Nevada to debut new air-raid offense, 3-3-5 defense in Big 10 country
To say Nevada is going to have a new look this year would be an injustice to adjective.
Jay Norvell will grace the sidelines at Northwestern on Saturday as a head for the first time after three decades as an assistant at nine different collegiate programs and two NFL franchises (Oakland and Indianapolis). He replaced Brian Polian in December. Polian went 23-27 in four years with the Wolf Pack.
Norvell traded a run-oriented offense for the air raid. Alabama junior grad transfer David Cornwell and returning starting quarterback Ty Gangi are listed as co-starters on this week’s depth chart. Both are anticipated to get snaps.
New defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel installed a 3-3-5 defense that will play to the group’s strength in the secondary. But that’s not the unit’s main concern. Nevada had the worst rushing defense of all 128 FBS programs a season ago, allowing just shy of 300 yards a game on the ground.
The staff is new. The players are new. The schemes, on both sides of the ball, are new. Even the uniforms are new. And it will all be unveiled Saturday.
It will be the first time since 2013 (the first year of Polian’s tenure) Nevada opens the season on the road. The Wolf Pack dropped the 2013 opener at UCLA, 58-20.
Nevada and Northwestern have played just two times prior, a home-and-home in 2006 and 2007, with the home team winning both contests. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern was picked to finished second in the Big 10 – West behind Wisconsin. Expectations are lower for Nevada, which was picked to finish fourth in the downtrodden Mountain West – West division. Vegas put the over/under for Wolf Pack wins this fall at 3.5.
Kickoff on Saturday is at 12:30 p.m. The game will be aired and streamed by the Big 10 Network. John Ramey will also make his inaugural radio call on ESPN Radio 94.5 FM as the new voice of Nevada. Ramey took over for Ryan Radtke, who took a job in the offseason with Westwood One after nearly a decade with the Wolf Pack.
About the Wildcats
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (12th season, 77-61)
2016 Finish: 7-6, 5-4 Fifth in Big 10 – West
Quarterback: Redshirt junior Clayton Thorson is entering his third season as Northwestern’s starting signal caller. Thorson is a big kid at 6-4 225 pounds and is a threat with his legs, although he wasn’t as dangerous tucking the rock last year. He set Northwestern’s single-season record with 22 passing touchdowns in 2016 and became just the fourth player in school history to break the 3,000-yard barrier (3,182 yards). He didn’t turn the ball over much, either. He threw just nine interceptions on 378 attempts. His 1.88 interception percentage was also the fourth-best in school history (100-attempt minimum). He’ll work behind an offensive line that returns four starters, but lost his favorite target Austin Carr, who is now with the New England Patriots. Carr was the Big 10’s Howard-Richter Reciever of the Year, annually given the conference’s top pass catcher. He grabbed 90 passes for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Weapons: Senior Justin Jackson is the man out of Northwestern’s backfield. The four-year starter was a First-Team All-Big 10 selection last year after leading the conference in rushing yards (1,524) and touchdowns (15). His 4,129 career yards are the second-most in program history and gets a favorable start to his quest for a fourth-straight 1,000-yard season against Nevada’s vulnerable run defense. Standing 5-11, junior Flynn Nagel is the team’s leading returning receiver. He caught 40 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore. Senior tight end Garrett Dickson is a primary red zone target for Thorson. Five of his 34 receptions last year resulted in an end zone celebration, tied for the most touchdowns among Big 10 tight ends.
What to look for?
-The air-raid offense was the talk of the program when Norvell was hired in December and that’s still largely the case over eight months later. Norvell didn’t have to name a starting quarterback this week, so he didn’t, listing Cornwell and Gangi as co-starters and giving Northwestern one more thing to plan for. Both will presumably see the field and throw at a Northwestern secondary that brings back all four starters, but gave up its share of yards in 2016. The Wildcats allowed more than 265 passing yards a game last year, which ranked 109th in the country. They made up for it with 16 interceptions, good for the 14th most in the country. Norvell would rather see one of his signal callers win the job. Northwestern’s interception-happy secondary could give one of the quarterbacks the starting role by default.
-Can Nevada stop, no, slow down the run game? Offense is responsible for revenue, and defense keeps coaches around. The Wolf Pack’s run defense had a nightmarish 2016 season and the progression of Casteel’s 3-3-5 scheme in slowing opponents on the ground is perhaps the largest determining factor for the 2017 campaign. The Wildcats were a below-average running team last year, despite Jackson’s presence in the backfield, averaging 153.2 rush yards per game (10th in the Big 10). For perspective, Nevada averaged 174. Then again, the Big 10 and Mountain West are very different conferences. Saturday provides a bona fide challenge for Nevada’s defensive front, which will do battle with a tested offensive line with a noticeable size advantage.
-Will the offensive line hold blocks long enough for the air-raid to take off? The Union is the most inexperienced it’s been in years and will hardly ease into 2017 on the road in a loud Big 10 environment. Junior left guard Anthony Palomares and sophomore right tackle Jake Nelson are making their first career starts. Junior center Sean Krepsz moved to the center position from guard. And senior right guard Ziad Damanhoury played sparingly as a junior after starting eight games as a sophomore. Senior left tackle Austin Corbett is the most experienced returner. The four-year starter and Reed product was one of Nevada’s two preseason All-Mountain selections (DE Malik Reed). Their biggest concern will be senior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster. Stats are hard to come by at the position, but Lancaster recorded 28 tackles last year, 3.5 for loss. The 6-4 315-pounder was ranked 32nd on Sports Illustrated “Freaks” of College Football List.
-Nevada lost the best player on its roster this summer when senior running back James Butler opted to graduate early and transfer to Iowa. Norvell was persistent even after losing Butler’s 1,336 yards and 15 touchdowns of production in 2016, and moving to the air-raid offense, the run game will remain a priority. Sophomore Jaxson Kincaide will start on Saturday after getting 78 carries for 334 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. Fellow sophomore Kelton Moore and junior Blake Wright will likely get touches as well. All three will run behind an offensive line that lost three starters to graduation and will have two players making their first career collegiate starts on Saturday. If the game gets ugly early, the ground game will likely be forgotten. But it’s worth watching how often first-year offensive coordinator Matt Mumme opts to hand the ball off.
The fan base’s feelings about the 2017 Nevada Wolf Pack would quickly recalibrate if Norvell could lead a road upset of the Wildcats on Saturday. And Nevada has been good in recent openers. It’s won three straight and four of its last five. The caveat? The last three all came at home against Big Sky opponents (Cal Poly, UC Davis and Southern Utah). Going on the road to play a program some expect to contend for a title in arguably the toughest conference in all of college football is a different conversation. Northwestern is experienced across the board and much bigger. Nevada is playing its first game with new schemes on both sides of the ball. Advantage Big 10. Oh, and Northwestern is pretty good in openers too. The Wildcats are 9-2 in them under Fitzgerald.
Northwestern 45, Nevada 20