With Fresno coming, Nevada Wolf Pack eyes Mountain West title game
Editor’s Note: The University of Nevada announced Friday afternoon that the game has been moved up to a 6 p.m. kickoff on Saturday night.
The game was originally scheduled for 7:30 p.m. It will be broadcast on FS2 and the radio call can be heard on the Wolf Pack Radio Network (ESPN Radio 94.5 FM) with the pregame show starting at 5 p.m.
The Nevada Wolf Pack will not achieve all of its goals this season.
“Our goal was to win all our games,” head coach Jay Norvell said this week. “That was our goal. We knew if we could play to our potential that was a realistic thing.”
The goal of the first perfect season in school history disappeared last Saturday night in a 24-21 loss at Hawaii, leaving the Wolf Pack at 5-1 with two games to play.
“Everyone is upset,” Pack quarterback Carson Strong said. “Everyone knows we could have played a lot better. But, at the end of the day, we’re still sitting in a good spot and still in control of what happens. If we win out, we’re in it.”
A perfect season is gone forever but a dream season is still very much alive. The Wolf Pack will earn a spot in the Mountain West title game on Dec. 19 with victories over Fresno State this Saturday night (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 2) at Mackay Stadium and next weekend against San Jose State.
The game against San Jose State is scheduled to be played in the Bay Area but could be moved to Mackay Stadium because the Spartans are not allowed to play games in Santa Clara County because of local COVID-19 restrictions. If the game is moved to Reno the Pack will end up playing seven of its eight games this regular season in the state of Nevada. The only game out of Nevada thus far was last weekend in Honolulu, the site of the Pack’s only loss this year.
“This is a must-win game,” said Strong of the meeting with Fresno State.
Fresno State will bring a 3-1 record and a three-game winning streak to Mackay Stadium. The Bulldogs, though fresh and rested, will also likely be rusty and out of rhythm because of a three-week layoff because of COVID cancelations. Fresno’s last game was a 35-16 victory over Utah State on Nov. 14. The Bulldogs, which will wrap up their regular season at New Mexico on Dec. 12, will not play another home game this year and will end up playing as many games in the state of Nevada as California (two) this year. The Bulldogs won at UNLV, 40-27, on Nov. 7.
“They’ve had three weeks off,” Strong said. “They could come out (on defense and offense) in almost anything. We have to be ready for anything.”
Fresno State hasn’t lost a game since dropping a 34-19 decision to Hawaii on Oct. 24.
“Fresno is a dynamic team,” Norvell said. “We expect to see the best Fresno team that has played this year.”
Nobody, not even Fresno State, really knows what to expect out of the Bulldogs this week, given their 21-day layoff. Fresno State had home games against San Jose State (Nov. 21) and San Diego State (Nov. 27) called off because of COVID-19 complications.
“We were riding a three-game winning streak,” Fresno State rookie head coach Kalen DeBoer said. “We were a hot football team that was getting better. Now we have to get back in game mode.”
The Bulldogs are led by 6-foot-1 junior quarterback Jake Haener and 5-9 senior running back Ronnie Rivers.
Haener (Fresno State might also use 6-4 sophomore Ben Wooldridge at quarterback on Saturday) has completed 83-of-124 passes for 1,186 yards and nine touchdowns this year in just four games. He is second in the Mountain West in total offense at 312.5 yards per game, trailing only Nevada’s Carson Strong (315.2).
Rivers has 439 yards and seven touchdowns on 85 rushing attempts and has also caught 18 passes for 227 yards and two more scores. His nine touchdowns are tied with Wolf Pack wide receiver Romeo Doubs (37 catches, 788 yards) for the Mountain West lead.
Rivers, who has scored at least one touchdown in each of his last 12 games, has plenty of experience playing against the Wolf Pack. In three previous games against Nevada he has 114 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries and has caught 10 passes for 131 yards and three more scores. Rivers, who has a Fresno State record 44 career touchdowns, has just 32 rushing yards on 12 carries over his last two games against the Pack.
“Ronnie Rivers is an outstanding player and has been in this conference for a while,” said Wolf Pack linebacker Lawson Hall, who has 29 tackles over his last three games and a team-high 43 for the season. “We have to do a good job of containing him.”
The Wolf Pack, hopeful that defensive tackle Dom Peterson will return to the field after suffering an ankle injury against Hawaii, struggled at times on defense last week. Hawaii converted 10-of-15 third and fourth down plays into first downs and kept the ball for the final 5:24 of the game, protecting a 24-21 lead. The Wolf Pack offense, though, also struggled to put points on the scoreboard despite controlling the ball for 32 of the game’s first 54-plus minutes.
“That game taught us a lot about ourselves,” Hall said, “how gritty we are. We just couldn’t get the job done.”
“We’ve got to get off the field (on defense),” Norvell said.
Hawaii double-teamed Doubs last Saturday and held the Mountain West’s leading receiver to just one catch.
“It does start with him, no question about it,” said the 46-year-old DeBoer, who was Indiana’s offensive coordinator in 2019 before replacing Jeff Tedford as Fresno State’s head coach last December. “Their (Hawaii’s) strategy worked and they held him in check. We are certainly conscious of who he (Doubs) is and where he’s (going to be) at.”
The Wolf Pack offense has seen a dip in production over its last three games. The Pack averaged 36 points and 512 yards over its first three games but has dropped to 24.6 points and 381 yards a game over its last three games.
DeBoer, though, is well aware of the Pack’s firepower.
“When you watch them, you look right to their skill players,” DeBoer said. “They make you cover them all. And Strong is efficient, he knows where to go with the ball and he understands the system and he understands his players.”
DeBoer was Fresno State’s offensive coordinator when the Bulldogs beat the Pack in 2017 (41-21 at Fresno) and 2018 (21-3 at Mackay Stadium). The Pack won at Fresno State 35-28 last season on a 3-yard touchdown run by Toa Taua with 12 seconds to play. Taua had 135 yards on 20 carries, Doubs caught two short touchdown passes and Strong was 20-of-31 for 154 yards and three scores.
“We’ve had an opportunity to watch a lot of film the last three weeks,” DeBoer said.
DeBoer is confident the Bulldogs will be allowed to play on Saturday, though he doesn’t know how many of his players will be able to participate.
“We definitely should be hungry,” said DeBoer of Saturday’s critical game. “Our guys are anxious to get back on the football field. It’s just nice to talk about a game week again.”
The Wolf Pack, which had not lost a game since Jan. 3 (to Ohio, 30-21, in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Jan. 3) until last Saturday, are also anxious to get back on the field. The goal of winning the school’s first Mountain West title is still on the table.
“Our coaches reassured us that it (the loss at Hawaii) is not the end of the world,” Hall said. “Everything is going to be OK. We’re going to be fine.”
Norvell all but predicted this week that the Pack will be in the Mountain West title game.
“When we look up in a couple weeks we should have an opportunity for something special,” he said. “That’s the way we look at it.”