Players to watch#6 QB Joe Gray or # 14 QB Blake Jurich
San Jose State head coach Ron Caragher announced early this week that he would be benching senior Blake Jurich in favor of junior Joe Gray. Jurich has started all three games of for the Spartans up to this point and has played well, but he's perhaps made a few too many mistakes, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble in last week's game at Minnesota. He's passed for 629 yards on 52-of-81 for 5 touchdowns and 4 interceptions so far this season.
Gray is a bit of an unknown for the Wolf Pack as he was buried on the depth chart behind star quarterback David Fales, his first three seasons in San Jose. He came out of high school as a 3-star quarterback prospect after two seasons as a starter at Los Angeles' Dorsey High School, passing for 5,022 yards and 49 touchdowns in 2009 and 2010. Gray is more of a pocket passer than Jurich, so the Spartans will likely utilize a more traditional rushing attack with handoffs to the halfback.
Of course, Caragher could've been practicing a bit of gamesmanship and could start Jurich instead, but Nevada head coach Brian Polian has said they have prepared for both this week.
#15 WR Tyler Winston
The Spartan's will utilize Winston all over the formation, they will motion him around and like to throw wide receiver screens to him. The Wolf Pack defense will need to account for him, where ever he is on the field. Winston is by far San Jose's leading receiver so far and is tied for fourth in receptions in the Mountain West Conference with 24 receptions for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns. Last season he was the second leading receiver and caught 58 passes for 858 yards and 5 touchdowns. Last season against Nevada, Wilson caught 5 passes for 25 yards. It's likely Nevada's best cover corner, Charles Garrett will be tasked with covering Winston, but given how much they move him around, that task could fall to several players.
#21 HB Jarrod Lawson
Lawson sat out the first two games of this season serving a suspension for violation of team rules. His first game back was against Big Ten opponent Minnesota where he rushed for 56 yards on 18 carries. He was the Spartans leading rusher on a pass heavy team last season, rushing for 788 yards on 164 carries (4.8 ypc) and 4 touchdowns. Nevada largely bottled him up last season in the Wolf Pack's 38-16 home win. It was far and away Nevada's best defensive performance last season as they held the Spartan's to 58 yards rushing on 30 carries (1.93 ypc).
#3 DT Travis Raciti and #98 DT Tony Popovich
Team captain Raciti is coming off a career high 6 tackles against Minnesota. That's partly because of the Gopher's heavy game plan emphasis on running the ball but Raciti is a veteran defensive lineman, SJSU's most experienced player (36 career starts), with 135 tackles and 11.5 career sacks. Nevada will need to account for him. His teammate in the defensive interior is a very active and disruptive player, Tony Popovich. Popovich has played in 22 games in his career at SJSU and has 22 tackles and 2 sacks in his career.
#7 WR Tyler Ervin
Ervin, a running bak turned wide receiver, is a very dangerous punt returner, averaging 36.5 yards per return and he's already returned one punt for a touchdown this season. Nevada's punting game has been a little shaky thus far this season so the Wolf Pack would be wise to kick away from Mr. Ervin.
Keys to the game
Shake off this week's distractionsThe Wolf Pack are coming off a bye week where the smoke from the wildfire in California forced them cancel one practice, move two to gymnasiums, and leave Reno a day or two early to practice down at UC Davis, near Sacramento, and at the 49er's facilities in Santa Clara. The routines that the coaches have established for game preparation have been severely disrupted. Football is very much a mental game and the Wolf Pack players will need to display a great deal of maturity in shaking off this past week and getting down to the business of winning a football game.
Take what the defense gives youNevada should be able to establish the run here as the Spartans are giving up 285 yards per game and 6.1 yards per carry, but it's important to remember those numbers are skewed by monster games from playing at last season's national runner-up Auburn (358 yards) and Big Ten Minnesota (380 yards). The Spartans were stacking the box against the Gophers and they were still able to pile up a ton of yards on the ground, but that was behind a Big Ten offensive line. Nevada's has yet to show it can establish that kind of dominance of the line of scrimmage yet. So yes, the Wolf Pack should seek to establish the run, but they shouldn't beat their heads against 8 and 9 man fronts if the passing game is there. Cody Fajardo and Nevada's trio of receivers are more than capable of winning the game through the air if that's what's needed.
Stop the run!This will be an ongoing mantra this season and don't be surprised if it's a key to the game every week. Nevada's defense looks much improved but they are still looking vulnerable to the run. Last season, at home, the Wolf Pack dominated the line of scrimmage on their way to a rout of the Spartans, holding them to 58 yards on 30 carries. Over the last 3 years, San Jose State is 10-2 when they rush for more than 150 yards. Nevada's chances of winning would go up significantly if they put in a performance like they did last season.
Red Zone EfficiencyNevada is tied for 1st in the nation for offensive red zone efficiency, they are ranked 2nd in defensive red zone efficiency. That's a big part of the reason the Wolf Pack are 2-1 this season, staying in the top 20 nationally in those two categories will win Nevada a lot of games. The emergence of TE Jared Gipson as a legitimate red zone receiving target is a welcome sign for the Wolf Pack.
3rd down efficiencyAgain, Nevada is one of the top teams in the country on both sides of the ball in this category, tied for 19th in offensive 3rd down efficiency and sitting at 44th on defense. The defense should get a boost this week with the return of three starters, SS Duran Workman (injury), DT Rykeem Yates (suspension) and CB Evan Favors (family).
Neil Henderson can be reached via Twitter.