Nevada Wolf Pack ‘excited’ heading into opener
Special to the Appeal
Doom and gloom has been replaced by optimism and enthusiasm at Mackay Stadium this season.
“We’re real excited about this football team,” said Nevada Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell, who lost his first five games last year on the way to a 3-9 debut season in charge of the program. “We are anxious for people to see us play.”
The Wolf Pack will open Norvell’s second season Friday, 6 p.m., at Mackay Stadium against the Portland State Vikings of the Big Sky Conference.
“We’re going to be a fun team to watch this year,” Norvell said. “We feel like we’ve improved this team in every area.”
Norvell is hoping Portland State, which was 0-11 last year, is the perfect season opener for a struggling Wolf Pack program that has gone just 40-48 over the past seven seasons combined.
“We want to play great at home this season,” Norvell said. “We really want to make Mackay rock.”
Since joining Division I-A (now called the Football Bowl Subdivision) in 1992, the Pack has opened its season seven times against Division I-AA (Football Championship Subdivision) teams and won all seven. They are 2-17 when opening against FBS teams.
“It will be huge to come out and have a good start,” Pack quarterback Ty Gangi said.
The last time the two teams in a Wolf Pack season opener combined for as few as three victories the previous season was 1976 when Cal State Hayward came to Mackay Stadium. The Wolf Pack, which beat Hayward 30-13 to open the 1976 season in Chris Ault’s first game as head coach, went 3-8 in 1975 while Hayward was 0-10.
You also have to go back 42 years to 1976 to find the last meeting between the Vikings and Wolf Pack, when both schools were Division II independents. Ault and the Wolf Pack beat the Vikings, coach Mouse Davis, quarterback June Jones and their new and exciting run-and-shoot offense, 35-32, at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 13, 1976. The Pack leads its series with Portland State 6-2, with all eight previous games being played from 1960-76.
“This school has a long tradition of offensive success,” said Norvell of Portland State’s run-and-shoot history.
Norvell is also trying to add to the Wolf Pack’s long tradition of offensive success. The Wolf Pack returns much of the talent that averaged 28 points and 398 yards a game a year ago. Gangi (2,746 yards, 25 touchdowns) is back as is running back Kelton Moore (855 yards) and wide receivers McLane Mannix (67 catches, 11 touchdowns) and Brendan O’Leary-Orange (39 catches, four scores).
“Confidence is up because we are more familiar with the different schemes we’re running,” Norvell said. “Comfort comes with repetition. We’re going to build on a lot of the things we started last year.”
“Overall, as a whole offensively, we’re way better,” Mannix said. “When we’re clicking on offense, we’re going to be real good.”
Gangi, who has a record of 5-9 as a starter, comes into his senior season with 4,047 yards and 33 touchdowns in his career and could end up as one of the Top Ten most productive quarterbacks in Wolf Pack history. He started the final four games in 2016 as well as the first two and last eight last season.
“I feel excited and comfortable,” Gangi said. “It’s a lot different than last year. We’re trying to be an extremely powerful offense.”
Gangi has never started a game for a Wolf Pack team with a winning record. Norvell has also never coached a Wolf Pack team with a winning record. Those unfortunate streaks would come to an end with a victory over Portland State on Friday.
“This game sets the tone for the rest of the season,” Gangi said.
It was a 30-28 loss to Idaho State of the Big Sky Conference a year ago at Mackay Stadium that set the tone for Norvell’s rookie season as head coach.
“Looking back on that game, it was obvious to me that our team didn’t have an edge and didn’t respect their opponent,” Norvell said.
Norvell is hoping his Wolf Pack respects a Portland State team that is in the early stages of rebuilding a program after last year’s 0-11 disaster. The Vikings allowed an average of 43 points a game last year and also sacked opposing quarterbacks just seven times all year.
The Vikings, who will play at Oregon on Sept. 8, have just 12 seniors on their roster. Former Damonte Ranch High running back Ryon Hurley, a freshman, is one of 57 freshman and sophomores on the Vikings roster. Offensive lineman Carlos Barraza, a Reno High graduate, is one of 24 juniors on the Vikings roster after playing his first two seasons at Sierra College, in Rocklin, California.
Norvell, though, insists his Wolf Pack will not look past the Vikings. The Pack travels to Nashville next week to take on Vanderbilt of the Southeastern Conference.
“The Portland State game is no less important than the Boise State game,” Norvell said.
A loss to Portland State, however, would seriously diminish all of the optimism and enthusiasm going on around the program right now.
“We’ve never really played well against (Football Championship Subdivision) teams,” said defensive lineman Korey Rush, referring to recent closer-than-expected victories over Southern Utah in 2014 (29-19), UC Davis in 2015 (31-17) and Cal Poly in 2016 (30-27 in overtime) as well as last year’s loss to Idaho State. “We’re obviously real tired of that.”