Only four times in the 121-plus-season history of Utah State football have the Aggies won at least 10 consecutive home games.
A 10th straight home victory, among other things, is on the line when USU welcomes Nevada to Maverik Stadium this Saturday in a crucial Mountain West showdown. Opening kickoff from Merlin Olsen Field is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
Not only will the Aggies be looking to start 3-0 in conference play for the third time since joining the MW prior to the 2013 campaign, they will be extra motivated to rebound from their frustrating 42-6 loss to LSU. USU (3-2, 2-0 MW) had an extra week to prepare for Nevada (4-2, 1-1), which is coming off a wild 41-38 home victory over San Jose State.
“These guys will play hard,” USU head coach Gary Andersen asserted as his weekly press conference. “... This Utah State crew will be ready to play, and I’m sure the Reno crew will be ready to play. I expect our guys to bounce back. They bounced back last week very well. It’s not like we walked around moping because we lost that football game.”
Meanwhile, this weekend will be the beginning of a challenging stretch for the Wolf Pack, who will play four of their final six regular season games on the road. Nevada went 3-1 at home and 1-1 on the road during the first half of the 2019 campaign.
“Excited to play Utah State and go there to Logan and play,” said UNR head coach Jay Norvell, who has had his team practice at night this week in preparation for Saturday’s game. “It’s a great atmosphere, a great opportunity. It’s kind of what college football’s all about, a hostile crowd, a good atmosphere.”
This will be Norvell’s first trip to Cache Valley in charge of the Nevada program. This is Norvell’s third season at the helm and the Wolf Pack have improved significantly since he first arrived. After all, Nevada went from three wins in 2017 to eight a year ago, which was the seventh-best improvement mark among FBS teams.
The Wolf Pack last played in Logan in 2015, a game the Aggies won 31-27 after trailing 27-6 in the third quarter. The following year, Nevada overcame a 37-24 deficit midway through the fourth quarter to stun USU, 38-37, at Mackay Stadium.
Will there be another nailbiter this time around?
Those are the kind of games Nevada has excelled in so far this season. The Wolf Pack are 3-0 in contests decided by six points or fewer, and two of those wins were secured courtesy of field goals by true freshman Brandon Talton as time expired.
On a couple of occasions during his weekly press conference, Andersen referred to Nevada as “a tough-minded” team. He also used the word “resilient” when describing the Wolf Pack, who bounced back from embarrassing loses to Oregon and Hawaii.
“This last game is a perfect example of what they’ve gone through,” Andersen said. “That team has fought and battled whether it’s been good, bad or indifferent. They keep on fighting and keep on positioning themselves to keep playing hard, and that’s one thing you’ll notice: these guys play hard. Football is important to them. They seem to really like football. That’s the identity of both teams that are going to play on Saturday night. They both like football a lot, they like each other and they’re going to play hard.”
In that “last game,” Nevada jumped out to a pair of 21-point leads, only to watch SJSU rally and pull even at 38-38 late in the fourth quarter. The Wolf Pack didn’t panic, though, as running backs Toa Taua — who broke three tackles on one play — and Devonte Lee got them into field goal range, and Talton delivered.
The Wolf Pack used a balanced offensive attack to amass 541 total yards in that game. Nevada seemingly found its go-to quarterback against the Spartans as heralded high school recruit Malik Henry, now at his third collegiate program, threw for 352 yards in his first start at the FBS level.
Norvell praised the performance of Henry and his team’s inexperienced offensive line at his weekly press conference. The Wolf Pack only allowed one sack against the Spartans, but gave up combined 13 in their first five games. Additionally, Nevada has given up a whopping 51 tackles for loss in six games — SJSU had eight last week — and that certainly has the attention of USU linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer.
“I mean, it’s really exciting,” Meitzenheimer said. “I really feel like our front seven can play with the best of them. It’s going to be a fun game, and we can do a lot of great things.”
Another key matchup will be USU’s wide receivers and tight ends against Nevada’s secondary. The Aggies have struggled a bit to throw the ball in their last two games, especially against LSU. However, Nevada’s secondary has given up a lot of yards through the air, including 405 against SJSU. Nevertheless, Nevada’s defensive backs have also made some big plays as they have six of the team’s seven interceptions, including a pick-six by safety Austin Arnold.
“We’re making strides in the back end with our secondary, but we’re still not where we want to be yet, and so we’ve got to step up,” Norvell said. “And I thought we were more aggressive in the back end this (past) week, we made some real aggressive plays, we pressured the quarterback. We’ve got to continue to do that defensively.”
Running the ball against the Wolf Pack will likely be a challenge as they rank 30th nationally in rush defense (115.8 yards per game) and are only allowing 3.8 yards per carry. The Aggies have also been good defending the run as they have conceded a paltry 3.2 yards an attempt.
The Wolf Pack rank last in the Mountain West in scoring defense (39.0 points an outing), but that statistic is skewed a bit by their poor performances against Oregon and Hawaii — games they lost 77-6 and 54-3, respectively.
Another intriguing matchup is USU’s red zone offense vs. Nevada’s red zone defense. Both teams have struggled mightily in that area as the Aggies have only scored touchdowns on 6 of 19 trips inside the opposition’s 20-yard line, while the Wolf Pack have allowed opponents to find paydirt on 19 of 22 red zone possessions.
Notes: The Aggies are 16-4 all-time against members of the West Division of the Mountain West. ... Nevada’s defense ranks 19th nationally with 12 takeaways, but the Wolf Pack still have a minus-3 turnover ratio because they have coughed the ball up 15 times offensively, plus have had two punts blocked.