Nevada Wolf Pack seeks 1st road win under Jay Norvell
Special to the Nevada Appeal
Ty Gangi is well aware of the next challenge for his Nevada Wolf Pack football team.
“If we want to be known as a good football team we have to be able to win on the road,” the Wolf Pack quarterback said this week.
The road-weary Wolf Pack will head to the state of Ohio this week to take on the Toledo Rockets at the Glass Bowl on Saturday (9 a.m., CBS Sports Network). The Wolf Pack (2-1) has lost seven games in a row away from Mackay Stadium while Toledo (1-1) has won 12 of its last 14 home games.
“We’ve got a big challenge,” said Norvell, who’s 5-3 at Mackay Stadium as the Pack head coach to go along with an 0-7 record on the road.
The last time the Wolf Pack won a game outside of Mackay Stadium was at UNLV, 45-10 on Nov. 26, 2016 in Brian Polian’s last game as head coach. The last time the Wolf Pack won a game outside of the state of Nevada was 28-23 over Colorado State in the Arizona Bowl in Tucson on Nov. 28, 2015.
“I love the fact that we’ve played three games (this season) and had a chance to work through some issues,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack lost 41-10 at Vanderbilt in its first road test this season. “We can take a much more knowledgeable team on the road.”
The Pack last played at the 26,000-seat Glass Bowl in Toledo in 1997, losing 31-13. The Wolf Pack is 1-2 in games played in the state of Ohio, having also lost at Dayton on Nov. 6, 1949 just two months after winning at Cincinnati on Sept. 17, 1949.
“We’re very confident,” said Gangi, who passed for 195 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 61 yards in the Wolf Pack’s 37-35 win over Oregon State last Saturday night at Mackay Stadium. “From here on out we’ve played everybody on our schedule (last year). Our confidence level is very high right now.”
The Wolf Pack lost to Toledo 37-24 at Mackay Stadium last year in Norvell’s first home game as head coach.
“They (Toledo) are not a lot different,” Gangi said. “We’re expecting a lot of the same stuff.”
The Rockets, though, do have some noticeable differences from a year ago, especially on offense. Gone is quarterback Logan Whiteside, who passed for 3,882 yards and 28 touchdowns last year (232 yards, two touchdowns at Nevada) as well as running back Terry Swanson, who had 1,363 yards and 14 scores last year (101 yards, two touchdowns at Nevada).
Mitchell Guadagni, who completed just one pass last year as Woodside’s backup, takes over the Rockets offense. The 6-foot-2 quarterback has thrown for 487 yards and five touchdowns this year in two games against VMI and Miami (Fla.).
“He’s been good, in a lot of ways great and some other ways he’s a long ways away,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said. “The impressive thing he’s showed is some good poise in the pocket and the ability to put the ball in the hands of the receivers down the field. If you would have asked me back in April and May what I thought, that would have been one of my question marks.”
Guadagni was 13-of-21 for 222 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 47 yards in a 49-24 loss to No. 21 Miami (Fla.) last week. His 15 rushing attempts led the team.
“They have a real dynamic offensive team,” Norvell said. “They can run and pass. And they have a real talented group of receivers.”
Toledo’s top three wide receivers — Diontae Johnson, Jon’Vea Johnson and Cody Thompson — are considered by three major college football publications (Phil Steele, Athlon’s and Lindy’s) as one of the top 10 receiver groups in the nation. Thompson caught eight passes for 101 yards and a touchdown against the Pack last year while the two Johnsons combined for seven catches, 90 yards and one score.
“They all have big dreams to go play for a long time (professionally),” said Candle, whose Rockets finished 11-3 last year and won the Mid-American Conference championship. “And to play for a long time you have to keep getting better for a long time. There is still room for improvement but I am excited to watch what is still out there for them.”
The Wolf Pack defense has allowed 76 points over the last two games. Oregon State’s 540 total yards of offense is the most allowed by the Wolf Pack in a victory since the 601 yards by BYU in a 42-35 Pack victory on Oct. 18, 2014.
“Their offense hasn’t fallen off this year,” Wolf Pack defensive tackle Korey Rush said of Toledo. “They lost a great quarterback in Logan Woodside but the guy who has replaced him has done a good job. It’s a high-powered offense and super balanced.”
The Rockets’ running game has struggled this year, mainly because of a lack of carries. Bryant Koback leads the team with 90 yards on just 16 carries, Art Thompkins has 66 yards on 12 carries and Shakif Seymour has 36 yards on 15 carries. Guadagni is second on the team with 67 yards and leads the team in carries with 19.
A lot of the Rockets’ concerns on the ground can be traced to the Miami game. The Hurricanes held the Rockets to just 3.1 yards a carry (112 yards on 36 carries). Toledo did run for 213 yards on 45 carries (4.7 a carry) in its season-opening 66-3 win over VMI.
“The run game will be better when we’re not playing Miami’s front,” Candle said.
The Nevada game is the first of two in a row for the Rockets against Mountain West teams. Toledo will play at Fresno State on Sept. 29. The Rockets will also play Mountain West teams four more times over the next four seasons, meeting Colorado State in 2019 and 2021 and San Diego State in 2020 and 2022.
The Wolf Pack is also no stranger to MAC teams. This will be the Pack’s fifth game against Toledo (the Rockets won the previous four). The two teams met in the first overtime game in Football Bowl Subdivision history, a 40-37 Toledo win in the 1995 Las Vegas Bowl. Overall, the Wolf Pack is 6-6 against current MAC teams with three of the games coming in the Las Vegas Bowl. In addition to the overtime game against Toledo in 1995, the Pack also beat Ball State, 18-15, in 1996 and lost to Bowling Green, 35-34, in 1992.
Toledo, though, will see a much different Wolf Pack team this year than the one it saw last September at Mackay. That Pack team a year ago was just in its second game under Norvell.
“We’re still learning about each other,” Norvell said after last year’s game against Toledo.
Toledo controlled the ball for just more than 40 minutes against the Pack last year.
“They were very physical,” Gangi said. “We have to be physical and just take it to them.”
Candle believes the Wolf Pack and Rockets are similar football programs, playing in similar Group of Five conferences.
“The fabric of who we are as a program and the fabric of who they (Nevada) are as a program isn’t much different,” Candle said. “Maybe in Year Two there’s a little more momentum, a little more steam under Coach Norvell than there was this time last year because players know the expectations.
“That win last Saturday (against Oregon State) was a good win for them because it will create a real good belief system in who they are. They should be feeling good about themselves. We expect a great test.”
Candle admits the Rockets are still trying to replace the pieces lost from their MAC title team a year ago. “We’re developing an offensive line, we’re developing a quarterback,” Candle said. “We’re developing a lot of positions. Our team is young. We’re still trying to find our identity.”
Candle is 22-8 as the Rockets head coach. Norvell is 5-10 at Nevada but has won four of his last six games.
“There’s no room to exhale,” Candle said. “When you win the championship you feel like you’re on top but it’s not like there’s an open chair where you can just sit down, take a break and relax and chill out. Everybody’s after you and we have to understand that.”
In addition to its first road victory, the Wolf Pack will be after its first two-game winning streak in the brief Norvell era.
“As we look ahead on our schedule, every team we play can score points,” Norvell said. “We also have to be dynamic offensively. But I really believe that if we manage the run game (on both sides of the ball), we will have a chance to win every week.”