Jay Norvell will undergo a trial by fire as his first game as a head coach features a stout opponent in the Northwestern Wildcats. Their opponent, led by veteran coach Pat Fitzgerald, has aspirations to the take control of the Big Ten’s West Division. For the Nevada Wolf Pack, this game will serve as a measuring stick of sorts for the upcoming season.
With a new staff and new schemes in place, let’s take a look at a few things to look forward to in the September 2 matchup.
There are two major storylines this offseason that have greatly affected the outlook of the Wolf Pack attack on offense: the arrival of former Alabama quarterback David Cornwell and the departure of star running back James Butler.
Cornwell, who was a former consensus four-star high school recruit, earned a scholarship at Alabama, though injuries and the positional depth kept him from seeing significant playing time with the Crimson Tide. As the first recruit of the Jay Norvell era, Cornwell will be a key piece in the Air Raid attack that new offensive coordinator Matt Mumme will instill.
Nevada will return some veterans on the line in Preseason All-MW Conference picks Austin Corbett and Sean Krepsz. It will also feature some relatively inexperienced players as well. Jake Nelson and Ziad Damanhoury are holdovers from last season but will have the opportunity to start this season.
Northwestern will roll out a talented squad on the defensive line. However, with the indefinite suspension of edge rusher Xavier Washington, Nevada will have opportunities to take advantage of inexperience on the edges. Joe Gaziano, a backup last season, will lead the young edge rushers with the loss of Washington and Ifeadi Odenigbu, who was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2017 NFL Draft. While the new offense will try to air it out more often, look for the Wolf Pack to run the ball towards east-west to test the Wildcats’ young defensive ends.
Heading into fall camp, the duo of Cornwell and Butler were tabbed to be one of the best in the Mountain West. However, with Butler off to Iowa to pursue higher level competition, Nevada will turn to Jaxson Kincaide to provide the speed on the perimeter. Kincaide, who backed up Butler last season had stretches where he showed that he can provide a spark on offense. Now forced into the starting role, the question will be how well he can adjust to being an every down back from previously being a change-of-pace type of guy.
The biggest challenge on offense will be how well the Wolf Pack wide receivers can match up with one of the top defensive back units in the nation. Northwestern will trot out the self-proclaimed “#SkyTeam” led by Godwin Igwebuike who has been placed on the preseason Nagurski Award, Thorpe Award, and Bednarik Trophy watch lists. Kyle Quiero and Keith Watkins II round out the group and are both experienced and excellent defensive playmakers. Nevada’s Wide Receiver group will have to work hard to try and get separation and find openings. The group will be led by spring standouts Brendan O’Leary-Orange, and Wyatt Demps. With the greater emphasis on the passing game in the Air Raid offense, Cornwell and company will have a tough task at hand.
With a new quarterback, offensive system, and the loss of the team’s largest weapon on offense, if the Wolf Pack is going to pull off the early season upset, they will have to contain a Northwestern offense that looks to make waves this season on a national level.
In his first recruiting class, Norvell signed seven defensive backs/athletes to help shore up the defensive side of the ball.
The Wolf Pack is instituting a 3-3-5 odd stack defense this season under new defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. The base defense features three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. This type of scheme allows for Nevada to showcase its athletes on the back end of its defense.
Casteel faces a tough task in trying to stop the potential All-Big Ten quarterback, Clayton Thorson, who threw for over 3000 yards, 22 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Thorson operates out of the spread and will utilize an offensive line comprised of upperclassmen that are mostly intact from last season.
Safeties Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus will lead a defensive back group that will have its hands full in trying to limit the aerial attack by Thorson. Nevada is thin at the corners and will rely on Kendall Johnson, Jaden Sawyer, and some young pups to try and create plays to mitigate the Wildcat attack.
The Wildcats offensive line unit also paved gaping holes for its running back, Justin Jackson who led the Big Ten in rushing yards per game last season.
Entering the season, Jackson ranks 17th all-time in rushing yards in Big Ten history. With another season of 1500+ yards, he will be able to leapfrog to second all-time, surpassing Ohio State legend, Archie Griffin. For Casteel, the number one priority will be to try and stop the run and swarm the line with creative blitz packages to try and mitigate the potent ground attack. In order to do so, Nevada will have to create some disruption down in the trenches.
Nevada returns a veteran lineup of defensive linemen in Malik Reed, Korey Rush, and Hausia Sekona. Reed, who has been pegged as a preseason MW All-Conference will receive most of the double-teams. Thus, the Wolf Pack will need its other defensive linemen to pick up the slack.
The keys to an early season upset are to: a) have a quarterback who can make timely plays and take care of the ball b) force and capitalize on turnovers c) not allow for any demoralizing “big plays”. Nevada has the opportunity to check off all of these boxes. However, given all of the uncertainties, this would be a very unlikely outcome as Cornwell has not played for a significant amount of time, both sides of the ball are instituting new schemes, and Northwestern will have the advantage talent-wise on both sides of the ball.
While the Wolf Pack should be able to keep it close in the early stages of the game, I predict that the Wildcats will pull away by the second half.
Score Prediction: 38-21