The Washington State Cougars are what the Nevada Wolf Pack wants to be when it grows up.
“They are an example of a mature program that has had players for three or four years and trained them up,” Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell said this week “That’s what we’re working for.”
The winless (0-3) Wolf Pack will head to Pullman, Wash., to take on the undefeated (3-0) No. 18 Cougars on Saturday (3 p.m.) at Martin Stadium. It will be just the fourth meeting between the two schools and the Pack’s first-ever visit to Pullman. The Cougars beat the Wolf Pack 31-7 in Seattle in 2002 and 55-21 in Reno in 2005 before losing to the Pack 24-13 in Reno in 2014.
“There’s going to be a lot of excitement,” Wolf Pack cornerback Vosean Crumbie said. “I know their fans will be crazy.”
This weekend will not be the first time Norvell has competed against Cougars’ head coach Mike Leach.
“I feel like I know him (Leach) way better than I actually do personally because I’ve watched his football teams for almost two decades,” Norvell said. “We’re very familiar with what they do.”
Both the Wolf Pack and Cougars run a variation of the Air Raid offense that was developed by Hal Mumme in the 1990s. Leach coached under Mumme at Valdosta State, Iowa Wesleyan and Kentucky from 1989-98. Leach was also the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when Hal’s son Matt, now the Wolf Pack offensive coordinator, was one of Kentucky’s backup quarterbacks in 1997.
“I tease him (Matt Mumme) all the time, ‘We‘re playing your uncle Mike this weekend,’” Norvell said. “Matt spent a lot of nights with Leach sitting on his coach telling stories.”
Norvell was an assistant coach at Oklahoma and Nebraska and went up against Leach’s teams at Texas Tech four times (2004, 2005 at Nebraska and 2008, 2009 at Oklahoma), winning just once. Two of Leach’s assistants at Washington State — running backs coach Jim Mastro and linebackers coach Ken Wilson — are also former long-time Wolf Pack assistants.
“I know him,” Norvell said. “I can’t say I know Mike well. He was at Oklahoma (1999) before I got there (2008-14). But when I was at Oklahoma he would come up to Norman (Okla.) and visit and we’d all hang out. But I certainly don’t know him like Matt does.”
The Wolf Pack has faced Leach-coached teams twice before, losing to Texas Tech in 2008 (35-19) and beating Washington State in 2014 (24-13).
“This is a really big challenge for us,” Norvell said. “They have skill players that will really challenge you.”
The Wolf Pack has allowed 30 or more points in its first three games. The only other time that has happened in Wolf Pack history was in 2009, when the Pack also started 0-3. No Wolf Pack team has ever allowed 30 or more points in its first four games. Washington State is averaging 43 points a game this year after beating Montana State (31-0), Boise State (47-44 in triple overtime) and Oregon State (52-23). The Cougars scored 30 or more points in eight of 13 games last year.
One of the biggest differences between the two teams on Saturday will be the experience of the two starting quarterbacks. Washington State will be led by quarterback Luke Falk, a senior who has passed for 11,793 yards and 98 touchdowns in his career. Wolf Pack quarterback Kaymen Cureton, a freshman, made his first career start a week ago in a 30-28 loss to Idaho State, completing 19-of-33 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s definitely a NFL talent,” said Crumbie of Falk. “He’s got a big arm and makes quick decisions.”
“He’s smart and accurate,” Norvell said. “Very calm in the pocket. They don’t do a lot but they are very good at what they do.”
Falk did not throw a pass as a freshman against the Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium in 2014 but he has faced current Wolf Pack defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel before. Falk completed 47-of-62 passes for 514 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-42 Cougars’ victory over Arizona in 2015 when Casteel was the Wildcats defensive coordinator.
“He (Falk) gets it around to the skill guys and lets them make plays,” Wolf Pack defensive end Malik Reed said. “We’re emphasizing this week to put pressure on the quarterback.”
Norvell also wants his secondary to show vast improvement.
“I challenged our secondary to take ownership of our defense and to take pride in keeping people from catching the ball,” Norvell said.
The Wolf Pack secondary has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 66-of-103 passes for 853 yards and six touchdowns this season in three games. The Wolf Pack is 11th in the 12-team Mountain West, allowing 284.3 passing yards a game.
“This will definitely be our toughest challenge so far,” Crumbie said. “But our secondary is ready to take the challenge and cover guys up.”
“It’s just been a lot of little things,” Wolf Pack safety Asauni Rufus said. “But it’s nothing that can’t be cleaned up.”
Rufus said the Wolf Pack secondary needs to come together this week. Falk has already passed for 900 yards and nine touchdowns this year. Washington State backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski has also passed for 325 yards and three touchdowns and led the Cougars to their overtime victory over Boise State.
“He’s (Falk) very comfortable in that offense,” Rufus said. “He can exploit a defense that doesn’t know what it is doing.”
Norvell is confident his young quarterback can also exploit defenses. Cureton started slowly against Idaho State but he finished strong, completing 8-of-10 passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“He did a lot of good things for his first start,” Norvell said. “We were much better on third down (8-of-17) and he moved our team in the fourth quarter.”
The Wolf Pack, which is hoping to avoid its first 0-4 start since 1999, is the only Mountain West team without a victory so far this season.
“Losing three times is motivation enough,” Crumbie said. “Last week (the loss to Idaho State) was a tough pill to swallow. But we have to swallow it and get past it.”
The last time the Wolf Pack met Washington State on the road (a 31-7 loss in Seattle in 2002) was also the last time the Pack met the Cougars when Washington State was nationally ranked (11th). The Pack has not beaten a team ranked in the Top 25 since it beat Boise State 34-31 in Reno in 2010.
“We’re just trying to rally around each other and keep pushing forward,” Reed said. “The games we lost are over now. All we can do is move forward.”