It took Carson Strong just one game to engineer his first Mackay Miracle.
The freshman quarterback, making his first career start, led the Wolf Pack on an improbable comeback Friday night to stun the Purdue Boilermakers 34-31 in the season opener.
Another freshman, kicker Brandon Talton, booted a 56-yard field goal as time expired for the victory. Talton’s kick was set up by an interceptions by Pack cornerback Daniel Brown at the Nevada 49-yard line with 38 seconds to play.
Talton’s kick capped a 10-point Pack rally in the final minute. Strong found wide receiver Elijah Cooks from 20 yards out to tie the game at 31-31 with 52 seconds to play.
The Wolf Pack trailed 31-14 late in the third quarter when Strong led the Pack to two touchdowns and two field goals, becoming the first freshman quarterback in school history to beat a team from a Power Five Conference. The Pack is now 8-33 against Power Five teams since it joined Division I-A in 1992.
Strong, who hadn’t started a game since his junior year at Wood High in Vacaville, Calif., completed 30-of-51 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns. He was 20-of-34 in the second half for 231 yards and two scores as the Wolf Pack came back from a 24-7 halftime deficit.
The Pack, which has now won six of its last seven games dating back to last year, is now 21-7 in home openers since 1992.
But it took Strong and the Pack a half to shake off the rust.
The Boilermakers dominated the first half, taking a 24-7 lead at the intermission. Purdue outgained the Pack 340-99 in the opening half and had three times (15-5) as many first downs.
The difference between the two teams in the first 30 minutes was, oddly enough, the quarterbacks. Strong was just 10-of-17 for 64 yards, though he did find a wide open Dominic Christian for a 38-yard touchdown to cut the Purdue lead to just 10-7 with 4:43 to go in the half.
The Boilermakers’ offense, though, revived itself after the Wolf Pack touchdown. Purdue went 75 yards on five plays to take a 17-7
lead on a 38-yard Elijah Sindelar scoring pass to a wide open Jackson Anthrop down the left sideline with 3:15 to play in the half.
Sindelar and the Boilermakers then saved their best for last in the first half. The senior quarterback drove his teammates 99 yards in 10 plays for another score and a 24-7 lead. This time it was a 39-yard pass from Sindelar to Rondale Moore, who made an over-the-shoulder catch near the goal line.
Sindelar shredded the Pack defense in the first half, completing 21-of-28 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
The Pack defense, though, solved Sindelar in the second half. The Purdue senior was just 13-of-24 in the second half for 155 yards and one score.
Moore, who caught 114 passes for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, caught eight passes for 114 yards and one score in the first half. In the second half Moore caught just three passes for 10 yards and didn’t find the end zone.
The 5-foot-9 sophomore, though, nearly had another touchdown catch in the first quarter but Sindelar overthrew him near the goal line on what would have been a 58-yard score.
Purdue, which finished 6-7 a year ago, went 70 yards on a dozen plays on the game’s opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. Moore touched the ball on five of the first eight plays, catching four passes for 35 yards and running the ball once for four yards. Sindelar, though, went to tight end Brycen Hopkins for the touchdown on a 2-yard pass in the back of the end zone.
Strong, the first Pack freshman to start a game as a freshman since Kaymen Cureton at Washington State on Sept. 23, 2017 (a 45-7 Pack loss), started slowly. The Pack offense mustered just six total yards on its first two drives (six plays) combined. The Pack offense, though did show some life on its third drive as sophomore running back Toa Taua entered the game for the first time. Taua picked up 20 yards on his first four carries but the Pack drive stalled at the Purdue 44-yard line.
Taua also keyed the Pack’s lone touchdown drive of the half, hauling in a Strong pass for a 15-yard gain for a first down at the Purdue 41. The Pack scored four plays later on the Strong-to-Christian pass. Christian, a senior, had just six catches (no touchdowns) in his Wolf Pack career over his first three seasons, though three o f the catches came in the Pack’s 16-13 Arizona Bowl victory over Arkansas State.
The Wolf Pack defense did have a few bright moments in the first half, despite allowing 27 points and 340 yards. The Pack did force two Purdue punts, defensive tackle Dom Peterson forced a Sindelar fumble and cornerback E.J. Muhammad stole the ball from Purdue receiver Milton Wright after an 11-yard gain to the Pack 39-yard line.
The Wolf Pack sliced the Purdue lead to 24-14 midway through the third quarter thanks to a special teams turnover. A Wolf Pack punt bounced off the helmet of the Boilermakers’ Horvath and bounced toward the left sideline where it was recovered by the Pack’s Breylon Garcia at the Purdue 39-yard line with 8:17 to go in the third quarter.
It took Strong just four plays to get the Pack in the end zone. The freshman found Romeo Doubs on the left sideline for a 10-yard gain to the 26-yard line on the second play of the drive.
Two plays later Strong connected with wide receiver Elijah Cooks for a 21-yard touchdown pass near the left sideline in the end zone. Cooks caught the ball as he tumbled out of bounds for his first touchdown of the year and Strong’s second scoring pass of the game.
Cooks’ touchdown, though, did nothing to swing the momentum. It took Purdue just two plays and 30 seconds to stretch its lead back to 17 points. Sindelar covered the 75 yards on the quick-strike drive with a 26-yard pass to Brycen Hopkins and a 49-yard scoring strike to David Bell down the middle. The wide-open Bell caught the ball at about the 15-yard line and strolled into the end zone as Purdue took a 31-14 lead with 6:19 to go in the third quarter.
The Boilermakers’ special teams, though, weren’t finished giving the Pack gifts. This time it was the All American Moore, who fumbled a punt return away to the Pack’s Lucas Weber at the Purdue 14-yard line.
A pair of Strong incomplete passes and a holding penalty on the Wolf Pack, though, forced Nevada to settle for a 34-yard field goal by Talton with 3:21 to play in the third quarter, cutting Purdue’s lead to 31-17.
The Wolf Pack then made things extremely interesting midway through the fourth quarter. Strong engineered a 12-play, 74-yard drive to cut the Purdue lead to just 31-24 with 6:56 to play.
Strong completed four passes on the drive for 48 yards and also overcame two false start penalties on the Pack. One of Strong’s completions went to wide receiver Ben Putman for a 19-yard gain to the Wolf Pack 46.
The Pack kept it on the ground for its final 28 yards of the drive. Kelton Moore picked up five yards on first-and-20 from the 28 and Taua gained six on second down. Strong then scrambled for 10 for a first down at the 7-yard line. From there it was Taua doing the honors, scoring his first touchdown of the year and cutting the Purdue lead to just a touchdown.
The Wolf Pack offense generated 29 first downs to finish with 34 for the game. Purdue outgained the Pack for the game, 519-404.
The Wolf Pack is now 2-4 against Big Ten teams. They have also lost to current Big 10 teams Maryland and Nebraska but neither was in the conference when the Pack played them.
This is the Pack’s first win over a Big 10 team since it beat Northwestern 31-21 at Mackay Stadium in 2006. It is also its first win over a Power Five team since senior quarterback Ty Gangi engineered a 37-35 win over Oregon State last year at Mackay.
The Wolf Pack will take on another Power Five opponent next Saturday when it travels to Oregon to meet the No. 11-ranked Ducks.