Pack game at Air Force is more important
Special to the Appeal
Jay Norvell spent the first month of the Nevada Wolf Pack’s football season explaining to his team and to everyone that would listen all games are equally important.
He didn’t say that this week.
“This game is important,” the Wolf Pack head coach said of Saturday’s Mountain West opener at Air Force (1 p.m., ESPN News). “I’m not afraid to talk about that. We really have to dial in and focus on a conference opponent. We have a sense of urgency about preparing for this team. This is a game we really need to have for our goals this season.”
The Wolf Pack (2-2) will take an 0-8 record on the road under Norvell to Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs. The Pack, which has allowed an average of 43.5 points a game on the road in the Norvell era, is coming off a 63-44 loss at Toledo last Saturday.
“I don’t think the character of our defense is how we played the last game,“ Norvell said. “We just have to get this out of our system.”
The Wolf Pack’s struggles on the road, though, didn’t begin when Norvell took over the program in 2017. The Wolf Pack has lost 13 of its last 14 road games going back to 2016 when Brian Polian was coach. The Pack has also lost 10 of its last 12 Mountain West road games.
“Winning on the road would be huge,” Wolf Pack linebacker Malik Reed said. “The test of a good team is winning on the road. It’s tough, but it shows maturity in your group.”
The Wolf Pack has enjoyed a lead on the road for a total of just under 56 minutes over eight games (480 minutes) under Norvell, with 24 of those minutes coming in Norvell’s first game as head coach in the 2017 season opener at Northwestern. Norvell’s Pack teams have led in the second half in just two (at Northwestern, Colorado State) of eight road games and never once took a lead in four of the eight games. The Wolf Pack is also looking for its first lead on the road this season after one-sided loses at Vanderbilt (41-10) and Toledo (63-44).
The Wolf Pack, though, is hoping all of those disturbing trends come to an end against the Falcons (1-2, 0-1). Air Force, which is 12-4 in Mountain West home games over the past four (2014-17) seasons, is 3-1 against the Wolf Pack (2-0 at Falcon Stadium) since the rivalry began in 2012. Air Force stunned the Pack last season at Mackay Stadium, 45-42, on a last-second 30-yard field goal by Luke Strebel.
“We’re real excited to start conference play,” said Norvell, who was 3-5 in Mountain West games last year after losing all four of his non-league games. “We have a great opportunity to start conference play the right way.”
Air Force opened its conference schedule last week with a 42-32 loss at Utah State. The Falcons had a school-record 107 plays on offense (471 yards) and controlled the ball for nearly 44 minutes while rushing for 323 yards on 86 carries. Last year at Mackay the Falcons ran the ball a school-record 91 times for 550 yards and controlled the ball for more than 41 minutes.
The Falcons’ problems, though, are on defense. Utah State scored 42 points and piled up 489 yards despite having the ball for just more than 16 minutes. Utah State quarterback Jordan Love torched the Air Force secondary for 356 yards and two touchdowns. Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi, who passed for 320 yards at Toledo and has thrown for 1,073 yards and seven touchdowns this year, has the potential to do the same thing to the Falcons defense as Love.
“We’re going to see another big-time throwing team this week,” Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun said. “(Nevada) has had incredible production from their offense. We have a lot of things that require our focus.”
Gangi was 17-of-33 for 239 yards last season against Air Force.
“We have to be balanced on offense,” Norvell said. “You can’t just throw the ball around all over the park. You throw some incompletions and then you don’t get the ball back for another eight minutes against them. We have to be very efficient on offense because you don’t get many opportunities against them.”
The Wolf Pack has seen the emergence of freshman running back Toa Taua in recent weeks. Taua ran for 170 yards and three touchdowns on just 15 carries last week at Toledo. Kelton Moore also picked up 74 yards last week on just nine carries.
“I can’t tell you how important it is for us to run the ball physically,” Norvell said. “That’s a big part of our growth as a team. It helps our defense when we can run the ball that way.”
The Wolf Pack is fifth in the Mountain West in scoring at 40.8 points a game and fourth in total offense at 456.2 yards a game. Air Force has averaged 32.3 points and 402 yards a game on offense.
All four of the Wolf Pack’s games against Air Force have been high-scoring affairs. Air Force has scored at least 42 points in every game while the Pack has scored 31 or more in all four.
“We’re going to have to play these wild kind of games and find a way to win,” said Norvell, who’s 0-8 as Pack coach when his team allows 40 or more points.
“We have to take advantage of every possession we get,” Gangi said. “There won’t be a lot of margin for error this week.”
Air Force’s run-based triple option offense is averaging 288 yards a game on the ground but just 3.9 yards a carry. The Falcons use two quarterbacks (Isaiah Sanders and Arion Worthman) who hand off and pitch the ball to a stable of running backs and fullbacks. Cole Fagan has been the Falcons’ most active runner with 209 yards on 51 carries.
Worthman, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior, ran for 92 yards on 20 carries last year against the Pack. It’s Sanders, though, who does most of the throwing for the Falcons. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior has completed 17-of-30 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown (Worthman is 4-of-12 for 52 yards). Sanders also has 48 carries for 119 yards and two scores compared to Worthman’s 19 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown.
“They are very smart about how they go about their business,” Norvell said.
Air Force has repeatedly hurt the Pack defense in the rivalry’s four games by converting more than 60 percent of its third-down plays. The Falcons have also converted 7-of-8 fourth-down plays.
“Being able to convert on third down is a huge part of how we operate,” said Calhoun, who’s 51-18 as a head coach at home in his 12-year Air Force career. Calhoun also needs one victory to become just the second Mountain West coach (with San Diego State’s Rocky Long) in the conference’s history to win 50 or more league games. The Wolf Pack, which joined the conference in 2012, is 21-27 in Mountain West games. The Pack has either finished 3-5 or 4-4 (each three times) in all six of its seasons in the Mountain West.
“We want to be one of the top teams that can handle anybody,” Reed said.
The Pack defense struggled last week trying to contain the scrambles of Toledo quarterback Mitchell Guadagni, who ran for 131 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 211 and four touchdowns. Toledo ran for exactly 230 yards and passed for 230 against the Pack, with Guadagni responsible for most of it.
The Wolf Pack, though, dominated Toledo everywhere but on the scoreboard. The Pack outgained the Rockets 582-460, had more first downs (27-23) and had more plays (85-71). But it was two critical special teams mistakes (Toledo ran back a kickoff and blocked a Pack punt for touchdowns) and Guadagni’s scrambles that beat the Pack.
The Pack, though, isn’t looking back right now.
“We’re 2-2 and that is definitely better than 0-4 (like last year),” Reed said. “But we’re not complacent.”
“What happened before conference doesn’t really matter,” Taua said. We’re zero-zero now.”
“It’s a fresh start this week in conference and our goal is still to win a Mountain West championship,“ Gangi said.