The Nevada Wolf Pack could now use a little Mackay Magic.
“We’re undefeated at home,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said this week, reminding everyone of the Pack’s 2-0 record at Mackay Stadium this season.
The Wolf Pack’s unblemished home record this season will be put to the test four times over the next five games beginning Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPNU) when the Fresno State Bulldogs invade Mackay. The Pack has won four of its last seven games against Fresno State in Mackay Stadium dating back to 2005.
“We’re looking forward to coming back to Mackay,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack (3-2, 1-0) lost at Toledo (63-44) and won at Air Force (28-25) over the past two weeks. “We’ve placed a huge emphasis on playing great at home.”
The Wolf Pack has beaten Portland State (72-19) and Oregon State (37-35) at home this season. The victory over Oregon State came down to a missed 34-yard field goal attempt by Oregon State on the final play of the game.
“I hope a lot of people come out (on Saturday),” Wolf Pack wide receiver Kaleb Fossum said. “It’s going to be a show.”
The Wolf Pack will bring a four-game home winning streak into the pivotal West Division matchup. The Wolf Pack has also won eight of its past 12 home Mountain West games. One of those eight victories was a 27-22 decision over Fresno State in 2016, the last time the Bulldogs came to Northern Nevada.
“It’s a blessing to have them at home and have that home field advantage,” Fossum said.
The Wolf Pack is averaging just 18,994 fans at home this season and hasn’t had a crowd of more than 25,000 since 29,551 showed up to see UNLV in 2015.
“We really want to invite everybody to come out to Mackay,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack will host Fresno State, Boise State (Oct. 13), San Diego State (Oct. 27) and Colorado State (Nov. 10) at Mackay over the next month. “We’ve been eye-balling the middle of this schedule for a long time. We want everybody to come out and make this place a hornet’s nest. And once they get here we’re going to lock the gates.”
The team that emerges with a victory will take a big step toward a West Division title. Fresno State, which won the division championship last year with a 7-1 league record (10-4 overall) is 3-1 overall and has yet to play a Mountain West game. Hawaii, 2-0 in league play (5-1 overall), currently leads the division.
“They (Fresno State) are (the best team in the division) right now,” Norvell said. “They are playing at a very high level. We want to be the team that represents our division (in the conference championship game). We have to beat this team.”
The Bulldogs and Wolf Pack are much different programs since the last time the two teams met at Mackay Stadium in 2016. The biggest change was in the leadership of the two programs. Fresno State went from Tim DeRuyter to Jeff Tedford at head coach while the Pack switched from Brian Polian to Norvell.
There seem to be many similarities between Norvell and Tedford. Norvell is 54 years old while Tedford is 56. Both are former NFL assistant coaches, Tedford at Tampa Bay and Norvell at Oakland and Indianapolis. Both are former offensive coordinators, Tedford at Oregon and Fresno State and Norvell at Oklahoma, UCLA and Nebraska. Both were hired at their current schools a month apart in late 2016.
The biggest difference between the two coaches is Tedford had 11 seasons as a head coach on his resume at California when he took over the Bulldogs last year. Norvell was a rookie head coach a year ago when he took over the Pack. Tedford beat Norvell 41-21 last season in Fresno in their first meeting as head coaches.
“We have to win this game for us to stay on track with our goals,” Norvell said. “It’s one game and one game doesn’t make (or break) your season but it’s a very important game.”
The Bulldogs, which won at UCLA, 38-14, last month and whipped Toledo, 49-27, last week at home, are led by quarterback Marcus McMaryion. The 6-foot-2 senior has passed for 1,050 yards and seven touchdowns this season, scorching Toledo for 368 yards and four touchdowns last week.
“He is real talented and experienced,” Norvell said.
Tedford, who coached Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers while at Cal, is also impressed with Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi. Gangi, who’s battling a minor leg injury he suffered the past two games at Toledo and Air Force, has passed for 1,332 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. He also threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns against Fresno State last year in his return to the field after a two-game benching.
“He can throw all the balls on the field,” said Tedford of Gangi. “He has the arm strength to throw things on the line and he has a nice touch to throw the deep ball. He’s a quality quarterback.”
Gangi missed practices earlier this week because of his leg injury in an effort to allow his leg to heal. Norvell said Christian Solano, a junior who has completed 6-of-7 passes in his career, would start if Gangi is unable to play.
Tedford, who has a 1-2 record against the Pack (he lost to the Pack in 2010 and 2012 while at Cal), is preparing for Gangi. “He’s a very competitive quarterback,” Tedford said. “I saw he got banged up in the Toledo game and it didn’t seem to bother him. He’s a tough kid.”
The Gangi-McMaryion battle is just one of many interesting matchups on offense on Saturday. Both teams are also deep at running back with Toa Taua (407 yards, four touchdowns) and Kelton Moore (170, 3) leading the Pack and Jordan Mims (221, 4) and Josh Hokit (128, 0) leading the Bulldogs. Fresno State also uses Dejonte O’Neal (91 yards) and Saevion Johnson (58) in its backfield.
Mims, who has almost as many carries (55) as the other three combined (63), is the only player in the conference with 200 or more rushing yards (221) and receiving yards (207) this year.
“We’re not going to be that team that just goes with one back,” Tedford said. “We have too many good backs and they all have good skill sets. They all need to be involved.”
Both teams also feature a large group of talented receivers. Gangi’s favorite targets have been Fossum (33 catches), McLane Mannix (21) and Romeo Doubs (12). Brendan O’Leary-Orange also has six catches for two touchdowns in just three games. Wolf Pack wide receiver Wyatt Demps shredded the Fresno State secondary the past two years with 19 catches for 217 yards and four touchdowns combined as a junior and senior.
“They (Nevada) have a lot of weapons outside,” Tedford said. “He (Gangi) has tall receivers (O’Leary-Orange is 6-4, Doubs is 6-2), he has quick receivers (Mannix and Fossum are 5-9). He has a little bit of everything to go with.”
Fresno State is led by the 6-2, 200-pound KeeSean Johnson (26 catches for 394 yards, three scores), the 6-5, 230-pound Jared Rice (16-157-1) and the 5-11, 170-pound Jamire Jordan (8-110-0). Johnson, who has continued Fresno State’s tradition of standout wide receivers over the last 40 years that includes Henry Ellard, Bernard Berrian, Davonte Adams, Josh Harper and Isaiah Burse and others, caught seven passes for 104 yards and three touchdowns against the Wolf Pack last year.
“They are a great and talented team,” Wolf Pack linebacker Gabe Sewell said. “We’re going to have to pull out the whole playbook.”
Fresno’s offense will be going up against a Wolf Pack defense that has allowed 36.6 points and 413.2 yards a game this year. The Pack offense will test a Fresno defense that has allowed 18.8 points and 314.8 yards a game (best in the Mountain West in both categories).
“I thought they had the best defense in the Mountain West last year,” Norvell said.
“They fly around and they are not scared to come hit you and let you know they are there,” Fossum said.
Norvell seems to believe the game will become a shootout. Fresno’s offense is averaging 45 points a game while the Wolf Pack scores an average of 38.2. “All of our games are probably going to be wild right down to the end,” he said.
“It will be a fun game that comes down to the fourth quarter,” Wolf Pack linebacker Lucas Weber said.
Norvell said the Wolf Pack reviewed last year’s 20-point loss at Fresno and actually came away encouraged. “We gained a lot of confidence watching the film,” Norvell said. “We did a lot of good things.”
The final score (Fresno took a 31-0 lead in the second quarter) was inflated thanks to three Wolf Pack turnovers, all Gangi interceptions. Fresno State also blocked a Wolf Pack field goal attempt and connected on a halfback pass (by Hokit) for a touchdown. The Pack had the ball for less than 23 minutes and Fresno’s 41 points were the most it scored against a Division I-A team all season.
“We just have to eliminate the errors in execution,” Norvell said. “We’ve matured as a team (since last year). We understand what went wrong.”
This will be the Wolf Pack’s first stretch of at least four home games in a span of five games since it played five of six at home in the middle of the 2011 season. Norvell, though, isn’t going to rely on some Mackay Magic to get his team through this rough patch.
“There are not a lot of secrets in this game,” Norvell said. “We know them real well and they know us. This is a good, old-fashioned rivalry.”
This will be the 50th meeting in the Wolf Pack-Bulldogs rivalry that began in 1923. Fresno, which won 22-of-29 games against the Pack from 1934-2007, owns a 28-20-1 edge in the series. The Pack has won six of the last 10. The two teams have played each other every year since 1998.
“This is not a team you are going to trick,” Norvell said. “You just have to line up and go play fundamentally sound and meet the challenge physically.”
“I think it will show our character in this game,” Fossum said.