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1,000 Words: Jay Norvell, Brian Polian's first two seasons were eerily similar

Ty Gangi
Ty Gangi had two good seasons under Jay Norvell, who must find a capable replacement for him in 2019. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

Nevada Sports Net columnist Chris Murray is known to be a bit wordy, so we're giving him 1,000 words (but no more than that) to share his thoughts from the week that was in the world of sports.

* THE NEVADA FOOTBALL TEAM just finished its second season under head coach Jay Norvell and you don’t have to squint hard to find the similarities between his first two years and the first two under Brian Polian, his predecessor. They’ve been nearly identical. Let’s take a look at the similarities.

* THE RECORD: Polian went 11-14 overall and 7-9 in the MW his first two seasons; Norvell went 11-14 overall and 8-8 in the MW in his first two seasons. Both finished in the bottom half of the MW’s West Division in year one before finishing second in the division in year two. ESPN’s Football Power Index rated Polian’s first two teams at an average of 81st in the nation; Norvell’s first two were 93rd. Sagarin rated Polian’s first two teams at 94th and Norvell’s at 102nd. We’re talking similar qualities.

* THE FALL AND RISE: Both tenures started with a bottoming out. Polian won just four games in his first season before jumping to seven and a bowl appearance in year two. Norvell won just three games in his first season before jumping to eight and a bowl appearance in year two. Both faced tough schedules in year one before those schedules lightened in year two, which accounted for some of the improvement.

* THE QUARTERBACK: Both coaches inherited quality and veteran junior quarterbacks, with Polian getting to work with Cody Fajardo for two seasons and Norvell getting to work with Ty Gangi for two seasons. Fajardo accounted for 6,833 yards and 52 touchdowns in those years; Gangi accounted for 6,409 yards and 56 touchdowns in those years. Both coaches lost those players heading into their third season at the helm and had to turn to a quarterback they recruited.

* THE RUNNING BACK: Both coaches brought in dynamic, game-changing true freshmen running backs in their second season. Polian signed James Butler, who rushed for 635 yards, 4.5 yards per carry and five touchdowns in his first year at Nevada. Norvell signed Toa Taua, who rushed for 782 yards, 4.9 yards per carry and six touchdowns in his first year at Nevada. Both were nearly identical in size.

* THE LEFT TACKLE: Both coaches inherited great left tackles for one season, with Polian getting Joel Bitonio and Norvell getting Austin Corbett. Both starred during their seniors seasons before being early second-round draft picks by the Cleveland Browns (Bitonio was the 35th pick; Corbett was the 33rd).

* THE UNLV RIVALRY: Both coaches went 1-1 against UNLV in their first two seasons at Nevada, although Polian lost at home and won on the road whereas Norvell won at home and lost on the road. Both losses were gut-wrenching, with Polian’s defeat snapping a streak of eight straight wins in the Fremont Cannon game while Norvell’s defeat came after the Wolf Pack had taken a 23-0 advantage.

* THE ‘MARQUEE’ WIN: In year two of both tenures, the Wolf Pack picked up wins over Pac-12 teams. For Polian, the win was at home over 3-9 Washington State, which finished with the second-worst record in the Pac-12. For Norvell, the win was at home over 2-10 Oregon State, which finished with the worst record in the Pac-12. They also picked up “marquee” wins in year two, Polian’s victory coming over a BYU team lacking its starting quarterback and running back due to injuries; Norvell’s landmark win coming over a San Diego State team lacking its starting quarterback and running back due to injuries.

* THE ROUGH LOSS: Both coaches suffered demoralizing losses late in their second seasons. Polian’s team dropped a 40-20 decision in late November to rival Fresno State in what was essentially a West Division title game. Norvell’s team dropped a 34-29 decision in late November to rival UNLV after holding a 23-point lead. The good news: Both teams bounced back from those losses with big wins.

* THE BOWL GAME: Both teams made a lower-tier bowl game in season two, Polian’s crew heading to the New Orleans Bowl, where its offense fell apart, scoring just three points. Norvell’s crew headed to the Arizona Bowl, where its offense fell apart, scoring just three points over the first 58 minutes before rallying to victory in overtime! That’s one major difference between the first two tenures. Norvell has a bowl win.

* THE OFFENSE: Polian’s first two teams combined to average 28.1 points and 412.8 yards per game; Norvell’s first two teams combined to average 29.7 points and 414.8 yards per game. Polian’s offenses were a more ground-oriented and had a small edge in first downs per game (22.1 to 20.4), but the units were pretty similar with the final product, being 1.6 points and 2.0 yards per game within each other.

* THE DEFENSE: Polian’s first two teams combined to give up 30.7 points and 475 yards per game; Norvell’s first two teams combined to give up 30.3 points and 427.8 yards per game. While Polian’s defenses gave up more yards (by 47.2 per game), they were within half a point allowed of each other.

* ALL-MW HONORS: Polian had six players make the All-MW offensive and defensive teams in his first two seasons; Norvell had six players make the same teams in his first two years.

* WHAT THEY INHERITED: We should point out Polian inherited a seven-win team (that was more like a nine-win team) and Norvell a five-win team (that was more like a three-win team), but Polian’s inherited junior class (Cody Fajardo, Brock Hekking, Jordan Hanson, Kyle Roberts, Jonathan McNeal, Matt Galas, Richy Turner) was similar to Norvell’s inherited junior class (Ty Gangi, Asauni Rufus, Malik Reed, Dameon Baber, Korey Rush, Sean Krepsz, Lucas Weber). I'd argue Norvell inherited the better junior class, actually.

* IT’S EERIE HOW SIMILAR the first two years of these tenures have been. It doesn’t mean the next two will be the same. Polian’s team fell off after 2014 and he was eventually fired after his fourth season. Norvell has his team better positioned to continue to grow, but the team also loses a ton of talent in Gangi, Rufus, Reed, Baber, Rush and Krepsz as well as McLane Mannix and Nephi Sewell, two players Norvell recruited and led to success before they transferred this offseason. Nevada is in a similar position today as it was after the 2014 season. The big question is whether it can take another jump in year three, something it failed to do under Polian but will be tasked with doing under Norvell.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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