alonzo Velazquez or Titus Swen. It didn’t matter. Chambers, who himself was dealing with a lower-body injury, gashed the Lobos for 141 yards in just 18 carries. He broke a pair of 40-yard runs. He made plays when he needed to against a poor Lobo pass defense. Another statistically bad passing D will be in Laramie Saturday afternoon. Can Chambers take another step in the right direction? One would hope. Boise State, Utah State, Colorado State and Air Force are on the horizon.
Nevada head coach Jay Norvell announced this week that quarterback Malik Henry will be left off the roster against Wyoming, and maybe beyond, to focus on academics. The “Last Chance U” star started the previous two games for the Wolf Pack, throwing four interceptions to just one touchdown as Nevada went 1-1 against San Jose State and Utah State. Henry, who originally committed to Florida State before shuffling off to Independence, Kansas, for junior college and television stardom, will now be replaced by original starter, Carson Strong. The freshman signal caller is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes and has tossed three touchdown passes. He has also been picked off five times in his four starts. Strong is not known for his wheels. He has been sacked eight times this season. Nevada averaged 21 points per game on offense. Strong and Co. are 74th in the nation in passing at 226 yards per outing. Wolf Pack quarterbacks have thrown 11 interceptions this season.
Xazavian Valladay took a career-high 33 hand-offs in the in over New Mexico. He rumbled for 129 hard-earned yards behind a makeshift offensive line that was without two starters. Valladay has been bothered by a sore ankle for much of the season. Saturday, he showed that he can be the Cowboys every down back, though Craig Bohl would like to see him take about 5-to-7 less carries per game. That game belonged to Valladay. There were no proven backs behind him in the lineup with Trey Smith and Swen both on the shelf with injuries. Jeff Burroughs became the first Wyoming native to start a game at tailback for the Pokes in the Mountain West Conference era (1999). That was a nice gesture, but this was Valladay’s chance to show that he could be the guy. He was. He likely will be again this week. Burroughs and Brett Brenton will need to fill in every now and then, but Valladay has a lot on his plate when the Wolf Pack get to town.
Nevada hasn’t exactly got it going on the ground quite yet this season, ranking 97th overall at 134 yards per game. Tao Taua has been their bell cow, hammering out 513 yards on 115 attempts. That’s good enough for 4.5 yards per carry. The sophomore also has four touchdowns on the ground. Taua can also catch the ball out of the backfield. He has snagged 16 passes for 130 yards. Jaxson Kincaide has been a serviceable backup option for the Wolf Pack through seven games, carrying the ball 32 times for 146 yards and a score. When Nevada goes to quarterback Cristian Solano, look out. The senior speedster has 132 yards on just 20 carries this season. He leads the team with a 6.6 yards per carry average.
WIDE RECEIVERS/ TIGHT ENDS:
Hey, three catches for 33 yards isn’t much, but for senior wide out, John Okwoli, it had to feel like an anchor was unchained from his leg. Okwoli has drawn the brunt of the criticism this season when it comes to Wyoming’s embattled receiving corps. He has dropped passes. Too many of them. He knows it, too. Saturday, he was a legit threat in the middle of the field. That was a pleasant surprise for Bohl and Co. Six different pass catchers got in on the action against the Lobos. Josh Harshman caught a couple of balls, including a 15-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, and Dontae Crow, Jackson Marcotte, Valladay and Raghib Ismail each snagged one. Facing a bottom-tier secondary like Nevada, one would think this would be another chance for the wide outs to get going before the meat of the schedule gets here. Bohl joked that he isn’t going to go Mike Leach air raid but did say the Cowboys need to find more balance this week.
Elijah Cooks is the real deal. Nevada’s 6-foot, 4-inch, 215-pound junior wide receiver leads the team with 393 yards on just 33 catches. He is also a threat in the red zone, pulling down four touchdown passes this season. The Wolf Pack also has a deep threat. His name is Romeo Doubs and he averages 16.3 yards per reception. He has registered 309 yards in just 19 catches. Kaleb Fossum and Dominic Christian are another couple of play makers the Pokes need to keep an eye on Saturday afternoon. They have combined to catch 42 passes for 425 yards and a touchdown. Nevada doesn’t go to its tight ends much, but it does rely heavily on its running backs and crop of wide outs to make plays in the passing game.
Frank Crum and Patrick Arnold did an admirable job stepping in for Velazquez and Abojei Saturday against New Mexico. Those are big shoes to fill – and the Lobos front seven is no slouch. Still, the Cowboys were able to impose their will and roll to a 259-yard day on the ground. The fourth quarter was the most impressive for the front five. Wyoming held the ball for 11 minutes over the final 15, all but putting the nail in the Lobos’ coffin. Uncharacteristic of this line, they gave up three sacks in the win. Chambers also fumbled when the pocket collapsed in the third. He fell on it, but that has not been a trademark of this unit all season. Logan Harris made his return to the lineup after suffering a concussion in the road loss at Tulsa. He said he was out of shape. He added that will change this week. Bart Miller, UW’s first-year offensive line coach, called Harris the toughest player this side of Abojei. Look for Valladay to follow No. 79 all afternoon. Nevada runs a three-man front. The Cowboys have seen that a number of times this season with Texas State and New Mexico. In both of those games, rushing yards weren’t exactly easy to come by, but the Pokes were able to wear them both down in the second half. Expect that again Saturday.
When you take a quick glance at the some of the numbers – they aren’t pretty. Nevada’s offensive line has allowed 17 sacks this season. Not ideal when you have a carousel of signal callers under center. That constant pressure has forced plenty of bad throws. The Wolf Pack also struggle in third-down conversions. Like, 95th-in-the-nation struggle. The offense, as a whole, isn’t scaring many teams. Last week in Logan, Nevada turned the ball over four times and racked up just 113 yards on the ground in 35 carries. Junior Nate Brown is the only returning starter on the Nevada offensive line this season. Behind him is a group of upperclassmen who have been waiting their turn. Coming into the season this group was unproven. So far, they have proven to be a liability in many cases. Nevada is 99th in the nation in total offense, averaging just 360 yards per contest. Much of that rides on the line, the same way the Cowboys successes can be credited to the front five.