Wolf Pack looking to build on impressive debut in Norvell’s first game at Mackay Stadium
Admit it, you did not think Nevada would be leading 20-17 with less than six minutes left at Northwestern on Saturday.
Was it a legitimate sign of progress? Was it simply a sleepy start for Northwestern? Was it an emotion-driven effort?
Plenty of questions remain, some of which we will start to get answers for on Saturday at Mackay Stadium when Nevada plays its first home game of the season against Toledo. Toledo finished second in the MAC – West last year behind Western Michigan and was picked to win the conference this year.
The game will be streamed on ESPN3 and John Ramey will have the call on ESPN Radio 94.5 FM.
Kickoff is at 4 p.m.
About the Rockets
Coach: Jason Candle (Second season, 11-4)
2017 Record: 1-0, 0-0
Last week: 47-13 home win over Elon
2016 Finish: 9-4, 6-2 Second in MAC – West
Quarterback: Logan Woodside is the best quarterback Nevada will see this year and that includes Washington State’s Luke Falk, who the Pack will see in two weeks in Pullman. The 6-2 redshirt senior was named to just about every preseason watch list possible: Maxwell Award (top offensive player), Davey O’Brien (top quarterback), Manning (top quarterback) and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm (top quarterback/community service). The Heisman Trophy Trust even named him a Heisman contender following last season when he led all of college football with 45 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. He’s was sixth in the FBS averaging 317.6 passing yards a game and fourth in completion percentage (69.1 percent). With Woodside taking the snaps, Toledo’s 38 points per game were 19th in all of college football. He threw for 300-plus yards for the 11th time in his career last week vs Elon, completing 19-of-31 passes for 314 yards, but did not find the end zone. It was only his fourth game failing to throw a touchdown when attempting more than 10 passes. Woodside is not much of a runner. Last year’s season-long went for seven yards.
Weapons: Particularly important for a team that threw the ball over 32 times a game last year, Toledo returns two of last year’s three starting receivers, including senior All-America candidate Connor Thompson. The 6-2 deep ball threat caught 64 passes for a school-record 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns (third most in school history) as a junior. His 19.8 yards/catch were ninth in all of college football. Thompson led the team in both receptions (5) and receiving yards (112) last week. Jon’Vea Johnson is also back after starting as a junior. He grabbed 40 passes for 773 yards (19.3 yards/reception) and 10 touchdowns last fall. The Rockets aren’t just a finesse team though. They can run the ball too, averaging 195 yards per game on the ground in 2016. Last year’s leading rusher, Kareem Hunt (1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns) graduated. Terry Swanson and Art Thompkins started the year at No. 1 and 2 on the depth chart. Swanson was held to 36 yards on 11 carries last week, but found the end zone twice. Thompkins was three feet shy of the century mark on 15 touches as the team finished with 239 rushing yards.
What to look for?
-Nevada didn’t give up many receiving yards last year for two reasons. One, the secondary was gifted and is again this year. Two, teams didn’t need to throw because they could run whenever they wanted. The run defense impressed last week, holding Northwestern to 3.1 yards a carry, so the Wildcats had to go to the air. And it worked. Clayton Thorson connected on 28-of-38 passes for 352 yards with a pair of touchdowns and a pick. The secondary will face an even tougher test on Saturday. Can Dameon Baber, Asauni Rufus, Elijah Moody, Vosean Crumbie and company provide any resistance to Woodside and Toledo’s elite aerial attack?
-Can the air-raid timing improve? Nevada’s offense was noticeably more explosive last week, highlighted by freshman McLane Mannix’s 41-yard touchdown reception from Ty Gangi, but there were a handful of other big plays to be made. Multiple times 6-4 sophomore Brandon O’Leary-Orange was overthrown while running uncovered through the Northwestern secondary. Toledo allowed a middle-of-the-road 220.8 passing yards a game last year, so opportunities will be there. Norvell suggested after the loss that Gangi will remain the starter. He also said going into the game both quarterbacks, including David Cornwell, would get snaps. That didn’t happen. Gangi completed 16-of-37 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
-Jaxson Kincaide and the ground game was included on the list of pleasant surprises in the loss to Northwestern. In his second career start (Buffalo last year), the sophomore from Ft. Lauderdale needed just 15 carries to chew up 86 yards of real estate. Backup Kelton Moore finished with 40 yards on just five touches as Nevada averaged 5.5 yards/carry. An efficient ground game against a defense that was lackluster against the run in 2016 (175.8 yards/game) would go a long way helping Gangi and the passing attack ease into a rhythm.
-Nevada allowed Northwestern to convert 8-of-19 third downs (42 percent) and 3-of-5 fourth downs. It was really 4-of-5, but Rufus forced a fumble one conversion and Crumbie recovered. The Rockets were one of the best teams in college football converting on third down last year, moving the chains on the money down 51.1 percent of the time. Stops on third down would prevent another massive time of possession disparity (Northwestern held the ball for nearly 39 minutes) and put Woodside on the sideline, where defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel wants him.
Just a week ago, this was almost an automatic loss for Nevada. The performance at Northwestern certainly requires further consideration about Saturday, as well as the entire season. But Toledo is so talented, particularly on offensive side, the Wolf Pack may have to play an even cleaner game to pull off what would technically be an upset at Mackay Stadium. Much will continue to be made about the run defense. That’s not Casteel’s main concern this week. The worry is in the secondary, which gave up 300-plus yards last week and now faces its toughest test of the season.
Toledo 38, Nevada 31