Just how good is the Nevada football team? We're about to find out.
The Wolf Pack has cleared all of its hurdles so far in 2020, although those hurdles haven't been very high considering Nevada's first four opponents have a combined record of 1-13. The Wolf Pack smashed UNLV (0-4) and Utah State (0-4) while being forced into overtime by Wyoming (1-2) and being pushed down to the final minute against New Mexico (0-3)
The schedule will get a lot more difficult starting this week against San Diego State, which is 3-1. Nevada's final four games are against teams that are a combined 12-4.
“I feel like these next couple of games we’ll be able to let everybody know what we’re about," junior safety Tyson Williams said.
SDSU has typically been a measuring stick in the MW, a conference it has won three times since Nevada joined the league in 2012. The Aztecs are typically one of the West Coast's most physical teams and has averaged just shy of 10 wins per season since 2015. That game is followed by contests with Hawaii (2-2), Fresno State (3-1) and San Jose State (4-0), with the stretch about to reveal if Nevada is a legitimate Top 25 contender or a team that has gotten fat on a soft schedule.
“It’s definitely something that everybody on the team is looking forward to," tight end Cole Turner said. "I think these four games are going to prove to everyone who we really are, including ourselves. We just have to keep elevating every week and keep getting better every week and we have that kind of potential and everything else will take care of itself.”
Fourth-year coach Jay Norvell, who predicted a breakthrough season before the opener, said he's confident his team will be up the challenge. As the season has progressed, Norvell has been more demanding of his players because he sees great potential in the group.
“There’s no patting on the back going on around here," Norvell said. "One of the good things when you win as a coach you can really get on your team. I’ve probably gotten on the team more than last three weeks than any time since I’ve been here just because I know we can play so much better. I’m disappointed about a lot of the things. We have to play better. Our penalties are really hurting us right now. We have to do a better job in that area. We have to play more consistently in special teams, and we have to get more out of a lot of good players. We have a lot of talent on this roster, and I think it’s my job to get the most out of every player, and so we have a long ways to go.
"I think this team is just scratching the surface on how good we can be.”
Norvell said there's additional pressure when you're expected to win, something he learned when he spent nearly a decade as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, a perennial top-10 team in the nation that got every opponent's best effort. The Wolf Pack has not been in that position during Norvell's tenure, but it is starting to get a target on its back given its fast start this season.
“I have to be honest, it’s different when you’re expected to play well," Norvell said. "I told the team this week this is not something that happened by accident. We planned to be in this position, we prepared to be in this position and we recruited to be in this position. If we do the things we’re supposed to do in practice, good players are supposed to play good on Saturday. It’s accountability, it’s responsibility to prepare to play your best when people are excepted to play good. There’s a little bit of a lack of pressure to play as an underdog.”
The Wolf Pack does enter this game as a modest home underdog (it's getting 1.5 points), but that's a far cry from last season when Nevada beat then-No. 24-ranked SDSU as a 17.5-point dog. Last year's win marked Nevada's second straight over SDSU. The Wolf Pack has split its last six games against SDSU.
“I have a lot of confidence in our team," Norvell said. "It’s the old saying that the biggest opponent is yourself. We’ve tried to really do things simple that way. We ask guys to come and work hard every day and pay attention to the details and continue to learn and improve. As long as we have that mindset and attitude we’ll get better. We’ve really taken a lot of pride in getting better as the season goes on. Good teams practice and improve and get better the second half of the season."
Against SDSU, Nevada will be especially tested up front as the Aztecs have the best combination of offensive and defensive line in the conference, ranking in the top 10 nationally in rushing offense and rushing defense. SDSU has long built its team in the trenches, which will test the Wolf Pack's big boys, especially the offensive line. Nevada's defensive line was its key to victory at SDSU last season.
“That’s where the game will be won," Norvell said of the lines. "It’s a big challenge for our defensive line. Our defensive line really has to step up. This is probably the most physical O-line we’ll play in our conference, and it’s the same thing offensively. Their defensive line is very disruptive. They move and stunt more than any other defensive line that we play, so it’s very disruptive. It’s a challenge to prepare for them because there’s so much movement and the communication of your O-line, not only do you need to know who you’re blocking, but there’s a physicality you have to bring. This game will be won in the lines.”
A Nevada win Saturday would basically eliminate SDSU from Mountain West title game contention and put the Wolf Pack in a strong position to play for its first conference championship since moving to the MW nine seasons ago. With the program's second 4-0 start since joining the FBS in 1992, Nevada's expectations have been ratcheted up.
“The past couple years I was here, it was more like, ‘We’re going to win the games we should win and everything else will be gravy,’" Turner said. "This year we expect ourselves to win every single game. We don’t just expect to win, we expect to dominant. That’s our plan to do it again this week.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.