Nevada Wolf Pack vs. Tulane: Strange end to a weird season
The Nevada Wolf Pack football season has come down to winning a bowl full of spuds.
“The last time we were there we left empty handed,” said linebacker Lawson Hall of the Wolf Pack’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl meeting with the Tulane Green Wave this Tuesday (12:30 p.m., ESPN) in Boise. “Hopefully this time we can have some potatoes in our possession.”
This will be the fourth time the Wolf Pack has played a bowl game on Boise State’s blue turf. The Wolf Pack lost to Ohio, 30-21, on Jan. 3 in the Potato Bowl and watched the Bobcats take home the bowl game trophy’s glass bowl that was stocked with potatoes. The Pack also lost to Maryland 42-35 in the 2008 Humanitarian Bowl in Boise and lost to Miami 21-20 in Boise’s 2006 MPC Computer’s Bowl.
“We just want to do whatever it takes to get a win,” said Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong, who passed for 402 yards and a touchdown in January against Ohio.
The Wolf Pack has lost 13 games in a row at Boise State since it beat the Broncos 56-42 on former coach Chris Ault’s 51st birthday on Nov. 8, 1997.
“We want to get a little bit of redemption for last year,” said Strong, referring to the loss to Ohio.
The Wolf Pack, whose regular season ended a victory short of the Mountain West championship game because of a 30-20 loss to San Jose State on Dec. 11 in Las Vegas, will bring a 6-2 record into the Boise game. Tulane, of the American Athletic Conference, is 6-5.
“7-2 sounds way better than 6-3,” Hall said.
A record of 7-1 right now would have gotten the Wolf Pack into this Saturday’s (Dec. 19) Mountain West championship game against Boise State in Las Vegas. The Broncos (5-1), though, will meet San Jose State (6-0) for the conference title.
“We have to score more points to win a game like that,” Pack coach Jay Norvell said of the 20-point effort (all in the first half) against San Jose State. “But we have to shake that game off, obviously.”
Norvell, 1-1 in bowl games, will tie Ault for the most bowl wins (two) by a Wolf Pack coach in school history with a win over Tulane. The Pack is just 6-11 in bowls. Ault was 2-8, Joe Sheeketski and Brian Polian split their two bowl games and Jeff Tisdel went 1-0. This will be just the second time the Pack has gone to the same bowl game in two consecutive seasons. The Pack lost the 1995 Las Vegas Bowl to Toledo (40-37 in overtime) and returned to Sam Boyd Stadium the following postseason to beat Ball State, 18-15.
“This is a fun matchup,” Norvell said. “It will not be a boring game, I can tell you that. It will be a lot of fun to watch.”
Tulane is 6-7 in bowl games, winning the 2018 AutoNation Cure Bowl over Louisiana, 41-24, and the Armed Forces Bowl this past Jan. 4 over Southern Mississippi (30-13).
The Green Wave were members of the SEC from 1933-65, an independent from 1966-95, joined Conference USA in 1996 and the American Athletic Conference in 2014. Tulane played in the January 1932 Rose Bowl (losing to USC 21-12) and the 1934 (beating Temple, 20-14) and 1939 (losing to Texas A&M, 14-13) Sugar Bowls.
“They are an impressive team, talent-wise,” Norvell said. “They have a lot of size on their offensive and defensive lines and their skill players are also very physical.”
Tulane started slow this season, losing four of its first six games, allowing an average of 35 points a game. The Green Wave, though, has won four of its last five, scoring 35 or more points in each of the four victories.
Tulane’s last two victories were over teams that finished with a winning record, over Army (8-2) and Memphis (7-3). The Wolf Pack has not beaten a team this season that currently is over .500.
“This is a real important game for us,” Hall said. “We will still have a little chip on our shoulder going into the game and we want to get the bad taste out of our mouths (because of the loss to San Jose State).”
Tulane averages 396.4 yards a game on offense and gives up 417.6 a game. The Green Wave has struggled against the pass this season, despite sacking opposing quarterbacks 38 times. Tulane has allowed 299 or more yards and two or more touchdowns through the air in seven games this year. The Wolf Pack is 10th in the nation at 325.1 passing yards a game and has averaged 436.6 total yards a game (31st in the nation).
Tulane, though, can also throw the ball. Quarterback Michael Pratt, a true freshman, has passed for 1,638 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, compared to Strong’s 2,587 yards and 22 touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Pratt has started eight games this year (same as Strong).
The Green Wave running game is led by 5-foot-9 Stephon Huderson (721 yards, four touchdowns). Cameron Carroll (621, 11) and Amare Jones (389, 2) also get plenty of carries.
“They like to run the football,” Norvell said.
“That needs to be an emphasis for us,” said Hall of Tulane’s ground game.
Like most things during this COVID-19 pandemic season, this bowl game will not be a typical postseason experience for the Pack. Instead of traveling to the bowl city a week or so before the game and taking part in off-the-field activities all week, the Pack will travel to Boise on Monday, play the game on Tuesday and be home by Tuesday night.
“This will be very much like a regular season game,” Norvell said. “This is not like a normal bowl game.”
“We’re just focused on only the football game,” Strong said. “That’s what we’re there for.”
The Wolf Pack has played Tulane just once before, losing 34-17 at the New Orleans Superdome on Sept. 26, 1992 in Nevada’s fourth game as a Division I-A school.
Tulane ran for 265 yards on the Wolf Pack in that game and held Nevada to just 12 first downs. Wolf Pack quarterback Chris Vargas was just 10-of-25 for 135 yards, throwing a 37-yard touchdown pass to Michael Stephens. The Pack, though, did tie the game at 17-17 early in the third quarter on a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown by Bryan Reeves.
Tulane finished just 2-9 in 1992, winning between one and three games every year from 1991 through 1996. The Green Wave has not won more than seven games in a season or finished more than one game over .500 since it was 8-5 in 2002.
The Boise bowl game could have been the Wolf Pack’s second game against an American Athletic Conference team this season. The Pack was originally scheduled to play at South Florida in September but the game was canceled when schedules were modified because of COVID-19 precautions. The Pack has played six (Tulane, Central Florida, SMU, Tulsa, Cincinnati, South Florida) of the current dozen American Athletic Conference schools but none of those games took place after the conference was formed in 2013.
Tulane has played just four games against Mountain West teams. The Green Wave lost to BYU in both 2001 (70-35) and 2009 (54-3) and split two games with Hawaii, losing (35-23) in a regular season game at Honolulu and beating the Rainbow Warriors 36-28 in the 2002 Hawaii Bowl.
“We’re still trying to play our best game,” Norvell said.
If that does indeed happen on Tuesday the reward will be a bowl full of potatoes.