Nevada Wolf Pack’s remaining goals start with Fresno State
For the Nevada Appeal
The Nevada Wolf Pack football team will not win the Mountain West championship this year. The Pack will not win the West Division title. The Wolf Pack’s goal this year, however, is still to feel like a champion when the season is over.
“This team has had a lot of ups and downs this year,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said, “but the final chapter for this team has not been written yet.”
The Wolf Pack (6-4, 3-3) will bring a modest two-game winning streak to Fresno State this Saturday night (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) when it faces the struggling Bulldogs (4-6, 2-4). The Pack’s hope is to end the season on a five-game winning streak with two regular season games and a bowl game remaining to win nine games for the first time since the 2010 team finished 13-1.
“We want to finish strong and win as many games as we can,” said Norvell, who has a record of 17-18 as the Wolf Pack’s head coach. “This team has a chance to do something special.”
The Wolf Pack has won nine or more games in a season just five times since it joined Division I-A (FBS) in 1992. The Pack won nine games for three years in a row from 1994-96 (9-2, 9-3, 9-3) and was 9-3 in 2005 and 13-1 in 2010.
“It’s a huge feat to win five straight games,” defensive lineman Sam Hammond said. “That would give us a lot of confidence going into next season, a confidence builder for this young team.”
“We want to finish the season with nine wins,” quarterback Carson Strong said. “We want to win every game. There is still a ton of goals we can accomplish.”
The Pack’s goal of winning the West Division and earning a spot in the Mountain West title game on Dec. 7 evaporated last weekend when San Diego State beat Fresno State, 17-7, and Hawaii beat UNLV, 21-7. The San Diego State at Hawaii game this Saturday will determine the West champion.
All three teams (San Diego State, Nevada, Hawaii) could still finish tied for first in the division with a 5-3 conference record. But Hawaii would win the tie-breaker in that three-way tie because it would have beaten both San Diego State and Nevada this year. Nevada’s only hope for a West title going into last week’s games was to finish in a tie atop the division with San Diego State at 5-3 because it would then win the division because it beat San Diego State 17-13 two weeks ago.
“It’s a bummer that we aren’t going to go for the West anymore,” said Strong who has a record of 4-3 as a starting quarterback. “But we had our chances. And even though we can’t win the West, we still want to beat Fresno as badly as we did before.”
The win over San Diego State, followed by a bye, has seemingly given the Pack new confidence.
“It wasn’t always pretty but the way we played a complete game as a team and competed and was focused, that was pretty,” Norvell said.
“We knew these two games (at San Diego State two weeks ago and Fresno State this week, separated by a bye week) would be slug matches,” Hammond said. “It was good to have a bye in between.”
The Pack is a 14-point underdog at Fresno State according to Nevada sports books.
“We didn’t play a perfect game against San Diego State and I don’t think we have to play perfect against Fresno State to win either,” Hammond said. “We just have to play hard and be focused and we’re doing that.”
Fresno’s chances to win the West disappeared with its loss to San Diego State last week. The Bulldogs, winner of the West the past two seasons, now need to win the last two games to even qualify for a bowl game. Seven Mountain West teams, including Nevada, have already won enough games (six or more) to qualify for a bowl invitation.
“We know that the more games we win, the better bowl game we’ll get,” Norvell said.
Three other teams in the Mountain West (Fresno State, San Jose State, Colorado State) are now sitting at four victories with two games to play.
“It’s hard to come away with not being successful as hard as we play,” said Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford, who lost to the Wolf Pack in 2010 in Reno and 2012 in Berkeley, Calif., as Cal’s head coach. “It hasn’t gone our way in the win column this year but that hasn’t diminished the fact that these guys play hard and compete every down.”
Fresno State beat the Wolf Pack the past two seasons, 21-3 last year in Reno and 41-21 in Fresno two years ago, with Tedford as coach.
“We haven’t played well against this team the last two years,” said Norvell, who is 0-2 in his Pack head coaching career against the Bulldogs.
Strong will be the fourth Nevada quarterback to start against Fresno State in the last four years after Tyler Stewart (2016), Ty Gangi (2017) and Cristian Solano (2018).
“Carson is really dialing into his role as a leader,” Norvell said. “We have a good quarterback who continues to improve. I’ve seen it happen a lot of times. A young quarterback gets a chance to play right away (Strong started four of the first five games before being benched for two games in favor of Malik Henry) and then he sits out a few games and it becomes a positive because he can sit back and learn and see the big picture.
“We had Peyton Manning as a rookie in 1998 and he was real horrible (3-16 record),” said Norvell, who was an Indianapolis Colts assistant coach in 1998. “But nobody worked harder or watched more film than Peyton and nobody improved as much as Peyton because he worked harder than anybody.
“Carson kind of has that same quality. Carson has watched more film than anybody in the building and nobody has worked harder.”
The Wolf Pack offense, which is still last in the Mountain West at 19.1 points a game, hasn’t been dynamic lately with just 38 points combined in its two-game winning streak against New Mexico and San Diego State. Strong has been solid since he regained the starting job the past three games, completing 73-of-106 passes for 699 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The Pack, though, might need to be more explosive on offense against Fresno since the Bulldogs average 31.6 points a game.
“We still have a lot of points we can put up that we haven’t been,” Strong said. “But I feel like I get better each time I go out on the field. The game is slowing down for me.”
Strong said he is learning patience as a quarterback.
“I tend to want to go deep but I need to just take what the defense is giving me,” Strong said. “We need to move the ball methodically against them, one play at a time and just worry about getting the first down.”
Strong has passed for 1,428 yards this year with six touchdowns and seven interceptions in seven games. Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna has thrown for 2,242 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 10 games.
“Jorge is one of the best competitors I’ve ever been around,” said Tedford, who coached Aaron Rodgers and Kyle Boller as Cal’s head coach, Trent Dilfer and Billy Volek as a Fresno State assistant and Joey Harrington and Akili Smith as an Oregon assistant.
“The way he’s taken the team on his shoulders, the way he makes plays with his legs, he’s just a solid competitor,” said Tedford of Reyna. “He takes losses hard. He takes them personal. He’s just a tough kid.”
“Their quarterback is very mobile,” said Hammond, who is from Yerington. “He’s a slippery guy.”
“He (Reyna) is very athletic and can give you problems with his feet and his arm,” Norvell said. “They have shown the ability to put points on the board.”
Norvell likes where his team is at right now.
“I’m excited to see us play,” Norvell said. “We’re fresh. We’re excited. Our teams knows what it needs to do to win the game.”