Defense, run game among positives for Wolf Pack in Norvell debut
The scoreboard at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. read Northwestern 31, Nevada 20 when triple zeroes appeared after the fourth quarter on Saturday afternoon. It says Jay Norvell fell in his first game on the Wolf Pack sideline.
And while Nevada did lose and now heads into its home opener on Saturday against Toledo with an 0-1 record, the positives of the performance against a team some pundits believe is a contender for the Big 10 – West is the real takeaway.
The worst rushing defense of all 128 FBS programs in 2016 held arguably the Big 10’s best running back, Justin Jackson, to 109 yards on 30 carries and kept him out of the end zone. As a team, Northwestern was limited to 156 yards on 50 carries (3.1 yards/carry).
The air-raid offense showed signs of explosiveness. Wyatt Demps tied the game at 7-7 with 5:31 left in the first on an 11-yard slant from Ty Gangi, capping a eight-play 75-yard drive that lasted 102 seconds. Freshman McClane Mannix’s first collegiate reception was a 41-yard touchdown grab that gave Nevada its first lead, 14-7, at the 9:48 mark in the second.
The run game some believed would disappear, despite Norvell’s constant dissent to the notion all offseason, was far more effective than Northwestern’s. Nevada ran the ball 26 times (compared to 37 pass attempts) for 142 yards (5.5 yards/carry). Sophomore Jaxson Kincaide led the team with 92 yards on 15 carries.
The battle between the big boys was largely won by Nevada. The inexperienced Union routinely carved lanes for the running game and did not allow a sack on 37 pass attempts.
Pessimists will point to Nevada getting outscored 24-3 in the second half, or allowing Clayton Thorson to connect on 25-of-38 passes for 352 yards with two touchdowns and a pick, or the handful of open receivers Gangi missed downfield.
Those things happen in a first game with a new coaching staff and entirely new philosophies on both sides of the ball. They’re particularly likely when that game is on the road in a season opener against a quality opponent like Northwestern.
The scoreboard doesn’t paint a fair depiction of Nevada’s effort. After holding a 17-7 halftime lead, the Wolf Pack’s lead sat at 24-20 near the five-minute mark in the fourth with the Wildcats marching. Jackson ran into a defender, broke loose, then fumbled the football. Nevada clearly recovered. Refs determined Jackson’s forward progress had been stopped, ruling him down, but video replay revealed whistles did not come until after the fumble recovery.
Northwestern went on to finish the drive off and take its first lead since 7-0, adding another score in the waning minutes after Nevada was stuffed on fourth-and-3 at its own 47 on a suspect play call.
The forward progress call swung the game. But it didn’t erase Nevada’s eye-opening showing, proving this season may bring more wins than many initially thought.
Nevada hosts Toledo, the MAC preseason favorite, on Saturday at Mackay Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.