Nevada Wolf Pack hosts Big 10’s Purdue in rare west coast visit
For the Nevada Appeal
The Nevada Wolf Pack football team knows all about Rondale Moore.
“You have to be keyed in on him,” Wolf Pack linebacker Lucas Weber said of the Purdue Boilermakers’ All America wide receiver. “He’s a very talented player. He’s one of those guys who is going to make you miss.”
Moore made enough people miss last year as a freshman to lead the nation in receptions with 114 for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns. He set Purdue’s single-season record for all-purpose yards at 2,215 and was named the Big 10’s Freshman of the Year.
“The more hats we get to the football when he has it, the better for us,” Weber said.
Moore and the Boilermakers will help open the Wolf Pack’s season Friday (6:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network) at Mackay Stadium. It will be just the third time in history that the Wolf Pack has opened a season against a Power Five opponent at home. The first two times resulted in Pack losses (55-21 against Washington State in 2005 and 28-13 against Oregon State in 1999). The Pack had opened its home season against Division I-AA teams in 10 of the last 16 seasons.
“If we make mistakes in a Big Sky Conference (Division I-AA) game, you can usually just correct them with effort,” Weber said. “But if we make mistakes against a Big 10 team, it can get glaring real fast.”
The Pack will hope to eliminate any such mistakes against Moore, who will look to take advantage of the Pack’s rebuilt secondary. Gone from last year’s Pack team are safeties Dameon Baber, Nephi Sewell and Asauni Rufus.
“He’s a real strong runner,” said Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell of the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Moore. “The thing that makes him unique is that he’s not only very fast and quick, he’s also very strong and tough to bring down. We have to do a great job of tackling.”
Moore, last year’s winner of the Paul Hornung Award as the most versatile player in the country, was named the most exciting player in the nation this summer by ESPN. ESPN’s Desmond Howard, the last wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy (1991 out of Michigan), recently picked Moore to win this year’s Heisman.
“He’s a tremendous player,” said Norvell, who has won 10 of his last 16 games as Wolf Pack coach to run his career record to 11-14 after an 0-5 start. “He’s got a tremendous future ahead of him.”
The Wolf Pack, coming off an 8-5 season, is about a 10-point underdog on Friday, according to most Nevada sports books. The Mountain West, which began in 1999, is just 7-49 and has lost 33 games in a row to Big 10 teams. The last Mountain West victory over a Big Team was TCU over Wisconsin 21-19 in the 2011 Rose Bowl. The last win by a current Mountain West team (TCU is now in the Big 12) over a Big Ten team was UNLV over Wisconsin, 23-5 in 2003.
“It’s a great way to start the season,” the 56-year-old Norvell said. “A great opportunity and challenge. We’re excited to have Purdue come to the west coast and play in our stadium on a Friday night and play at 4,000 feet elevation.”
Purdue has played just one other game against a Mountain West team. That was a 24-14 victory over the Wolf Pack at West Lafayette, Ind., in 2016. The Boilermakers do not travel anywhere near the west coast very often. The last time was a 38-35 victory over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., on Dec. 27, 2017. Before that it was a 38-36 loss at Oregon on Sept. 12, 2009.
“This will be a great test for us to go on the road and see where we stack up,” said Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who graduated from the same high school as Moore (Trinity High in Louisville, Ky.).
Purdue finished 6-7 overall and 5-4 in the Big 10 last year. The season, though, included victories over three ranked teams (No. 23 Boston College, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 19 Iowa). The 48-year-old Brohm, a former San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback (1995-97), is 13-13 overall and 9-9 in the Big 10 in two seasons at Purdue.
“We’re playing a very good opponent in Nevada,” said Brohm, whose brother Brian, another Trinity High graduate, is Purdue’s offensive coordinator. “I think this team (Nevada) knows how to win.”
The Boilermakers lost their first three games last year and three of their final four, including a 63-14 loss to Auburn in the Music City Bowl.
“In many ways they are similar to us,” Norvell said. “They are dynamic offensively. They are also trying to grow their roster and get players that fit what they do. I think we match up with them pretty good.”
The Boilermakers will feature 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback Elijah Sindelar, a 23-year-old, fifth-year senior. Sindelar was Purdue’s starter as a sophomore in 2017 when he passed for 2,099 yards and 18 touchdowns. He injured his knee late in the 2017 season and then lost his starting job to David Blough in 2018. Blough, with Moore joining the roster, passed for 3,705 yards and 25 touchdowns last year.
“Elijah wants to be a great quarterback here for Purdue,” Brohm said.
The Wolf Pack will start freshman Carson Strong at quarterback. Strong, who redshirted a year ago after appearing briefly in one game, has not thrown a pass in a game since his junior year at Wood High in Vacaville, Calif., in 2016. He missed his senior year in 2017 because of a knee injury.
“Carson has been extremely competitive in practice,” said Norvell, who chose Strong as the starter over junior college transfer Malik Henry. “He’s stepped up to the challenge at practice. If Carson continues to do the things he’s done at practice he’ll be successful. He’s young. He’ll make mistakes. But he’s also shown the ability to learn from his mistakes.”
Strong has been with the Wolf Pack program and learning the offense since the spring of 2018.
“He’s emotional in a good way,” Wolf Pack wide receiver Kaleb Fossum said of Strong. “He’ll lead us. He knows what he’s doing. I don’t think he will look like a redshirt freshman out there at all. He looks like a veteran.”
The Wolf Pack, Norvell said, will also rely heavily on its deep and talented collection of running backs. Toa Taua ran for 872 yards and six touchdowns last year as a freshman and he’ll share carries in the backfield with senior Kelton Moore (433 yards, four touchdowns last year), sophomore Devonte Lee (193 yards, seven scores) and senior Jaxson Kincaide (119 yards, two touchdowns). The Pack returns six running backs (Roger Neal and Russell Booze also combined for five carries) who carried the ball a year ago. The six have combined for 3,162 yards and 26 touchdowns in their Wolf Pack careers.
“We want to be physical, control the line of scrimmage and take care of the ball,” Norvell said. “A big part of this game will be the line of scrimmage. It’s about who can run the ball and who can stop the run. That will dictate how this game is played.”
Strong, Norvell said, will need help from his teammates in his first college start.
“We have to protect this young quarterback,” Norvell said. “That will also be important as we run through this season.”
Norvell said he also does not anticipate playing Henry against Purdue. Henry, a former Florida State recruit, joined the Wolf Pack in January and practiced with the team in the spring. He was named by one web site (mwwire.com) this summer as the Mountain West’s newcomer of the year. Henry has played one season in college at Independence Community College in Kansas and has also never thrown a pass in a Division I game.
“I don’t think that’s the plan going in,” said Norvell, when asked if Henry would also play on Friday. “But football is a contact sport. He understands that we’re prepared to play him if the situation presents itself.”
“We’re trying to prepare for both,” Brohm said. “This (Strong) is a quarterback that feels comfortable standing there (in the pocket), throwing it. He’s a big, strong quarterback and has a strong arm. With that said they also have another athlete (Henry) we have to prepare for, who can run around and make plays. Very athletic.”
Friday’s game opens the 113th season of Wolf Pack football overall, the 28th in Division I-A and the eighth in the Mountain West. The Wolf Pack has beaten a Big 10 team at home before, taking a 31-21 decision over Northwestern at Mackay Stadium in 2006.
The Pack is 1-4 against Big 10 teams, having also lost to Purdue (2016), Northwestern (2007, 2017) and Wisconsin (1993). The Wolf Pack will also play Big 10 teams Penn State in 2020 and Iowa (Norvell’s alma mater) in 2022, both on the road.
“It would be very solidifying (to beat Purdue) and it would show all of the strides we’ve made,” Fossum said. “A win against a team like Purdue would be a huge step.”