With one of Mountain West’s lowest football budgets, including the lowest-paid head-coaching salary, and facilities lagging behind much of its conference competition, including the lack of an indoor practice facility, Nevada head coach Jay Norvell could be pleased with winning 15 games with two bowl berths the last two seasons.
He is not. While Norvell is proud of what his team has accomplished in his first three seasons as head coach, he isn’t content. While assessing his team’s 2019 season, which Norvell said was packed with many invaluable lessons, Norvell said his goals at Nevada remain bigger than seven- and eight-win seasons.
“We’re working on taking the program to the next level,” Norvell said of trying to get Nevada to its first Mountain West championship game. “We’ve won seven and eight games, but taking the next step is not easy. You have to have experienced people, you have to have really good players, you have to have everybody on the same page, so we’re excited to put the pieces together to work toward that.”
“There are a lot of people involved in a football program. There’s administration, faculty, all that. But our goal is to win championships. That’s what we came to Nevada to do, and there’s many different obstacles to overcome to put your program in a position to do that. We’re working through those.”
Nevada, which went 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the MW in 2019, seems poised for a potential jump to the next level next season. On offense, the Wolf Pack returns its starting quarterback (sophomore-to-be Carson Strong), its top two rushers (Toa Taua and Devonte Lee), its top two pass catchers (Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks) and its entire starting offensive line. There are more holes to be filled on defense with Nevada losing six starters on that side of the ball while rebuilding its coaching staff, but Norvell likes the young talent his roster has added over the last couple of years defensively.
Moreover, the rest of the MW’s West Division has taken some hits this offseason. San Diego State and Fresno State, who have won five of six West Division titles, both had their head coaches unexpectedly resign. UNLV made a head-coaching change and will be breaking in a first-team head coach. San Jose State has won just four conference games the last three seasons. And Hawaii, the reigning West Division champs, had starting quarterback Cole McDonald enter the draft after his junior season. Every team, including Nevada, has question marks.
Norvell said this year’s team learned how thin the line between a good season and a great one can be. The Wolf Pack grew over the year, Norvell said, pointing out Nevada’s resiliency increased following early-season blowouts to Oregon (by 71), Hawaii (by 51), Wyoming (by 28) and Utah State (by 26). The Wolf Pack rebounded to win three of its final four regular-season games, including road wins over San Diego State, the first over a Top 25 team in school history, and Fresno State, both as double-digit underdogs. Nevada also recorded wins over Power 5 schools in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever, beating Purdue in the season opener.
But some of that success was undone when Nevada lost the regular-season finale to UNLV, its second straight loss to the Rebels, and Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to cap the season.
“I think this season really points out to our players how close we are to being a really good team,” Norvell said. “It takes a lot of things to be a really good team. It takes preparation and sacrifice and experience. At one point or another this year, we’ve had different issues jump up and bite us in games that really could have changed our season. I think that’s the biggest thing that our program takes away from this year is it’s a fine line between winning and losing against good opponents.
“Everything you do matters. All of the preparation, all of the hard work in the offseason, our mental approach on game day. All those things matter and sometimes experience is a hard teacher. We went through some of that. But at the same time, I’m really proud of the resiliency of our team. After a couple of tough losses, we found the resiliency to respond and I was really proud down the stretch.
“We wanted to always have a program that finished strong and we did. We won three of our last four. We didn’t win the last game or the bowl game, but we did finish strong the last month of the season and the wins at San Diego State and Fresno were really important for us to be able to go on the road and beat really good programs was important. Those were important accomplishments for us. We absolutely wanted to win the last game (UNLV). We worked all year for that, and we always want to win the bowl games.”
Norvell said the two losses to end the season will be motivation for his team in the offseason, adding the late date of the bowl game gave the Wolf Pack what was essentially an extra spring camp. Nevada’s actual spring camp, which includes 15 practices, will start in late March or early April with the team’s goal being unchanged: Norvell wants to bring the Wolf Pack its first West Division championship.
“I’m excited,” Norvell said. “I really, truly am. I think Nevada football is in a great place.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.