Is UTEP the cure for what ails the Nevada Wolf Pack? |

Is UTEP the cure for what ails the Nevada Wolf Pack?

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

Jay Norvell wants his Nevada Wolf Pack football team to clean up its act.

“We’re still making too many penalties, we’re still turning the ball over, we’re giving up too many sacks, we’re still making too many mistakes,” the Wolf Pack coach said. “We have to tighten our ship.”

The struggling UTEP Miners are seemingly coming along at the right time for the mistake-prone Pack to fine-tune itself. The Wolf Pack, 2-1 after a 19-13 win over Weber State last Saturday, will conclude the non-conference portion of its schedule this Saturday night (5 p.m., ESPN3) against the 1-1 Miners at El Paso, Texas’ Sun Bowl Stadium.

“We have to go on the road and show a lot of mental toughness and improvement,” Norvell said.

The Wolf Pack has led for just 31 of the 180 minutes it has played this year. The Wolf Pack offense has produced just 19.7 points a game and five touchdowns overall while allowing 10 sacks and fumbling the ball away three times. The Pack has also been called for 28 penalties and the running game has gained an average of just 3.2 yards a carry.

“We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” senior linebacker Lucas Weber said.

The Miners just might be the cure for all that ails the Wolf Pack. UTEP has lost 24-of-26 games since the start of the 2017 season and has had just one winning season (7-6 in 2014) since 2005. The Miners have finished under .500 in 12 of the last 13 years. They also were under .500 in 14-of-15 years from 1989-2003 and 25-of-29 years from 1958-86 and never won more than two games in any year from 1975-85.

“We can’t take them lightly,” Pack running back Toa Taua said.

UTEP’s lone win this season came at home in the Sun Bowl, 36-34 over Houston Baptist, an FCS school. The Miners lost 38-3 to Texas Tech of the Big 12 two weeks ago, gaining just 131 total yards with 11 first downs. UTEP had a bye last week and has had two weeks to prepare for the Pack.

“The challenge of college football is to play consistently week in and week out,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack are a two-touchdown favorite this week.

Consistency has not been a trait of the Pack this year, despite the 2-1 start. Much of the inconsistency has come from the offensive line and at quarterback.

Freshman Carson Strong has completed 73-of-120 passes but has thrown just three touchdown passes (all in the season-opening 34-31 win over Purdue) and has been intercepted four times (all in the last two weeks in a 77-6 loss at Oregon and in the win over Weber State). The offensive line was called for four holding penalties and an illegal man downfield against Purdue and two false starts against Weber State. There was also a false start against Oregon and a hold.

“The biggest problem we’ve had offensively is the penalties,” Norvell said. “We have some inexperienced players and they’ve all kind of taken turns making mistakes.”

The Wolf Pack defense received an overdose of confidence last week against Weber State, holding the Wildcats to just 137 yards and 10 first downs. Weber State, though, was forced to use backup quarterback Kaden Jenks (6-of-21 for 57 yards) the entire game because of an injury the previous week to starter Jake Constantine.

“Our pass defense was excellent,” Norvell said. “We really grew there.”

“We needed to get back on the right foot,” Weber said. “We’ve struggled the first two games and had some confidence issues with the young guys. Now the biggest thing is we can’t have any more setbacks. Each week we have to play better and better.”

The Pack defense should continue to grow this week against UTEP. The Miners use two quarterbacks and neither one has had much success. Brandon Jones has completed 14-of-32 passes for 289 yards and one touchdown and Kai Locksley has completed 3-of-7 for 33 yards.

“We plan on playing both of the kids,” said UTEP coach Dana Dimel, who added that Jones will start. “We need both of them to continue to improve.”

“They do some funny formations and they have very athletic quarterbacks,” Weber said. “When you pressure them they will scramble and make plays. We have to play sound football.”

Dimel, the former offensive coordinator at Kansas State (2009-17) and head coach at Wyoming (1997-99) and Houston (2000-02), is 2-12 at UTEP.

“(Nevada is) going to be a huge test for us,” Dimel said. “They are an upper echelon Mountain West team so if we perform well against them we are performing well against some of the better programs we will have on the rest of our schedule.”

Norvell is well aware that UTEP would like to turn its season around against Nevada.

“They are a growing team that is trying to establish itself,” Norvell said.

The Wolf Pack and Miners are former Western Athletic Conference rivals. The Pack and head coach Chris Tormey beat the Miners 23-17 in 2002 and 48-31 in the two teams’ only meeting in El Paso. UTEP won its first game against the Pack, 45-22, in 2000.

All three games produced some memorable moments. UTEP jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter at Mackay Stadium in 2000 as quarterback Rocky Perez completed 20-of-35 passes for 323 yards in the game.

Wolf Pack running back Chance Kretschmer ran for a school-record 327 yards and six touchdowns against the Miners in 2000 and Pack wide receiver Nate Burleson caught a school-record 19 passes for 179 yards and one score against the Miners in 2002.

The Miners moved to Conference USA for the 2005 season and have had just two winning seasons (8-4 in 2005 and 7-6 in 2014) since.

Dimel, whose Miners will visit Mackay Stadium next year before playing New Mexico of the Mountain West in 2021 and 2022, says he learned how to attack the Pack after watching film of Nevada’s Weber State game last week.

“Weber State is definitely a game to learn from,” Dimel said. “Weber has some great defensive linemen that can play anywhere. They created a lot of issues coming in on four-man rushes against Nevada. That’s something we learned on tape.”

Winning any non-conference game on the road, even against a program that has won just two of its last 24 games, would be an accomplishment for the Pack. UTEP also drew a crowd of 34,646 for its lone home game this year against Houston Baptist.

The last non-league opponent the Pack has beaten on the road is Buffalo (24-21) in 2015.

“We just have to stay focused and treat it as a business trip,” Weber said. “Like coach Norvell tells us, it is still a 100-yard football field and the other team is only playing 11 guys and we are not playing against the crowd.”