Nevada Wolf Pack needs bounce back against physical Wyoming
Jay Norvell knows what to expect from the Wyoming Cowboys.
“This team has a very physical roster,” the Nevada Wolf Pack coach said this week of the Cowboys. “They live to run the football.”
Norvell’s Wolf Pack (4-3, 1-2) will try to control the Mountain West’s second-best running attack this Saturday (11 a.m., AT&T Sports Net) in Laramie, Wyo. The Cowboys (5-2, 2-1) average 238.4 rushing yards a game and are led on the ground by running back Xazavian Valladay (425 yards, four touchdowns) and quarterback Sean Chambers (547 yards and a Mountain West-best nine rushing touchdowns).
“This team relies on physicality,” said Norvell of Wyoming. “They have big, strong players in the trenches.”
Wyoming’s offensive line was named this week to the Joe Moore Award Midseason Honor Roll as one of the top 24 offensive lines in the nation. Wyoming is one of just seven teams in FBS to have four or more players rush for at least 100 yards in a game this season. Wyoming players have seven 100-yard rushing games combined this year in seven games. The Wolf Pack’s Air Raid offense, by comparison, has had six 100-yard rushing games by individuals over the past two seasons and 20 games (two this year).
“It’s important for us to know who we are,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “So, to say we’re going to send a message to Coach Norvell that I’ve been in touch with (Washington State coach) Mike Leach and we’re now going to be an Air Raid team, I think that would be an overstatement. But we do need to throw the ball better.”
Chambers has completed just 48-of-112 passes this season for 757 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. The Cowboys have run the ball almost 200 more times (314-219) than they have thrown it. The Pack has been balanced with 266 rushes and 252 passes.
“We’re not going to drastically change who we are,” Bohl said. “But it’s a chess match. It’s important for us to know that we need to throw the ball better.”
The Wolf Pack is fifth in the Mountain West in rushing defense, allowing 134 yards a game. Wyoming is second against the run (allowing 100.9 yards a game).
“Our strength on defense is defending the run,” Norvell said.
That strength will be tested on Saturday. Utah State ran for 244 yards on the Wolf Pack a week ago in a 36-10 win in Logan, Utah.
“Running the football is hard,” Bohl said. “It’s hard work. Everyone talks about how they want to run the football, how they want to be physical and play tough football. But it’s hard work.”
Chambers (117 yards, one touchdown) and Valladay (127 yards, one touchdown) each went over 100 yards last week in a 23-10 win over New Mexico. The Cowboys controlled the ball for 35:13.
“They are very conservative in their attack,” Norvell said. “They like to run the quarterback and lean on their offensive line and their backs.”
Wyoming is last in the Mountain West at 111.1 passing yards a game and 11th in overall offense at 349.6 yards a game.
“Just because we like to run the ball that doesn’t mean we will be able to go in there and pound our chest and impose our will,” Bohl said. “But we need to run the ball well to open up the play-action (passes).”
The Cowboys have won four games this year by 13 points or less and have scored more than 23 points in a game just twice. Wyoming’s defense, which ranks second in the Mountain West in points allowed (19.7 a game), has allowed 26 or fewer points in five games.
“They are a good football team,” Bohl said of Nevada. “We are a good football team. But we’ll have to play a lot better to win this week than we did last Saturday.”
The Wolf Pack, which benched quarterback Malik Henry this week because of off-the-field issues, is expected to start Carson Strong in Laramie. The freshman has only played a half a game (against Hawaii on Sept. 28) over the Wolf Pack’s last four games and has completed 80-of-134 passes for 729 yards, three touchdowns (all in the season opener against Purdue) and five interceptions. Cristian Solano, who has started one game (a 37-21 win at UTEP) this season, has completed 24-of-36 passes for 241 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We’ve watched a lot of film on them,” said Bohl, whose Cowboys are 4-0 at home this year. “They don’t change much depending on which quarterback they play.”
The Wolf Pack has scored one or fewer touchdowns in a game four times this season in seven games (against Oregon, Weber State, Hawaii and Utah State). Strong started three of those games (Oregon, Weber State, Hawaii). The Pack scored two or more touchdowns 11 times in 13 games a year ago (11-of-12 with senior Ty Gangi at quarterback).
“We have to find more continuity on offense,” Norvell said. “We weren’t productive (at Utah State). Our playmakers have to step up.”
Both Nevada and Wyoming need a victory on Saturday to keep their Mountain West division title hopes alive and well. The Cowboys are chasing Boise State (6-1, 3-0), Utah State (4-2, 3-0) and Air Force (5-2, 3-1) in the Mountain Division and will likely have to win its final five conference games to stay in the title hunt.
The Pack is one of four teams in the West Division with one or two conference losses along with San Diego State (6-1, 3-1), Fresno State (3-3, 1-1) and Hawaii (4-3. 1-2).
“Each one of these games is so important,” Bohl said.
“This is an important bounce-back game for us,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack has not lost two games in a row since it lost to Fresno State and Boise State in consecutive weeks Oct. 6 and 13 of last year. “We’ve got to respond.”
Wyoming has won its last two games against the Wolf Pack (2015, 2016). This will be just the Wolf Pack’s second game in Laramie since 2000. The Wolf Pack beat the Cowboys 35-28 in Laramie on a 16-yard touchdown run by Marquis Starks with 41 seconds to play. The game was delayed an hour after the Wolf Pack’s team bus arrived at the stadium just 20 minutes before the kickoff after being stuck in traffic behind a 12-car pileup on Interstate 80 in a snowstorm about 10 miles from the stadium.
The Wolf Pack’s first game in school history as an FBS (Division I-A) school was at Laramie on Sept. 5, 1992 (a 25-6 Pack loss). The Pack is 1-2 in Laramie, winning in 2000 and losing in 1992 and 2015.
“We just have to come out and play with more fire on defense and with a chip on our shoulder,” senior Pack linebacker Maliek Broady said this week.
“In the preseason, we looked at this part of the schedule (road games at Utah State last week and Wyoming this week) and knew it would be a tough stretch to play on the road,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack also has back-to-back games on the road at Fresno State and San Diego State in November sandwiched around a bye. “We will have to be on top of our game in all three phases) this week. We have to take accountability for our play and rise up and compete on Saturday.”