Nevada’s whirlwind month as vagabonds ended with a very satisfying win.
Carson Strong threw for 312 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Wolf Pack to a 22-17 victory over California on Saturday night in the season opener for both teams.
Nevada has been forced to adapt because of smoke from wildfires that made it impossible to practice outdoors on campus. That forced the Wolf Pack to travel nearly 2,000 miles and practice on basketball courts, conventions centers and even a hotel parking garage.
“What we’ve had to go through this last month just to prepare to play was something — seven different fields we practiced on, we traveled 1,953 miles to be exact to different places to practice,” coach Jay Norvell said. “We never cheated the kids on their preparation. We did everything we needed to do to get ready for this game. We didn’t cut any corners. Boy did they respond.”
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Strong connected on TDs to Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks for a happy homecoming to Northern California.
Strong grew up about an hour away from Memorial Stadium, attending Cal games and camps. But after a knee injury his senior year in high school in Vacaville the Bears didn’t recruit him and he has turned into a star at Nevada.
“I always want to win no matter what but this one is pretty sweet,” Strong said. “This is probably my favorite one.”
Cal scored TDs on its first two drives but then stalled, going three-and-out on the next four drives. While the Bears couldn’t move the ball, Nevada scored 22 straight points.
The Wolf Pack cut the deficit to 14-13 at the half on a pair of field goals from Brandon Talton and Strong’s 43-yard TD pass to Dobbs.
Strong then put together an impressive drive to open the second half to give the Wolf Pack the lead for good. He completed a 17-yard pass to Cole Turner on third and 17, a 46-yarder to Tory Horton on third-and-9 and then a 16-yard TD to Cooks on the next play to make it 19-14.
“He’s just a super competitor,” Norvell said of his quarterback. “He was amazing tonight, just his will and his aggressiveness to wanting to go after these guys and stay on them. I just appreciate him so much in that regard.”
Cal then got into the red zone on the next two drives. But the Bears settled for a short field goal Dario Longhetto on the first and came up empty the next trip after Chase Garbers was sacked on third down from the 9 and Longhetto missed a 40-yard field goal.
“It’s very frustrating as an offense,” Garbers said. “Once you’re in the red zone, you want to socre touchdowns. Obviously we didn’t do that. We didn’t play well on third down today. That cost us in the end.”
Nevada: The Wolf Pack came into the season with high hopes, getting picked to win the West Division of the Mountain West thanks in part to an experienced offense that returned all 11 starters. Beginning the season with a road win against a Power 5 team only raises those expectations.
California: The Bears had been 9-0 in regular-season nonconference games under coach Justin Wilcox before stumbling in this game. Garbers struggled to move the team, throwing for just 177 yards on 38 attempts. He also threw an interception late in the fourth quarter.
Wilcox made a questionable decision that helped Nevada get a 49-yard field goal to make it 22-14. He declined a holding penalty following an incomplete pass on third-and-18 from the 32, which allowed Talton a chance to make the kick.
“He made the kick so it’s the wrong decision,” Wilcox said. “Or maybe it’s still the right decision because we don’t know if the next play is a fade and a PI… I made the best judgement at the time.”
Nevada: Host Idaho State on Saturday.
California: Visits TCU on Saturday.