The Colorado State football team will be traveling to Nevada to face the Wolfpack (3-2, 1-1) this Saturday in a game that will be full of conference championship implications. Both the Rams and the Wolfpack are front-runners in the Mountain West conference, so a victory in this game is critical for both teams.
Collegian Sports Reporters Emmett McCarthy and Steven Jacobs discuss what key offensive and defensive matchups will help determine the victor in Saturday’s matchup:
CSU WR Rashard Higgins vs. Nevada secondary
Rashard Higgins caught four touchdowns passes against Tulsa to set a new CSU single-game record. The true sophomore poses a distinct challenge for a Nevada secondary that has allowed a poor 302.6 passing yards per game. However, that number is deceiving and comes from having played high-powered passing offenses such as Washington State who registered 389 passing yards. The Wolfpack’s secondary has been stingy near the end zone with as many interceptions on the season as touchdowns allowed (seven each). Nevada’s defensive backs have their work cut out for them, but if they can limit Higgins, it will hinder CSU’s passing game. If not, the Wolfpack could be in for a long night.
CSU QB Garrett Grayson vs. Nevada third down defense
CSU’s quarterback has looked sharp in his senior campaign, particularly on third down where Garrett Grayson has completed an outstanding 65.9 percent of his passes. The Rams rank 10th in the nation with a 50 percent third down conversion rate. On third downs of seven yards or greater, Grayson has converted 14 of 25 attempts with only one of those completions coming up short of the markers. In Nevada’s three wins, they have gotten stops on third down 69.6 percent of the time. In their two losses they have forced a punt just 10 out of 25 tries. The Wolfpack will have a tough time if they can not prevent the Rams from moving the chains.
CSU running backs vs. Nevada front seven
The three-headed monster in CSU’s backfield has combined to run for 888 yards and nine touchdowns with each back averaging at least six yards per carry. They might be a bit dinged up, though, as Dee Hart and Jasen Oden suffered minor injuries against Tulsa, and Treyous Jarrells sat out after being hurt against Boston College the week before. Nevada has allowed 163.4 rushing yards per game, but if you exclude the pass-heavy Washington State team that ran the ball just 18 times, that figure grows to 207.7 against FBS teams. Nevada’s front seven will have to do better against the Rams, who rank among the top-50 nationally in rushing.
CSU D-line vs. Nevada O-Line
Redshirt junior Joe Kawulok had three-and-a-half sacks last week against Tulsa, but Nevada boasts an offensive line that even CSU head coach Jim McElwain said would be difficult to square up against. The Wolfpack’s running game, currently ranked 50th in the nation (182.8 yards-per-game), has been carried along by the offensive line and senior quarterback Cody Fajardo has been able to feed off of his aggressive line, rushing for 317 yards and five touchdowns on 65 attempts. It will be critical for the Rams to be able to at least partly contain Fajardo and the running game, and if Kawulok and the defenders can get a few sacks, that will certainly help, too.
CSU Linebackers vs. Nevada QB Cody Fajardo
The Wolfpack goes wherever Fajardo goes. In Nevada’s three wins, Fajardo beat the defenses with his legs, not his arm. In a 24-13 win over Washington State, Fajardo passed for 110 yards but also ran for 110 yards. In a close 51-46 loss to Boise State, Fajardo passed for 306 and ran for 71. Rams’ linebacker Max Morgan and the rest of the linebacker corps see the trend; keep Fajardo from getting explosive runs and your chances of winning are better. If Fajardo takes the ball himself a lot, it could spell disaster for the Rams defensive front and linebackers.
CSU defensive backs vs Nevada receivers
Fajardo is undoubtedly a good passer, but he doesn’t have a Rashard Higgins to pass to. Surprisingly, the top two Nevada receivers have the same amount of catches (25) and touchdowns (1), which is good and bad. Good, because the defense knows they aren’t facing someone who hauls in eight catches a game, but bad because the defense doesn’t have a clear favorite target that Fajardo will want to go to. Safeties Trent Matthews and Kevin Pierre-Louis have done well so far this season alongside corners Bernard Blake and DeAndre Elliot. Although the Rams win this particular matchup, it will be interesting to see what Fajardo can do to put his receivers in a position to make plays.
Collegian Sports Reporters Steven Jacobs and Emmett McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @steven_jacobs_ and @emccarthy22.