Jay Norvell is going to find out just how tough his Nevada Wolf Pack football team truly is Saturday in San Diego.
“It’s going to be a physical game,” said Norvell of the Wolf Pack’s Mountain West contest against the San Diego State Aztecs. “This will be a good measuring stick for our physicality.”
The Aztecs, 8-2 overall and 4-2 in the Mountain West, won the Mountain West championship the past two years and three (2012, 2015, 2016) of the last five with a stingy, physical defense and aggressive running game on offense.
“To be a top team in this league you have to be physical,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack is 2-8, 2-4. “I’m excited to see how physical our football team can be against a quality Mountain West football team.”
The Aztecs came to Mackay Stadium a year ago and beat the Wolf Pack 46-16, rushing for a school-record 474 yards and piling up 620 yards of offense. The Aztecs beat the Wolf Pack 31-14 two years ago in San Diego, rushing for 320 yards.
“Coach (Rocky) Long, he just has that old style,” Wolf Pack offensive tackle Austin Corbett said. “He just knows it is going to be battle on every single play. You just come out (of games against the Aztecs) feeling a little beat up.”
Both the Aztecs and Wolf Pack are coming off impressive victories over San Jose State. The Pack whipped the Spartans 59-14 last week in Reno while the Aztecs, who had last week off, beat San Jose State 52-7 two weeks ago in northern California.
“We’ll see how we come off the bye week,” Long said. “Our concern is how sharp we’ll be, especially at the beginning of the game.”
The Wolf Pack knows its season will come to an end after playing San Diego State and hosting UNLV on Nov. 25 at home. The Aztecs, though, are going to a bowl game and still have a chance to win the West Division and go to the conference title game. In order to win the division the Aztecs, which lost to Fresno State 27-3 last month, need to beat the Wolf Pack on Saturday and New Mexico on Nov. 24 and also need Fresno State (7-3, 5-1) to lose to Wyoming and Boise State. Fresno State, though, could clinch the West title by beating Wyoming on Saturday afternoon, long before the Aztecs and Wolf Pack take the field.
“I don’t want our players to worry about that,” Long said. “The only thing I want our players to worry about is this game.”
“That game (Fresno State at Wyoming), no matter what happens, won’t affect how we play,” Aztecs tight end David Wells said.
The Aztecs have won two games in a row (over Hawaii, 28-7, San Jose State, 52-7) since losing two in a row to Boise State (31-14) and Fresno State.
“After those two losses we more or less looked at ourselves in the mirror and tried to figure out how we’ve been the physical team we’ve been known to be,” Aztecs safety Parker Baldwin said.
The only thing that seems to change around Long’s teams is the name of the Aztecs’ stadium. The former San Diego Stadium, Jack Murphy Stadium and Qualcomm Stadium was renamed this year as San Diego County Credit Union (SDCCU) Stadium. The Aztecs’ run-based offense and aggressive defense is still the same.
San Diego State’s defense leads the Mountain West in fewest yards allowed (294.5 a game) and is third in fewest points allowed (18.8). The Aztecs’ offense is second in the conference in rushing at 247.3 yards a game. San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny is second in the nation in rushing yards with 1,602 behind only Stanford’s Bryce Love (1,622).
“They like to run the ball on offense,” Norvell said. “There’s no secret to what you are going to get when you play San Diego State. They are going to live and die with their running game and they are going to feed (Penny).
“They really don’t care what you play on defense. They’re going to run the ball regardless. That‘s the personality of their head coach. That’s not going to change.”
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Penny has played three games against the Wolf Pack, running for 250 yards on just 17 carries as Donnel Pumphrey’s backup the past three seasons (2014-16). He had 208 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Pack.
“Is he not one of the best three or four running backs in the country?” Long said. “He is. Obviously he is, no matter who we play. He ran as well against Stanford (175 yards) and Arizona State (216) this year as well as he’s run against anybody else we’ve played.”
Penny didn’t fare as well against Boise State (53 yards on 21 carries) or Fresno State (69 yards on 15 carries) and the Aztecs lost both times. Those are the only two games Penny hasn’t rushed for at least 100 yards this season.
“We win the game when he has a good game,” Long said. “If we play well he’s going to get his yards.”
The Wolf Pack has lost six of its last seven games against San Diego State and trails in the series 6-3. The Wolf Pack, though, beat San Diego State 30-14 at Mackay Stadium in 2014 and nearly beat the Aztecs in 2012 (losing 39-38 in Reno) and 2013 (losing 51-44 in San Diego). Both the 2012 and 2013 games went to overtime.
“This week we play a very explosive offensive team,” said Long of the Pack. “That’s not our style. I hope it doesn’t get into a scoring contest because that’s not our style.”
The Pack is 1-4 against the Aztecs on the road and hasn’t won in San Diego since 1946 when the Aztecs played at the Aztec Bowl on campus.
“This is big for us because it is against a very good opponent on the road,” said Norvell, who is still looking for his first road victory (0-5) as the Pack’s head coach.
The Wolf Pack might be getting the Aztecs at the right time. San Diego State has lost three consecutive Mountain West games in a row at home, dating back to last year. The Aztecs lost to Colorado State to wrap up its home league schedule last year and lost its only two home Mountain West games this year (Boise State, Fresno State). The Aztecs were 18-2 at home under Long from 2012-16.
“It would be a real special thing for us to finish the season strong,” Norvell said. “We don’t want to limp to the finish line. We want to sprint through the finish line.”
The Wolf Pack is hoping to win its final three games of the season for the first time since the 2010 team won its final seven. The only other Wolf Pack seasons that ended with at least three victories in a row since the program made the jump to Division I-A in 1992 were 2005 (five in a row) and 1996 (five).
“We want to be a team of the caliber of San Diego State,” Pack defensive lineman Korey Rush said. “To go down there and get a win would be huge. We have a lot to prove at San Diego State.”