Nevada quarterback Carson Strong signals an audible against California on Saturday in Berkeley. “I’m pretty confident we’re going to have a good time” against Idaho State, Strong said. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)
It is payback time for the Nevada Wolf Pack. “I’m sure coach (Jay) Norvell is going to make sure they know the 2017 score,” said Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie, who brought his Bengals to Mackay Stadium four years ago and shocked the Wolf Pack, 30-20. “They are not going to overlook us by any stretch. They are probably looking forward to this one.” It is not often a Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) team like Nevada has revenge as motivation to beat a Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA) team like Idaho State. But that will clearly be the case Saturday (7:30 p.m., Channel 21) when the Bengals make a return visit to Mackay Stadium for the first time since 2017. “Our kids are very aware of that game,” said Norvell of the stunning upset loss to Idaho State in his first season as Wolf Pack head coach. “We have to recognize it and learn from it, for sure.”
Idaho State jumped out to a 30-7 lead against the Wolf Pack four years ago by the third quarter and survived a Wolf Pack comeback. The Pack, playing freshman quarterback Kaymen Cureton in his first of just two college starts, lost that afternoon to a FCS team for the first time since a 37-27 loss to Boise State (a member of the Big Sky Conference) in 1994. “We took that team (Idaho State) for granted,” said Norvell, whose Pack fell to 0-3 in 2017 with the loss to Idaho State on its way to an 0-5 start. “We didn’t take them seriously. We didn’t have a respect for the preparation.” Cureton, who later became a defensive back, tossed three touchdown passes against the Bengals but he also turned the ball over three times on two fumbles and an interception. That game remains as the Pack’s only loss to a FCS team since 1994. “We shocked them a little bit and just kept it rolling,” said current Idaho State wide receiver Tanner Conner, who had one catch in the 2017 game. “We’re going to have to come out (this Saturday night) and build momentum and keep it going because that’s what we did in 2017.” Norvell reminded everyone this week that it is not 2017 anymore. Although the Wolf Pack still has a handful of players on its roster that played in the 2017 game and another handful that were sitting out as redshirt freshmen, Norvell emphasized that his 2021 team bares hardly any resemblance to the 2017 team that went 3-9. “It’s a much different team we have now,” Norvell, whose Wolf Pack will bring a 1-0 record into Saturday’s game after a 22-17 win at California. “We understand how to practice, we understand how to prepare.” The Wolf Pack, Norvell added, also understands that a loss to Idaho State during a season in which the goal is a Mountain West championship, a Top 25 national standing with a possible New Year’s Day bowl game, would be unthinkable. “We have a much different program now,” Norvell said. “We have matured.” Idaho State, on the other hand, isn’t all that much different than it was four years ago. The Bengals finished just 4-7 in 2017 and were 6-5 in 2018, 3-9 in 2019 and 2-4 in a strange 2021 spring season after not playing in the fall of 2020. Idaho State is also 0-1 this season after a 35-14 loss to North Dakota a week ago. The Pack, a former rival of Idaho State in the Big Sky Conference, leads the series 18-12 largely on the stretch of 14 victories in 16 games from 1982-91 under coach Chris Ault. The loss in 2017 ended an 11-game Pack winning streak against the Bengals. Idaho State is also just 2-30 against FBS teams since 2000, beating the Pack in 2017 and Utah State of the Mountain West, 27-24 in 2000. “I’m pretty confident we’re going to have a good time (on) Saturday,” Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong said last Saturday night after beating Cal. The Wolf Pack has beaten two FCS teams, Portland State (72-19 in 2018) and Weber State (19-13 in 2019), since the loss to Idaho State. The Big Sky, though, has won one-of-four games against the Mountain West this season after Eastern Washington beat UNLV last week, 35-33, in two overtimes. Two other Mountain West teams already this season struggled against Big Sky teams. Wyoming survived Montana State, 19-16, and Hawaii outscored Portland State, 49-35. San Jose State, the defending Mountain West champion, though, whipped Southern Utah 45-14. “When you are a good football team you are expected to perform,” Norvell said. Idaho State features former Wyoming quarterback Tyler Vander Waal. Vander Waal transferred to Idaho State in January and then completed 116-of-215 passes for 1,843 yards, 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in six games for the Bengals this spring. He then completed just 19-of-43 passes for 229 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions last week in the loss to North Dakota. “He really presses himself and sometimes he presses too much,” Phenicie, a former UNLV offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, told the Idaho State Journal this week. “He probably had some nerves on him, too. There’s a lot of pressure on him and he knows it.” The 6-foot-4 Vander Waal played against the Pack in 2019 during a 31-3 Wyoming victory and completed just 3-of-10 passes for 63 yards and one touchdown in relief of starter Sean Chambers. “I’m relatively similar to what (former Wyoming and current Buffalo Bills’ quarterback) Josh Allen is,” Vander Waal told the Idaho State Journal in January. “I learned a lot under him (the two were teammates at Wyoming in 2017).” Phenicie spent six years at UNLV (1999 and 2010-14) tutoring quarterbacks. He’s also coached at Wyoming and Montana. “When he’s on, he’s on,” the 55-year-old Phenicie said of Vander Waal. “He’s lethal.” This Saturday night’s game will be the Wolf Pack’s first in front of more than a handful of fans at Mackay Stadium since a disturbing 33-30 overtime loss to UNLV on Nov. 30, 2019. “We couldn’t be more excited to come to Mackay and play in front of our fans,” Norvell said.