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Wyoming visits as Nevada Wolf Pack finally opens season

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
Wyoming quarterback Tyler Vander Waal (18), Skyler Miller (35), Davon Wells-Ross (41) in the second half during the Arizona Bowl college football game against Georgia State, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, in Tucson, AZ.
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

The Nevada Wolf Pack is indeed ready for some football.

“We’ve been preparing for this moment for a while,” senior linebacker Lawson Hall said this week.

The Wolf Pack’s season, which was originally scheduled to begin on Aug. 29 against UC Davis, will finally kickoff Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. (CBS Sports Network) at Mackay Stadium against the Wyoming Cowboys. No fans will be allowed into the stadium because of COVID-19 safety measures.

“It’s kind of surreal now,” said Hall, who was voted one of the Pack’s four team captains by his teammates along with quarterback Carson Strong, offensive lineman Jermaine Ledbetter and defensive lineman Sam Hammond. “It’s unbelievable we are at this point but we’re grateful for this opportunity.”

The season for the Wolf Pack has been shrunk to just eight Mountain West games and the conference has been tightened from two six-team divisions to one 12-team cluster. The top two teams will meet in the conference title game Dec. 19.

“At the end of the year the cream will rise to the top,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “Thank goodness we’re getting a chance to play. We’re excited to have something to zero in on.”

Norvell, who traveled to Michigan this week to attend the funeral of his father, Merritt Norvell, is expected to return to Northern Nevada later this week and be on the sidelines Saturday.

Wolf Pack fans, however, will have to be satisfied with watching the game on their favorite electronic device from outside the stadium.

“It definitely won’t have the same environment or the same feel,” said Strong, who will be starting his second season opener. “But I’m still going to be excited to play the game. Fans or no fans, I just want to play some ball.”

“We’re going to play our hearts out regardless,” Hall said.

But it will be a new experience for everyone on the field and sidelines.

“It’s going to be important that our young men pull for each other and feed off each other,” said Wolf Pack offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, who talked to the media this week while Norvell was in Michigan. “If we all play together and have energy for each other we’ll have a lot of success.”

While Mackay Stadium has rarely been filled with spectators (Norvell’s Pack teams have never even drawn as many as 22,000 fans to the 27,000-seat stadium in three seasons), a quiet environment will be strange.

“I’m not sure what it will be like,” Hall said. “I’ve never had to do it. I’ve played scrimmages (with no fans present) and it didn’t feel like a game atmosphere at all. But it shouldn’t be a problem and I’m excited to see what it’s going to feel like.”

Wyoming coach Craig Bohl, whose Cowboys finished 8-5 last season overall and 4-4 in the Mountain West (the Pack was 7-6, 4-4), said the atmosphere will likely feel like a practice.

“It’s kind of like having a scrimmage that’s closed (to fans),” Bohl said. “You will certainly hear your opponents yelling across the field. I’ve coached at other places in my career where the crowd was so small there wasn’t any noise except for the band and once the band left that was it for the noise. It will be kind of like that.”

Wyoming dominated the Wolf Pack last year in Wyoming, winning 31-3 at War Memorial Stadium. Cowboys running back Xazavian Valladay ran for 206 yards on 26 carries and quarterback Sean Chambers completed 6-of-9 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a touchdown.

Chambers, who suffered a knee injury in the victory over Nevada and missed the final five games, is expected to start on Saturday. Backup quarterback Levi Williams, who passed for 234 yards and three touchdowns in Wyoming’s 38-17 win over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl last year, will also play.

“We feel very comfortable playing either one of them,” Bohl said.

Both teams will have a familiar look on offense. Chambers, Williams and Valladay, who had a Mountain West-leading 1,265 yards rushing in 2019, will be featured by the Cowboys while Strong will lead a Nevada offense that also returns wide receivers Elijah Cooks and Romeo Doubs and running backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee.

The Wyoming and Nevada defenses, though, will be vastly different from a year ago. The Pack has a new defensive coordinator (former Syracuse defensive coordinator Brian Ward) and Wyoming lost a ton of talent off a defense that allowed just under 18 points a game a year ago (the Pack allowed 32 points a game). That Cowboys defense a year ago held Taua to 21 yards on 11 carries.

Gone from Wyoming’s defense from 2019 are all-conference linebackers Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia, safety Alijah Halliburton and cornerback Tyler Hall. Also missing on Saturday will be defensive linemen Solomon Byrd, Rome Weber, Mario Mora, Claude Cole and Davon Wells-Ross, who all opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19.

“We’re concerned about the depth on the defensive line,” Bohl said. “We’re not as deep as we have been.”

The Wolf Pack defense under Ward will feature some familiar names, such as Hammond, Dom Peterson and Kam Toomer on the defensive line as well as Hall and Lamin Touray at linebacker and E.J. Muhammad, Berdale Robbins and Tyson Williams in the secondary. Senior defensive back Austin Arnold will sit out Saturday’s game as part of his suspension for taking part in the fight against UNLV last November.

“Our expectations are to be the best defense in the conference,” Ward said.

Although the 2020 season was delayed eight weeks, this Saturday’s game will not be the latest season opener in Wolf Pack history. The 1896 season began on Nov. 7 and the 1897 season started on Nov. 27. The last time the Pack opened a season in October, though, was 1953 (a 27-7 win over Chico State on Oct. 10). The only other time the Wolf Pack opened a season against Wyoming was 1992 with a 25-6 loss on the road in Nevada’s first game as a Division I-A school.

The Wolf Pack and Cowboys have a history of playing entertaining games. The Pack beat the Cowboys 9-7 in 1932 on a 20-yard field goal by Pat Eaton with just under a minute to play and beat the Cowboys 35-28 in overtime at Mackay Stadium in 2012 on a 24-yard pass from Devin Combs to Aaron Bradley. Wyoming leads the series 5-3 and has won the last three (2015, 2016 and 2019).

“We’re going to have to be physical and play old school football against them,” Hall said. “They like to run the ball and they don’t get out of character for anyone. We have to make sure we play well when we’re tired and fatigued and just be physical the entire game.”

This season promises to be one of the most unique in Wolf Pack history, given the health concerns off the field because of COVID-19. Mountain West players will be tested three times a week all season long and the results will likely have a big impact on the success of each team. One Mountain West game (New Mexico at Colorado State this Saturday) has already been cancelled because of a COVID-19 outbreak (in New Mexico) and won’t likely be rescheduled.

“When we get done with this season we’re all going to look back and it’s going to be a very unusual year,” Norvell said. “But all through this thing we’ve tried to have the mentality of only worrying about the things we can control.”