Jay Norvell isn’t the least bit surprised about his Nevada Wolf Pack football team’s accomplishments so far this season.
“It’s kind of what we expected,” Norvell said this week as he prepared his Wolf Pack to meet Colorado State on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPNU) at Mackay Stadium. “We expected to be bowl eligible this year, to be honest with you.”
The Wolf Pack, 5-4 overall and 3-2 in the Mountain West, needs just one victory over its final three games of the regular season to become bowl eligible. The last time the Pack was in a bowl game, it beat Colorado State, 28-23, in the inaugural 2015 Arizona Bowl in Tucson.
“It’s an important step for us,” said Norvell of a bowl game invitation. “Our seniors deserve it. Our fans deserve it.”
The Wolf Pack is riding its first two-game winning streak since Norvell took over the program a year ago. And a bowl game isn’t the only goal for the Wolf Pack over the final three games of the regular season. The Wolf Pack still has a chance for its first eight-win season since 2010 (13-1) as well as its first Mountain West division title. The Pack trails Fresno State (5-0 in league play) and San Diego State (4-1) in the West Division. Any Wolf Pack loss or any Fresno State victory over the final three games, though, will end the Pack’s division title dreams.
“We just have to keep getting better and keep it rolling this week,” Wolf Pack senior quarterback Ty Gangi said. “I’ve never been to a bowl game. This is my last chance and it would be a great way to end my career.”
Norvell is now 8-13 as Wolf Pack head coach with seven victories in his last 12 games. With victories in the final three regular season games (the Pack plays at San Jose State and UNLV the final two weeks of the year) and in a bowl game, the Wolf Pack can finish the year with a six-game winning streak. Only one other team in school history (the 2010 team won its last seven) has finished a season with a winning streak of six games or longer.
“To win eight games and possibly nine, hasn’t been done in quite a while,” Norvell said. “It would be a real accomplishment. But we also know it is realistic and not a pie in the sky goal.”
Anything short of an 8-4 regular season now would be a disappointing finish considering the Pack’s strength of schedule to complete the year. The Wolf Pack is a two-touchdown favorite in Nevada sports books this week and could also be a double-digit favorite on the road at San Jose State and UNLV. The final three Pack opponents are currently 6-21 combined.
“We have a real chance to finish strong,” Norvell said.
Going into a game as the favorite is still a unique experience for a Wolf Pack program that has gone just 45-52 since the 2010 season. The Pack, though, has gone 11-6 against Colorado State, UNLV and San Jose State since 2010.
“You have to go into every game thinking you are the underdog,” Wolf Pack wide receiver Kaleb Fossum said. “You can’t get on your high horse.”
Colorado State, which had a bye last week (as did the Pack), comes to Mackay Stadium after losing four of its last six games. At 3-6 overall and 2-3 in the Mountain Division (behind 5-0 Utah State and 4-1 Boise State), the Rams are in jeopardy of not qualifying for a bowl game and suffering through their first losing season since 2012, when they finished 4-8.
“This (Nevada) will be a big challenge for our football team,” Rams head coach Mike Bobo said. “(Nevada) is an improved football team that is playing well.”
Colorado State outlasted the Wolf Pack, 44-42, last season in Fort Collins, Colo., despite 428 yards and four touchdown passes by Gangi. The Wolf Pack led 35-28 in the third quarter and 42-38 going into the fourth quarter.
“Last year they (Nevada) played with extreme enthusiasm,“ Bobo said. “They have a lot of weapons.”
The Rams, though, are struggling to find weapons of their own this year. The Rams’ top offensive weapons against the Pack last year (quarterback Nick Stevens, running back Dalyn Dawkins and wide receiver Michael Gallup) all were seniors a year ago. Stevens was 26-of-37 for 384 yards and four touchdowns against the Pack while Dawkins rushed for 191 yards and Gallup, now a member of the Dallas Cowboys, caught 13 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns.
The Rams this season have struggled to find a consistent quarterback. K.J. Carta-Samuels, a former Washington quarterback, started the first eight games and threw for 18 touchdowns and 2,172 yards. Collin Hill, a sophomore who missed all of last year with a knee injury, has replaced Carta-Samuels. Hill passed for 333 yards (34-of-54) with no touchdowns and two interceptions two weeks ago in a 34-21 loss to Wyoming. Hill, though, did pass for 370 yards against Wyoming and 315 yards and four touchdowns against Northern Colorado before injuring his knee in 2016. He also entered a 56-28 loss to Boise State three weeks ago in the fourth quarter and completed 12-of-14 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown.
The Rams, who give up an average of 37.3 points a game, have had to throw the ball often this year, which explains their gaudy passing stats. Colorado State is 15th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams at 310.3 passing yards a game. Wide receiver Preston Williams, with 71 catches for 951 yards and eight touchdowns, has benefited the most from the Rams trying to play catch-up almost all season long. The Rams’ second-leading receiver, Bisi Johnson (43 catches, 601 yards, four scores), though, will miss the Nevada game with an ankle injury.
“They have just been inconsistent,” Norvell said. “But they are very capable of playing well.”
“They do a good job on offense,” said linebacker Malik Reed, who will be among 17 Wolf Pack seniors playing the final game of their careers at Mackay Stadium on Saturday. “They can throw it around.”
The Wolf Pack hasn’t beaten Colorado State at Mackay Stadium since a 51-6 win in 2010 when the Pack was in the Western Athletic Conference. The Rams, which won eight games in a row against Nevada from 1974-2005, have dominated the series 12-3 with seven of the victories coming when Sonny Lubick was head coach (1993-2007). The Pack is 0-3 against Colorado State in Mountain West regular season matchups.
“Even though their record doesn’t show it, they are still a good football team,” Gangi said.
Bobo hinted this week tonight’s game could turn into a high-scoring shootout, much like a year ago.
“When you play this team you have to score some points offensively,” said Bobo, who’s 24-24 in four seasons and 0-3 in bowl games as the Rams coach. “They (the Wolf Pack) know what they are doing offensively. They are going to chuck it and throw it and they still have enough run game to keep you honest.”
Colorado State has allowed 30 or more points in seven of its nine games this year. Opposing teams have run for 5.2 yards a carry and 207.6 yards a game against the Rams’ defense.
“We have not been great at tackling this year,” Bobo said.
The Wolf Pack is hoping for its first winning record in the month of November since the 2010 team was 4-0. The Pack has won its last home game of the season in each of the past three years after losing three in a row from 2012-14.
“It’s important for our seniors to have a great winning memory of their last game at Mackay,” Norvell said. “It’s hard to believe this is our seniors’ last game at Mackay. We certainly want to send them out as winners.”