Grading the Pack: Defense struggles against No. 6 USC

Defensive back Ezkiel Robbins (13) of Nevada takes aim on USC tight end Lake McRee (87) in Saturday’s collegiate game between the Wolf Pack and Trojans at the Los Angeles Coliseum. USC defeated the Pack 66-14.

Defensive back Ezkiel Robbins (13) of Nevada takes aim on USC tight end Lake McRee (87) in Saturday’s collegiate game between the Wolf Pack and Trojans at the Los Angeles Coliseum. USC defeated the Pack 66-14.

Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack football team’s 66-14 loss to the USC Trojans on Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum . . .


Wolf Pack quarterbacks Brendon Lewis and A.J. Bianco were a combined 22-of-34 for 311 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Those types of numbers in the passing game will keep the Pack in a lot of games this year. Yes, the bulk of those yards (209) came on just four plays but it was encouraging to see the Pack become explosive through the air. Lewis found Spencer Curtis for 73 yards on the Pack’s second play (his first throw) of the game. He also found an open Sean Dollars for 26 in the second quarter. Bianco, a redshirt freshman, connected with Jamaal Bell on a 77-yard touchdown on his very first collegiate pass. He also found John Jackson III for a 33-yard gain. It was good to see the Pack being aggressive through the air when USC got lazy. Lewis, a former Colorado quarterback, started and performed as expected. He played with a toughness and composure even when things around him were crumbling. He did show a tendency to drop the ball (twice). His afternoon ended, in fact, after he fumbled the ball away for a USC touchdown after a sack. But he showed flashes of productivity, completing 18-of-29 for 182 yards. Expect those numbers to improve when he isn’t under a constant pass rush by one of the most athletic defenses in the country. He will also look like a much better runner when he isn’t being chased by USC track stars. Bianco showed why he won the No. 2 role over a more experienced Shane Illingworth. The Honolulu high school graduate was 4-of-5 for 129 yards in the fourth quarter against USC’s reserves.


The three running backs (Sean Dollars, Ashton Hayes and Cross Patton) combined for 59 yards on 26 carries. But don’t let the uninspiring numbers fool you. Dollars and Hayes showed promise and the potential to give the Pack production out of the backfield this year. Dollars, a former Oregon back, had 33 yards on nine carries and also caught three passes for 35 more yards. It’s not a stretch to see him with 100-plus yards rushing and receiving against the less intimidating foes on the schedule this year. He had a dozen yards on three carries, including a 3-yard touchdown, on the Pack’s opening drive. He also had a run of 11 yards and caught a 26-yard pass. Hayes had just 15 yards on nine carries and lost three yards when he was buried by the USC defense on a 3rd-and-1 play late in the first quarter. But he also had runs of eight and six yards and looks like a nice complementary back behind Dollars. The 5-foot-6, 155-pound Patton, another former Oregon back, had 11 yards on eight painful carries on the Pack’s final three drives and will likely serve as a seldom-used gadget player this year.


Jamaal Bell, a holdover from the Jay Norvell era, just might be ready to join the ranks of the most productive receivers in the Mountain West. He was probably ready last year but the passing offense was a hit-and-miss (mostly miss) affair and the new Pack coaches seemed determined to use the new receivers they brought to the team instead. Bell is the best Pack receiver and has been ever since he was the last man standing after Norvell gutted the roster just before the Quick Lane Bowl after the 2021 regular season. Bell was one of the few Pack players who looked like he belonged on the same field with the athletic Trojans. His 77-yard touchdown catch from Bianco was the Pack highlight of the dismal day. Bell caught a career-best eight passes for 121 yards. Spencer Curtis caught three passes for 83 yards (73 on one catch) and also needs to be utilized more this year. John Jackson III, a former USC receiver, caught three passes for 52 yards against the USC reserves he used to practice against.


The Wolf Pack quarterbacks and running backs seemed to be in a sea of Trojan maroon the entire afternoon. The Pack allowed five sacks and 15 of the 26 carries by Dollars, Hayes and Patton went for two or fewer yards. The Pack offensive front was basically overwhelmed all game long. Frank Poso was called for a false start (we don’t blame him for being a bit jumpy) and Isaiah World was flagged for a personal foul. But this was against the most athletic and quickest defense the Pack will see this year. It’s not time for Pack panic. Yet.


The entire Pack defense was outclassed and overwhelmed and it started up front. Nobody on the front had a tackle or a quarterback hurry. Yes, there were times when somebody in blue and white broke through the offensive line and made USC quarterback Caleb Williams leisurely stroll to some open piece of turf. But that usually resulted in Williams finding a receiver (or two or three) wide open downfield or in the end zone. The Trojans averaged 10.8 yards rushing on each of their 20 carries and 13 yards on every pass and 18 on every completion. It’s easy to function as an offense, after all, when the defense is invisible.


Drue Watts knocked away a pass and picked up a loose ball after a snap bounced off Williams’ shin. But Watts, who needs to be a tackle machine this year for the Pack defense to function properly, had just one tackle. For the most part the Pack linebackers were usually only seen chasing a USC receiver down the field. Tongiaki Mateialona (he was previously known as Naki) was active with six tackles and had the Pack’s lone sack and a forced fumble. Douglas High graduate Chris Smalley dropped USC backup back Darwin Barlow for a 3-yard loss in the fourth quarter. Davion Blackwell also hustled his way to five tackles and a roughing-the-pass penalty. But there’s a reason why some players get five and six-figure NIL deals and other players end up in the Mountain West. We saw the difference on Saturday.


This wasn’t pretty. The Trojan quarterbacks (Williams played just three quarters) combined to complete 25-of-34 passes for 453 yards and six touchdowns. The biggest challenge for Williams and backup Miller Moss was picking out which open receiver to throw the ball to and make happy. A total of 14 USC players caught at least one pass and none of them caught more than four. A dozen of them had at least one catch for at least 10 yards. The Pack secondary, like almost every secondary in the nation, had no chance of ever keeping up with the speedy USC receivers. The vision of the backs of Pack defenders chasing USC receivers will be a Pack nightmare for a long time.


The special teams had nothing to do with this loss. Brandon Talton missed two field goal attempts but they were both from 54 yards out. But give the Pack credit for keeping USC freshman Zachariah Branch out of the end zone on his two kickoff returns and one punt return. Branch returned his punt just 12 yards and his kickoffs for just 18 and 11 yards and didn’t look anything like the bolt of lightning that torched San Jose State a week earlier on a 96-yard kickoff return. Another USC kickoff return netted just 13 yards. It must be noted the Pack also did almost nothing on its returns (when they weren’t calling for a fair catch on kickoffs, that is). But it’s difficult to run away from speedy USC special teamers trying to impress their coaches. Matt Freem was solid, averaging 40.7 yards on his six punts. He also planted one at the USC 1-yard line.


The Pack came out ready to play, scoring a touchdown on its first drive and forcing USC to punt on its second drive. The score was still 7-7 with under six minutes to play in the first quarter. Take that, 38-point point spread. But then the southern California earth opened up and swallowed the Pack and there was nothing any coach in America could do except dream about a wonderful day when USC wasn’t standing on the other sideline. USC scored 45 points in a row to take a 52-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. It was as if the Pack wasn’t even on the field for two quarters. But this was not a coaching loss. This was a NIL loss. There are USC players who will earn more money during their college careers than Ken Wilson (who makes seven figures a year) will take home from Nevada as head coach. What you saw on Saturday was what should have happened. USC paid for it to happen, including giving the Pack roughly $1.5 million to serve as the foil in a glorified 7-on-7 drill. The best thing Wilson did was to keep Lewis in the game for three quarters. The Pack, after all, desperately needs stability at the quarterback position. It would have been easy for Wilson to lift Lewis for Bianco at halftime with the Pack down 35-7. But that would have only served to put doubt in everyone’s mind about the position once again. There’s was never any doubt as to which team was going to lose this game. Wilson made sure the Pack also didn’t lose its starting quarterback, too.


Hey, the new uniforms looked nice. The rest of the afternoon, though, was a bit depressing for Pack football. USC was simply playing an entirely different game. That’s what money has done to college football. It’s clearly separated the haves from the have-nots. There really wasn’t even any moral victories for the Pack to take home from this ugly affair. Yes, the touchdown to Bell looked pretty. But that was just USC falling asleep. And, yes, the Pack offense, at least on paper, moved the ball a little. There were 360 total Pack yards. But the Pack offense basically evaporated after the first drive and all but disappeared. The Pack had just 12 first downs to go with those 360 window-dressing yards. USC’s offense had 668 total yards, 28 first downs and eight touchdowns. It’s defense also scored a touchdown. Keep in mind the Trojan offense was on the field for just 24 minutes and 54 plays. The last time the Pack was at the Coliseum it lost 66-0 with leather helmets in 1929. This time it was 66-14. The loss on Saturday was the Pack’s most one-sided defeat in a season opener since the program’s first game, a 70-0 loss to Belmont in 1896. The Pack has now equaled its longest losing streak (11 games) in program history, joining the 1963 (last two games) and 1964 teams (first nine games). The Division I-AA Idaho Vandals are coming to Mackay Stadium this Saturday at just the right time.


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