Nevada Wolf Pack’s Carson Strong: ‘Teams should be pretty scared, actually’
Carson Strong believes the Nevada Wolf Pack offense is just warming up.
“I really think we left a ton of plays out there,” said Strong after the Wolf Pack’s 37-34 overtime victory over Wyoming to open the season last Saturday at Mackay Stadium. “We could have put up a lot more points.”
The Wolf Pack, which will meet UNLV in the first college football game at the $2 billion Allegiant Stadium Saturday night (7:40 p.m., Fox Sports One) in Las Vegas, had 496 yards and 25 first downs against Wyoming.
“If we correct our mistakes we can really get rolling this year,” Strong said. “Teams should be pretty scared, actually.”
Strong, who was 39-of-52 for 420 yards and four touchdowns against Wyoming, set a school record for passing yards in a season opener. The only other Pack quarterback to throw for 400 or more yards to open a season is Mike Maxwell, who passed for 413 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette in 1995.
“I’ve been (playing well) in practice but I was kind of asking myself, ‘Can I be this good in a game?’” Strong said. “Obviously I can. I believe I can. It just feels good to actually do it.”
Strong is now 6-5 as the Wolf Pack starter.
“He’s been amazing,” Wolf Pack right guard Nate Brown said. “He really takes control of the offense. His preparation is really amazing. His knowledge of the offense has really grown from last year to this year.”
Jay Norvell, now 19-20 as Nevada’s head coach, never doubted that Strong would hit the ground throwing on Saturday.
“Carson has grown up in our system,” Norvell said. “He doesn’t have anything else that clutters his mind. This is what he’s learned in college and the kid really believes in it. He’s seeing the field the way we want him to see it.”
Both Strong and Norvell, though, agree that the offense is merely scratching the surface of its potential.
“We can push the envelope more,” Norvell said. “We can attack more. I’ve been a little hesitant the first (three) years. I just feel like we were a little bit inexperienced in certain places. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on the quarterback. But I do think that we’re at the level (now) where we can kind of take the handcuffs off and the training wheels off.”
The Wolf Pack has scored 59 points in its last two games against UNLV but lost both times. UNLV rallied from a 23-0 deficit to beat the Pack 34-29 in 2018 in Las Vegas and last year stunned the Pack 33-30 in overtime at Mackay Stadium. The Rebels have won four of the last seven games in the rivalry but Nevada leads the series 26-19.
“We all know what color the cannon is and we’ve got to get that changed,” Wolf Pack defensive lineman Sam Hammond said of the Fremont Cannon, which has been painted red the last two years.
A total of 1,950 tickets (3 percent of the 65,000 capacity) have been sold for Saturday night’s game. Each ticket, made available mainly to UNLV season ticket holders and boosters (150 were allotted to Wolf Pack fans), was priced at least $110, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The tickets were sold out in a couple hours on Tuesday.
The Rebels-Pack game, which will be played on artificial turf, will be the fourth game at the new stadium. The NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, which play on natural grass at Allegiant Stadium, have played three games, beating the New Orleans Saints (34-24) and losing to the Buffalo Bills (30-23) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (45-20).
Strong, who has passed for 400 or more yards in his last two games (he had 402 against Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in January), could set an Allegiant Stadium record for passing yards on Saturday.
The record right now is 369 by Tampa’s Tom Brady (set last week). The four quarterbacks who have played in the stadium (Brady, Derek Carr, Drew Brees and Josh Allen) have averaged 308 yards and 2.3 touchdowns a game.
“It doesn’t matter if we play this game in a billion dollar stadium or a parking lot,” Norvell said. “We’ll play them in the Caesar’s Palace parking lot. It doesn’t matter.”
The game was originally going to be played in late November, closing out the regular season, before the Mountain West schedule was reorganized last month. The Pack now gets to make history as part of the first college football game ever played in Allegiant.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Brown said. “I’ve seen pictures of the stadium. I’m super excited about it, to be part of such a cool event.”
“I think it will hit me later,” Wolf Pack senior tight end Reagan Roberson said. “Maybe when I’m reminiscing in January when I’m washed up and taking a look at pictures and scores. That’s probably when it will hit me that we were the first college team to play in the stadium.”
The Wolf Pack, first and foremost, has one goal in mind for Saturday night — to bring the Fremont Cannon back to Northern Nevada. The only other times the Wolf Pack was able to roll a red Fremont Cannon off the field in Las Vegas and take it home was in 1972, 1978, 2014 and 2016.
“We want to get that cannon back for sure,” said Wolf Pack cornerback Berdale Robbins, who had a key fourth-quarter interception against Wyoming.
“We (the seniors) want to end our career with a blue cannon,” Brown said.
Norvell is 1-2 against UNLV in his career. Every Wolf Pack coach except one (Jeff Tisdel, 1996-99) who has faced UNLV at least three times has lost at least two of his first three games in the rivalry. Tisdel was 4-0. Even Chris Ault lost two of his first three against UNLV, as did Jerry Scattini, and Brian Polian. Chris Tormey lost all four of his UNLV games while Jeff Horton won his only Fremont Cannon game as Pack coach.
“We know the importance of the game,” said Norvell, who has had Ault talk to the Pack players in each of the past four years, including this past Monday. “We emphasize it. It’s a sense of pride for our community to have that cannon.
“People talk about it everywhere. We feel a responsibility to have it here. Our kids are motivated to bring it back to Reno. There’s an empty space here when it’s not here. It doesn’t sit well with us.”
Strong completed 33-of-54 passes last year against UNLV for 351 yards with one touchdown. His presence on the field this Saturday could be the biggest difference between the two rivals.
UNLV used three quarterbacks last week in its one-sided 34-6 loss to San Diego State. Starter Max Gilliam, a senior, was 13-of-21 for 105 yards and a touchdown. Sophomores Kenyon Oblad (the Rebel starter last year against the Pack) and Justin Rogers (a transfer from TCU), were both 2-of-4.
Rebel running back Charles Williams, who had 138 yards and a touchdown against the Pack last season, had 80 yards on 20 carries against San Diego State. The Rebels, though, had just 25 total yards at halftime against the Aztecs and finished with just 186.
“I think we’re going to learn from this,” said UNLV rookie head coach Marcus Arroyo, a former San Jose State quarterback (1998-2002). “The players are hurting; I think we all are.”
Arroyo was Oregon’s offensive coordinator last year that helped the Ducks whip the Pack 77-6. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert tossed five touchdown passes and backup Tyler Shough added two more.
The Pack is favored against the Rebels by roughly two touchdowns.
“It doesn’t matter what the records are, what the line of the game is or what happened last week,” Norvell said. “It’s all about that day. Obviously UNLV did not play well in its opening game. But I don’t expect to see that team on Saturday. You’ll see a different UNLV team show up Saturday night.”
Norvell also hopes he sees a different Wolf Pack team this Saturday compared to the last two that faced UNLV.
“I don’t think we had our entire focus and attention all the way through four quarters,” Norvell said of the last two losses to the Rebels.
“You’ll get the best from each team,” Brown said.