Kansas State Wildcats football Chris Klieman Jay Norvell Nevada Phillip Brooks Carson Strong Toa Taua Sam Hammond


WHO ARE THEY?

Jay Norvell and Nevada will look to build off the best season for the Wolfpack since Chris Ault and Colin Kaepernick led the 2010 team to a 13-1 record and a No. 11 final ranking.

Norvell has plenty of connections with or coaching against Kansas State.

He once served as a graduate assistant under Bill Snyder at Iowa, coached on the opposite sideline at Iowa State in the mid-1990s, served as Bill Callahan’s offensive coordinator at Nebraska from 2004 through 2006, coached under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma from 2008 through 2014 (including the the last four as co-offensive coordinator) and finally as Charlie Strong’s co-offensive coordinator at Texas in 2015.

In 2020, Nevada finished 7-2, won a bowl game over Tulane, received votes in the final AP Poll (the equivalent of No. 34), but only finished just outside the top 50 in the combined FEI/SP+ metrics.

Still, it was by far Norvell’s best finish in his five years with the Wolfpack, finishing outside the top 100 in three of his first four seasons. Their best win came over 4-4 San Diego State (No. 49 in the metrics), along with solid wins over 6-6 Tulane (No. 57) and 3-3 Fresno State (No. 90).

Other wins came over Wyoming (No. 74), New Mexico (No. 107), Utah State (No. 118) and UNLV (No. 122). Losses were against 7-1 San Jose State (No. 43) and 5-4 Hawaii (No. 88). 19 starters return, but Nevada was 52nd in Bill Connelly’s returning production metric.

Jay Norvell (USA Today)

THE OFFENSIVE NUMBERS

The Nevada offense was one of the better passing offenses in the country last season when they finished 12th in the nation passing yards per game (319.1) and passing efficiency.

They were 26th in yards per play (6.5), 32nd in points per drive (2.72), 45th in points per game (30.8) and 30th in total yards per game (441.4). The rushing offense was below average and finished 108th in rushing yards per game (122.3) and 68th in yards per carry (4.3).

The Wolfpack offense did struggle scoring near the end zone. Norvell’s unit finished 71st in red zone scoring (81.6 percent) and 111th in scoring touchdowns in the red zone (50 percent).

Nevada threw it 58 percent of the time in 2020 and have thrown it at least 53 percent of the time each of the last four seasons.

They were top 25 in creating big plays of 20+ yards and averaged over six per game.

Their spread offense uses 3-4 receivers a majority of the time, though they will occasionally line up with two backs and the quarterback under center and like to use the Wildcat formation.

They weren’t a fast-paced team, ranking 78th nationally in plays per game (68) and 28th in time of possession.

Carson Strong (USA Today)

THE OFFENSIVE PERSONNEL

Players to Watch:

1. Quarterback Carson Strong: The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Strong has a future as a pro and was one of the better quarterbacks in the nation last year. He finished No. 7 nationally in yards per game (317.6), No. 7 in completion percentage (70.1), No. 9 in touchdowns (27) and No. 14 in quarterback rating. Strong only threw four interceptions and was able to make a wide variety of throws, though he isn’t much of a threat in the running game. He will be one of the better quarterbacks Kansas State faces all season.

2. Receiver Romeo Doubs: At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Doubs finished No. 8 nationally in yards per game with 1,002 total receiving yards. He was tied at 12th nationally with nine receiving touchdowns and was top 25 in receptions per game, catching over six passes per game. Doubs also finished in the top 20 nationally in the number of receptions of 20 yards are more. Nevada has other nice options at receiver in Tory Horton and Melquan Stovall, but 2019 leading receiver Elijah Hooks also returns after missing 2020 with injury.

3. Tight End Cole Turner: Turner is a big target for Strong at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds. He often lines up split out as a receiver. Turner was second in the country for receptions per game from a tight end (over five per game), third nationally in yards per game from a tight end (605 total receiving yards) and third nationally (12th overall) in touchdowns. He and Doubs each had nine touchdown receptions. Nevada really likes to line him up one-on-one with a cornerback in the red zone and throw the ball up to him often against smaller defenders.

4. Running backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee: The Nevada running game isn’t the strength of their offense, but the 5-foot-9, 210-pound Taua and 5-foot-9, 235-pound Lee are a big pair of backs that give the Wolfpack a tough 1-2 punch in the backfield. Taua was top 50 nationally in yards per game when he gained 675 yards on the ground at nearly six yards per carry. He also caught 31 balls for 214 yards. Lee ran for 427 yards on 5.2 yards per carry. The Wolfpack like to use the pair together in the Wildcat formation, especially near the goal line.

5. Guard Jermaine Ledbetter: Nevada’s offensive line isn’t dominant, as the run game stats show, but a notable player is the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Ledbetter. He was once a K-State commit. The Wolfpack do average 305 pounds across their starting offensive line.

Toa Taua (USA Today)

THE DEFENSIVE NUMBERS

The Nevada defense didn’t quite match the offense’s output and effectiveness, but they were a solid unit most of the season. The Wolfpack were No. 32 in points per game allowed (23.3), No. 37 in points per drive allowed (1.98) and No. 42 in yards per game allowed (377.7).

The rushing defense finished No. 36 in yards per game allowed (138.1) and No. 42 in yards per carry allowed (3.97). The pass defense finished only No. 71 in yards per game (239.6), but No. 31 in yards per attempt (6.8) and No 37 in defensive pass efficiency.

They allowed 5.4 yards per play (No. 41), but were solid in the red zone and allowed scores just 77.4 percent of the time (No. 31) and touchdowns on 54.8 percent of red zone trips defended (No. 26).

The Wolfpack allowed over 5 plays of 20 yards or more per game, which was 76th nationally.

THE DEFENSIVE PERSONNEL

Players to Watch

1. Defensive tackle Dom Peterson: The 6-foot, 285-pound interior lineman leads the middle of the Wolfpack defensive line and earned all-Mountain West honors each of the last two seasons. Peterson led the team in sacks last year with 4.5 and was third in tackles for loss with seven.

2. Inside linebacker Lawson Hall: Hall is a plugger in the middle of the defense at 6-foot and 235 pounds. He earned an all-Mountain West selection last season while leading the Wolfpack in tackles with 65 and tackles for loss with 8.5.

3. Defensive end Sam Hammond: Hammond is 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds and was another all-Mountain West honoree for Nevada. He finished second on the team in tackles for loss with 7.5 and sacks with 4.

4. Safety Tyson Williams: He’s a smaller body at 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, but Williams finished second on the team in tackles in 2020 with 56, and that was after leading the Wolfpack in tackles in 2019 with 85. He also grabbed two interceptions last year to lead the team.

5. Cornerback Berdale Robins: Robins is another tiny player n the secondary at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, but he was their best coverage defender. He led the team in passes broken up with five last season, while recording one interception.

The Wolfpack also have three key transfers on defense in corner Isaiah Essissima from Wake Forest, defensive end Chris Whittaker from Kentucky and nickel Bentlee Sanders from South Florida.

Sam Hammond (USA Today)

SPECIAL TEAMS NOTES

Nevada’s special teams are led by their kicking units. Punter Julian Diaz helped the Wolfpack finish 15th in punting last year when he averaged 45.1 yards per punt. Kicker Brandon Talton finished 15 of 18 (83 percent) on field goals for the season.

Nevada was No. 45 in kickoff returns with 21.9 yards per return led by Jamaal Bell’s 21.8 average on 18 returns. They were No. 55 in punt returns at 8.1 yards per attempt and led by Romeo Doubs at 9.1 yards per try. Transfer Bentlee Sanders also averaged 24 yards per return while at South Florida.

Their coverage units are suspect. The Wolfpack allowed 8.9 yards per punt return, which ranked 84th nationally and they allowed 24.7 yards per kick return to rank 112th in the nation. They also allowed a score. They did block one punt last season.

FAN’S SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

The Wolfpack could provide the toughest test for Kansas State in the non-conference portion of the schedule.

The metrics are pretty mixed, with the Wolfpack ranking as high as No. 29 by Phil Steele, but they are only in the 70’s according to Bill Connelly.

The offense has plenty of weapons and perhaps a pair of players that could play on Sundays in Carson Strong and Romeo Doubs. It is a game that might come down to the fourth quarter, but I give the Wildcats the slight edge with the home field and an advantage on special teams.

PREDICTION: KANSAS STATE 38, NEVADA 34

Phillip Brooks (Getty Images)

DY’S SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

While I’m concerned about this contest, and more concerned about it than the prior two, it would be even scarier if it was the first game of the season. Kansas State is fortunate it is the third game and they have all the cob webs knocked out of the way.

They’ll need an answer for Carson Strong if he indeed is the real deal and I am actually anticipating a pretty strong defense from Nevada, to be honest. They were the weaker unit of the two a year ago, but they return some of their best players in the front seven.

While their passing offense needs to be contained, they can also be exploited through the air, defensively.

Does anyone else feel like K-State wins because of a Phillip Brooks return for a touchdown?

PREDICTION: KANSAS STATE 33, NEVADA 27



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