‘Urgency’ the word as Nevada Wolf Pack hosts San Jose State
For the Nevada Appeal
The Nevada Wolf Pack’s football season is at a crossroads.
“In my opinion, we have a one-game season this week,” coach Jay Norvell said. “You can say that the urgency has stepped up a little bit.”
The Wolf Pack, 3-2 overall, 0-1 in the Mountain West and coming off a stunning 54-3 loss at home against Hawaii on Sept. 28, will host the San Jose State Spartans (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday (1 p.m., AT&T Sportsnet) at Mackay Stadium.
“They are a lot like us,” San Jose State coach Brent Brennan said. “Two 3-2 teams. Both have played well at times and have not played well at times.”
It has been a while since the Wolf Pack has been compared on an equal basis with San Jose State. The Spartans, after all, finished 1-11 last year and 2-11 in 2017 and were a combined 2-14 in Mountain West games in the two seasons combined.
But that is where the Wolf Pack finds itself after a bye week after the 51-point loss to Hawaii.
“We are making a lot of changes,” Norvell said.
One of those changes is at quarterback. Malik Henry, a junior college transfer from Independence College in Kansas, will get his first Division I start against San Jose State. Henry will be the Pack’s third starting quarterback in its last three games after Cristian Solano started against UTEP on Sept. 21 and Carson Strong started against Hawaii.
“Malik gives us the best chance to win,” Norvell said. “He’s excited to play and we’re excited to see him play.”
Henry was told last week that he would start against San Jose State and has gotten the majority of the repetitions in practice over the last two weeks. He has completed all three of his passes this season for 28 yards.
“This is not going to be the magic decision that makes us a special football team,” Norvell said. “But we feel like Malik gives us a real chance. He’s got real good athletic ability, he’s got a really accurate arm and he’s got a real good football mind.”
“We’re confident in all our quarterbacks,” Wolf Pack cornerback Daniel Brown said. “But Malik is getting the nod this week so we’re supporting him.”
The 21-year-old Henry was a 2016 Florida State recruit out of Long Beach Poly High School, the same school that produced San Jose State quarterback Josh Love. Love threw for 3,199 yards and 41 touchdowns in his senior season at Long Beach Poly in 2014. Henry transferred to Long Beach Poly for his 2015 senior year and passed for 1,410 yards and 16 touchdowns in just seven games after becoming eligible to play.
“Their quarterback has played real good,” said Norvell of Love. “He’s taking care of the football and spreading it around to different receivers.”
Love is third in the Mountain West in passing efficiency and has passed for 1,418 yards and seven touchdowns this year with just one interception. He threw for 405 yards in a 32-21 victory over New Mexico a week ago. His top target so far has been wide receiver Tre Walker (25 catches, 360 yards, no touchdowns), though he has completed at least nine passes to eight receivers this year.
“Josh has done a fantastic job of distributing the football,” said Brennan, who has a record of 6-24 in two-plus seasons at San Jose State. “He’s seeing the field better and he feels a lot more comfortable. He’s playing with confidence and he’s throwing the football very accurately.”
Love is now in his fourth season at San Jose State but this will be his first career start against the Wolf Pack. His only other appearance against the Wolf Pack was in 2017 at Mackay Stadium, when he played briefly in the fourth quarter of a 59-14 Wolf Pack victory, going 0-for-1 and getting sacked by former Pack defensive lineman Malik Reed.
Love did not play in the Wolf Pack’s 21-12 win at San Jose State last year. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound quarterback, though, did play in eight games in 2018, throwing for 1,963 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“When you watch them on film they just look a lot more confident,” Brown said.
The Wolf Pack has dominated San Jose State in recent years, winning 14 of its last 16 meetings with the Spartans since 2002. The Pack leads the series 21-9-2 since it began in 1899 with a 6-0 Pack win on its Northern Nevada campus.
Norvell, though, said his Wolf Pack is in no position to take any team lightly right now.
“We beat Hawaii the last two years,” Norvell said. “You don’t think they were talking about playing us (this season) and beating us? This team (San Jose State) is the same way. We’ve beaten them the last two years. I’m sure they’ve been talking about coming up here and getting a piece of us.”
The Spartans are well aware of the Wolf Pack’s dominance in this rivalry.
“This team has given us fits for years,” said Brennan of the Wolf Pack. “We have not won up there since I’ve been in fourth grade or something. I don’t know how long it has been but it’s been forever.”
The 46-year-old Brennan was 27 years old when the Spartans last won at Mackay Stadium, earning a 49-30 win over the Pack in 2000. Since then, however, the Pack has won eight games in a row over the Spartans at Mackay Stadium by an average score of 41-19.
The Wolf Pack has had some one-sided victories over San Jose State in recent memory. Two, though, stand out.
The Wolf Pack’s Dameon Baber intercepted three passes and returned two of them for touchdowns and also returned a punt for a touchdown in the Pack’s 59-14 win over the Spartans at Mackay Stadium in 2017. Four Pack players (Colin Kaepernick, Vai Taua, Luke Lippincott and Lampford Mark) all went over 100 yards rushing in a 62-7 Pack win in San Jose in 2009.
Henry will be looking to become the third Wolf Pack quarterback (after Strong, Solano) to record his first career victory as a starter this season. Strong beat Purdue 34-31 in his first start against Purdue while Solano beat UTEP 37-21 in his second career start.
“You just can’t let your guard down,” Norvell said.
San Jose State is last in the Mountain West in rushing at 104.8 yards a game and last in the conference in stopping the run at 223.4 yards a game.
Norvell hinted that the Wolf Pack might put more emphasis on its running game this week. Sophomore Toa Taua leads the Pack in rushing with 269 yards and ran for 121 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries last year at San Jose State. It was Taua’s 9-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter that finally gave the Pack some breathing room in last year’s game at San Jose.
“I told Toa Taua to get his tail in bed this week and get some rest,” Norvell said.
San Jose State leads the nation with a plus-11 turnover margin. The Spartans have taken the ball away 15 times on 11 interceptions and four fumble recoveries. They’ve scored 37 points this year off turnovers while their opponents have failed to score a single point off a turnover.
“That’s a beautiful recipe for winning football games,” Norvell said.
The Wolf Pack is anxious to get back on the field and start to erase the memory of its 54-3 loss to Hawaii two weeks ago.
“The team that is hungry to prove something usually wins,” Norvell said.
“This game is important for us,” Brown said. “We have to show how well we respond to getting our butts kicked.”