Nevada Wolf Pack knows Vanderbilt won’t be easy
The Nevada Wolf Pack football team had just beaten Portland State 72-19 last Friday night to open its season when head coach Jay Norvell fired a warning shot to the final 11 opponents on his schedule.
“We’re just scratching the surface of what we can do,” said Norvell, just minutes after his team set a record for points scored in a season opener.
Norvell, now 4-9 as the Wolf Pack’s coach, said nearly the same thing this week as his team prepared to face the Vanderbilt Commodores of the Southeastern Conference on Saturday morning (9 a.m.) in Nashville, Tennessee.
“We’re not even close to playing as well as we’re capable of playing,” Norvell said.
The Wolf Pack, which piled up 636 total yards of offense against Portland State on just 63 plays, is considered by Nevada sports books as an 8-10 point underdog against Vanderbilt. The Commodores beat Middle Tennessee 35-7 last weekend to open their season.
“It would be a huge step for us to go and beat a SEC team coming from the Mountain West,” Wolf Pack wide receiver Kaleb Fossum said. “It would be a huge exclamation point that we’re ready for anything, ready for any conference and any team.”
This will be just the second game in Wolf Pack history against a SEC team. The first was a 44-27 loss at Texas A&M in 2015. The Wolf Pack has played just one other current SEC team but that team (Missouri) was in the Big 12 Conference at the time it played and beat Nevada (in 2008 and 2009).
“We’re going there to handle business,” Wolf Pack linebacker Malik Reed said. “We’re going there to win the football game.”
The Wolf Pack’s last victory over a school from a Power Five conference (SEC, Pac-12, Big 10, ACC, Big 12) was in 2014 (24-13 over Washington State of the Pac-12) at Mackay Stadium. The Pack’s last win over a Power Five team on the road was at California (31-24) in 2012.
“I feel that (winning at Vanderbilt) would show that we’re ready to take that next step as a team to become a force to be reckoned with,” Reed said. “I feel it would shock a lot of people.”
The Wolf Pack started slow against Portland State, falling behind 9-0. Portland State, though, didn’t score a point and had just 95 total yards on offense in the second half. The Wolf Pack outscored the Vikings 42-0 in the second half for its highest scoring output in a half since it also scored 42 in the second half of a 63-28 win over UNLV in 2009.
Norvell, though, said his team can play even better.
“We’re such a young football team,” Norvell said. “We have so much room to grow.”
Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi completed 16-of-26 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns against Portland State. The Wolf Pack also ran the ball 35 times with nine different players for 216 yards and four more touchdowns. Two Wolf pack Receivers went over 100 yards (Fossum with 139 and McLane Mannix with 132).
Norvell said he made sure last Friday night Vanderbilt had a lot to think about this week during its preparations for the Wolf Pack.
“We tried to put a lot of things on film,” Norvell said. “That was by design. We want people to have to play those things. We’re constantly trying to develop plays for our guys. We have a lot of confidence in our skill players. We have a lot of plays. We’re not worried about saving anything for anybody.”
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason took notice.
“Their quarterback (Gangi) is an extremely good player,” Mason said. “Good arm, a dual-threat quarterback. They have good skill players on the offensive side of the ball. Jay (Norvell) has done a good job of turning that roster over, getting their guys.”
“They are a high-scoring offense,” said Vanderbilt linebacker Josh Smith, who had one of the Commodores’ six sacks against Middle Tennessee. “We’re a high-powered defense. We’ll have to come to the game ready to play like every week.”
Vanderbilt also started out slow in its season opener, leading just 14-7 at halftime against Middle Tennessee. Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur had just 28 yards passing in the first half. Shurmur, though, finished the game with 170 yards and two touchdowns on 10-of-17 passing.
“What you saw in the second half was the football team I expected to see,” Mason said.
Shurmur, the son of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, has started 29 games in a row for the Commodores. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback has passed for 5,905 yards and 42 touchdowns in his career. Last year he passed for 2,823 yards and 26 touchdowns for a 5-7 (1-7 in the SEC) Vanderbilt team.
“He is very experienced,” Norvell said.
Gangi has similar career numbers in far fewer attempts. The Wolf Pack quarterback has passed for 4,389 yards and 36 touchdowns in 303 fewer attempts than Shurmur in his career. Gangi had 2,746 yards and 25 touchdowns last year.
Gangi, though, is just 6-9 as a starting quarterback and has never beaten a Division I-A FBS team outside of the Mountain West. He’s also just 1-6 as a starter on the road with his lone win coming at UNLV to close out the 2016 season. Norvell, too, has struggled on the road as a head coach with an 0-6 record away from Mackay Stadium.
“We didn’t play well on the road last year,“ Norvell said. “We (were) just 8-16 (overall) the last two seasons and that’s not very good. We want to change the way we do things, change the way we approach game day, change the way we get ready in the locker room, change the way we get ready Friday nights. We saw some progress last week and we have to see progress again this week.”
Vanderbilt, which might be overlooking the Wolf Pack with a game at Notre Dame on Sept. 15 on its schedule, has been a member of the SEC since 1933 and has never won a conference championship. Mason, now in his fifth season, is just 19-31 overall at Vanderbilt and just 6-26 against SEC teams. Vanderbilt also has had just one winning season in SEC play (5-3 in 2012) since 1959.
“We’re not trying to make too big a deal out of any of these games,” Norvell said. “They are all equally important to us. I know that sounds like a cliché but it is the way we are approaching it.”
Norvell has never faced Vanderbilt in his long coaching career. Mason has also never coached against the Wolf Pack, though he did play against Nevada three times as a player for Northern Arizona from 1989-92.
Vanderbilt offensive line coach Cameron Norcross was a Wolf Pack assistant from 2001-11. Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was among the finalists for the Wolf Pack head coaching job that went to Norvell after the 2016 season. Ludwig was also an assistant coach at Utah from 2005-08 when Wolf Pack athletic director Doug Knuth was an associate athletic director for the Utes.
The game against Nevada will start a string of games in the next few years for Vanderbilt against Mountain West teams. The Commodores will also play Colorado State in 2020 and 2021, Hawaii in 2022 and 2023 and UNLV in 2019 and 2023.
“They are kids like us,” Fossum said of Vanderbilt. “They have the same amount of scholarships they can pass out. They are just kids. They are not special, they are not super heroes. They are a good SEC team but we’re good, too.”
Norvell is confident the Wolf Pack can go to Nashville and compete with the Commodores.
“We really fell we have good enough players,” he said, “that if we practice well, we do our homework, we put ourselves in position, that we can win on Saturdays against whomever we play.”