MENU

Murray's Mailbag: Is Nevada football going to run the table this season?

Cole Turner
Cole Turner had a breakout game in Nevada's season opener, with the Wolf Pack's 36-33 overtime win having fans dreaming big. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

It was a good weekend for Wolf Pack football fans (a 37-34 overtime win over Wyoming) and largely a good weekend for me (the Dodgers pulled within one victory of a World Series championship despite giving away game four of the series). This is a big week for Nevada football fans (a game at UNLV on Saturday) and a big week for me (the Dodgers better not choke this thing away). Let's get to this week's Monday Twitter Mailbag. Thanks, as always, for the questions.

(Note: If you're not seeing the tweets, it's probably because you're not using Google Chrome. Use Google Chrome.)

I'm going to tweak this question and ask whether Nevada is set up to run the table in 2020. The answer is "yes," if the team plays to its potential. Look at the rest of the schedule. It's UNLV (which got boat-raced by San Diego State); Utah State (which got boat-raced by Boise State); New Mexico (a bad team that might have to play its home game at Mackay Stadium); Fresno State (which lost by 15 points at home to Hawaii); and San Jose State (teams should never lose to SJSU, although Air Force just did that). Those should all be wins, which would put Nevada at 6-0. That leaves a home game against San Diego State and a road game at Hawaii. Those won't be easy. But Wyoming was most likely the second-best team Nevada will play this season, and the Wolf Pack largely dominated the contest before a poor 10-minute stretch in the second half forced things into overtime.

I agree with you that Nevada looks good at quarterback (Carson Strong), looks great at receiver, looked improved on the offensive line and got a great effort from the defensive line. That might have been the most impressive element of the win outside of Strong's play. Wyoming has one of the MW's best offensive lines and one of its top running backs but struggled to run against the Wolf Pack. Part of that is a result of Nevada being able to focus on run defense because Wyoming doesn't throw well and was down to its backup quarterback on the first series. So the Wolf Pack defense has some more things to prove as its opposition gets more balanced, although UNLV's offense (Nevada's next foe) looked really bad against San Diego State.

The biggest concern I'd have about Nevada moving forward is its inconsistency under coach Jay Norvell. The Wolf Pack has had higher highs and lower lows under Norvell than it had under his predecessor, Brian Polian. The team's ceiling has been higher and its floor has been lower from one game to the next. Nevada needs to add that consistency because we saw some good efforts last year but a lot of poor ones, too. Can the Wolf Pack ditch the lows? In year four under Coach Norvell, that's the hope, although it won't be easy with COVID-19 sure to test the team's depth throughout the season. That consistency is the biggest question for me, along with whether the defense will hold up when it faces better and more versatile offenses.

I'm sure Coach Norvell would add "finishing" to Nevada's biggest areas in need of improvement. The Wolf Pack has not finished games great in recent seasons, and part of that is being unable to run the ball late in games to put opponents away. Nevada had that chance late against Wyoming and went three-and-out. So there are surely some things to work on, but this team has championship potential. Anything less than 6-2 at this stage would be disappointing.

The computers aren't sold on Nevada winning out, with ESPN's FPI giving the Wolf Pack a 0.3 percent chance of going 8-0 (Boise State only has a 12 percent chance of winning out, so these things tend to be conservative). FPI gives Nevada a 34.8 percent chance of winning six games. But that's an easily achievable mark if the Wolf Pack plays to its capabilities given the remaining schedule. The Wyoming game was a good litmus test, and Nevada cleared that hurdle. Things are set up for a run.

As I've said since before his first start, he has pro potential for sure. He checks the boxes required, including size (6-4/215), arm strength (it's an NFL arm), work ethic (he loves football), intelligence (he's a smart kid) and experience (he will be a four-year college starter). He's a solid athlete, although that might be the biggest knock down the road, his mobility. He has to continue to improve his accuracy and ability to hit deep balls, but he was only a freshman last season and was improved in those categories in Saturday's season opener. I don't see many hurdles to him being a pro quarterback unless injury strikes. He should throw for more than 12,000 yards in his college career, and that experience, size and arm strength will be alluring to NFL teams.

The Mountain West has six bowl tie-ins this season, including the Los Angeles Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato, New Mexico Bowl, Arizona Bowl, Frisco Bowl and Hawaii Bowl. The Hawaii Bowl has already been canceled. I wouldn't be surprised if the New Mexico Bowl is canceled due to the strict regulations in the state. Same with the Los Angeles Bowl. So the MW could have some thinned out postseason options by the end of the year, which puts extra emphasis on finishing as high as possible in the conference to increase the odds of a bowl spot. I would slot Boise State into the Los Angeles Bowl (unless it makes a New Year's Six bowl), San Diego State into the Frisco Bowl and Nevada into the New Mexico Bowl at this stage. But we're one game into the season, so a lot can change.

Group of 5 teams are not usually battling with Power 5 teams for bowl slots. You're usually fighting within a conference for bowl slots because each league has only so many bowl tie-ins. This season, with no minimum win requirements to reach a bowl, I don't think you'll see as many Group of 5 teams get bowl slots outside of those conference tie-ins because ESPN would prefer a Power 5 school over a Group of 5 school. But in previous years, that's only possible if each power conference has enough bowl-eligible teams to fill their slots. With everybody eligible, those slots will go to Power 5 schools regardless of record due to the affiliations. There's a chance the MW only has three or four bowl spots this year, so the difficult question of who goes to what bowls will likely fall on the MW.

Probably. Kicker Brandon Talton's credentials are obvious, but Julian Diaz had a huge game against Wyoming, his first as an FBS punter. The lefty averaged 55.4 yards per punt (currently No. 1 in the NCAA) on five attempts, including a long of 76, three boots of 50-plus yards and one attempt that went out of bounds at the 1-yard line. So he had a stellar outing. Nevada put Diaz on scholarship this year after he was the walk-on kickoff specialist last season, which followed two years at American River College as a kicker. He has a really strong leg, and lefty punters are tricky for return men because the ball spins in the opposite direction than they're used to. So I could buy Nevada having the best kicking duo in the MW, especially after the league lost some good kickers in the offseason. SDSU is in that mix, too, with kicker/punter Matt Araiza, but that's not a duo.

Elijah Mitchell returned a first-half kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in the 2015 Arizona Bowl in what ended up being the difference in the game. Before that, Nevada had gone 17 years without a kickoff return for a touchdown after Del Bates did it on Oct. 31, 1998 against Boise State, an 89-yarder. Nevada went 215 games and 736 kickoff returns without a touchdown during that period. It was one of the longest streaks in the nation at the time. So Nevada only has one kickoff return for a touchdown this century.

Coach Jay Norvell said Monday that starting middle linebacker Lawson Hall (leg) and wide receiver Elijah Cooks (hand) are sore and "haven't been ruled out" for the UNLV game.

"I think we'll see here as the next couple days go on," Norvell said. "Lawson is pretty sore. Elijah is also pretty sore. But they haven't been ruled out at this point. We're hopeful they'll be able to participate and play this Saturday."

Cook's injury is addressed above. While Nevada is not disclosing or commenting on COVID-19 positive tests, if a player is not dressed for the game and not listed as injured or suspended, you should have a pretty good idea of why he's not playing. But COVID-19 positives are not being released by Nevada, and I don't really feel comfortable reporting on somebody's health situation unless that player goes public with it. We did ask Nevada coach Jay Norvell why some key players, including three starters, were not suited up against Wyoming and he said the following:

"One of the things in this COVID era, and we started the season this way as a team, this is going to be a very different year." From week to week, you're never going to actually know who's playing. You watch games across the country, the roster is filled with, 'This is guy is going to play this week. This guy isn't going to play next week.' That's just the reality of it. It's not a normal season. As a team, we have an expectation that we have a game to play, we have guys who will be available and guys who won't be available and we have to be prepared to play with who's available that week. That's the mindset our team has. And we really aren't allowing anybody to have an excuse of not performing because so-and-so's not playing. It's going to be that way all year long."

Norvell said he's hopeful Taua will be back for the UNLV game, although the process to get cleared post-COVID-19 is pretty intensive, including a mandatory quarantine period, a number of protocols about testing negative and also heart tests that must be completed. There are several steps required to return to the field.

"He wasn't available Saturday and we're hopeful he'll be available this week," Norvell said of Taua. "We're looking forward to getting him back, and I think there's a good chance that we will."

The math says icing the kicker works. From this story:

"When comparing icing in the NFL to the college game, the overall numbers differ slightly. In looking at the 2018 season in which at least one FBS team was a part of the game, the overall field goal percentage was 71.5 percent. Even when looking at just the clutch situations (final 3:00 of the second/fourth quarter and overtime), there wasn’t much difference, as the percentage sat at 70.7 percent. There were 112 kicks iced during the season. The percentage of makes on those kicks dropped all the way to 58.0 percent (65 out of 112), a 13.5 percentage point drop from the overall average."

I'd follow the math and ice kickers, but three icings seems a little much. I do feel like there's an advantage for the team leading letting it play out rather than calling a timeout if the opposition has to rush the field-goal unit onto the field in a scramble situation. But the math says icing works, so I'd ice with one timeout.

I wish I had video of the play to share here, but I don't see it online. But, no, I can't see how that play in the Nevada-Wyoming game can be called anything other than a catch or interception. The ball never touched the ground. It can't be incomplete. I would have called it an interception for Wyoming. You could make the case for a reception for Romeo Doubs. You can't make the case for incomplete. Two players having simultaneous possession does not somehow make a pass incomplete. It was a ridiculous call.

It was definitely an interception; there's no question about that in my mind. But there was a lot of contact from the defender before that, so pass interference should have been called. It wasn't, and that's not reviewable. I have no idea how you review that play and call it incomplete. That makes no sense. It's a catch or a pick. And it's a decision that cost Wyoming seven points, so I'd be upset if I were the Cowboys. But this is the Mountain West. You're not going to get the best officiating. And the number of replays in Saturday's game was exorbitant. The game took 4 hours, 11 minutes to play and was over 4 hours long in regulation alone. That's way too long, and part of that is on the refs.

1) The refs get rusty, too! It was their season opener as well. But, yes, they had a bad game. Generally, I think the officiating in the Mountain West is fine. Not great, but fine.

2) That was brutal. I would guess they have fewer cameras in attendance due to COVID because CBS Sports Network does not usually have that many gaffes in a game. But it seemed like the cameraperson/director lost the ball at least once per drive.

I would take Steve Alford's coaching résumé over Mick Cronin's résumé, although that is a little unfair because Cronin is just getting his first shot at a Top 25-caliber job like UCLA, so he's getting to work with higher-caliber players than ever before. Alford has reached four Sweets 16s to Cronin's one, but three of Alford's came at UCLA, and Cronin has yet to play in the postseason with the Bruins. Cronin got Cincinnati to nine straight NCAA tournaments and Murray State to two Big Dances in three years, so he's made the NCAA Tournament in 11 of 16 full seasons compared to Alford's 11 tournament berths in 24 seasons. Alford has nearly twice as many NCAA Tournament wins (11 to six) as Cronin in the same number of tournament berths. Cronin's teams always play great defense, but I'd take Alford by a narrow margin. He's a little more accomplished and has won with low-major, mid-major and power-conference teams.

As a several-year devotee to the Great Reno Balloon Race, I'm going with mass ascension. I wouldn't wake up at 3:30 a.m. each September if that wasn't a great show. No. 2 goes to sunset over Lake Tahoe. Finally, I prefer Steel Panther over Bon Jovi.

MLB: Baseball has always been my favorite sport, probably because it was my favorite sport to play growing up. And I have an irrational love of the Dodgers.

NBA: The level of offensive skill in the NBA is ridiculous, which gives it a massive edge over college basketball.

College basketball: The level of play in college basketball is pretty low when compared to the NBA, but the NCAA Tournament is my favorite sporting event of the year.

NFL: I don't find football all that exciting (you're talking about nine minutes of action over 3 hours, 30 minutes of game). But I do love to watch great quarterbacks work.

College football: Similar to the NBA vs. college basketball, the level of play is just so much higher in the NFL than college football that the NFL gets an edge. And the rivalry games are great.

College baseball: Way too many bunts.

No. We probably shouldn't be playing sports right now, but the country has largely made the decision against trying to contain the virus and to live life as normal as possible, which will just extend the amount of time we have to deal with COVID-19 and impact the economy even more deeply than if we took more severe measures early on. It certainly doesn't help that coaches like Utah State's Gary Andersen are saying things like, "If you opt out, you're not with us." But until a player actually dies, college football isn't turning back. And even that might not be enough. Depends how high-profile the player is.

In addition to the Holiday Bowl, the Hawaii Bowl, RedBox Bowl and Bahamas Bowl have been canceled. These are valuable properties for ESPN, so the network will want to keep them alive. But ultimately it comes down to local health districts. You'll probably see a dozen or so bowls canceled this year if the COVID-19 numbers continue to climb.

Dang. That's a tough call. I'm taking Snickers over Mike & Ike (and thanks for not calling them Mike & Ikes). Snickers is the best candy created.

I think you'll see several different variations throughout the year with the jersey and pant colors, but only two different helmets. Nevada typically has one or two "special" helmets a year. I could see the Wolf Pack breaking out something new for Saturday's UNLV game.

The last time that happened was 1990 when Ty Detmer won the award while playing for BYU in the WAC. The most remarkable thing is Detmer threw 28 interceptions that season and still won the Heisman. That would never happen these days, but it was a weak field. Colorado running back Eric Bieniemy should have won the award. Lamar Jackson won in 2016 just a couple of years after Louisville joined the Power 5. I do think it could happen if somebody has a crazy season, but it will be hard to get enough support to win. Marshall Faulk should have beaten Gino Torretta in 1992. Randy Moss should have won in 1997. Ditto LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000. It's going to take something ridiculous (like a 2,500-yard rushing season with 35 touchdowns), but it could happen.

I don't see Mike McCarthy getting canned after one season, but defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be packing his bags. That defense is horrendous. Jerry Jones has shown patience with coaches over the years, so McCarthy will get another season. If the Cowboys really want to win this season, they should sign Colin Kaepernick. Look at the current starting quarterbacks in the NFC East: Carson Wentz (Eagles), Daniel Jones (Giants), Kyle Allen (Football Team) and Ben DiNucci (Cowboys). Kaepernick is better than three of those four for sure and potentially Wentz, too. Five wins might win that division. Kaepernick could get you to those five wins.

I assume you are referring to the "Trending" section on the right part of the website. That's not within our control. Those stories are automatically populated with the five most read stories over the last 24 hours. Our Malik Henry stories still do a ton of traffic every week because people watch Netflix's Last Chance U and Google his name to see where he's playing now. If you Google "Malik Henry," the top two stories are NSN articles. We do millions of pageviews annually, but the Henry stories dwarf all the other stories we've written. You're talking about hundreds of thousands of page views for them. So, unfortunately, we have no say over what is in the "Trending" section of the site. That's dictated by views over the last day.

Looks like there was indeed a cannon in attendance for the game (also a dog; I saw a dog in attendance, too).

First best. San Diego State has been better than UCLA and USC over the last five seasons. It has seven more wins than USC during that period and 24 more victories than UCLA.

The 15 years of pain will make the victory that much sweeter whenever it comes, hopefully this week. As a Dodgers fan watching the playoffs, I've watched Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew getting tagged out at home on Russell Martin's double; Matt Stairs vs. Jonathan Broxton; Matt Adams vs. Clayton Kershaw; Joe Kelly breaking Hanley Ramirez's ribs; Daniel Murphy turning into Babe Ruth; Miguel Montero's grand slam; the Houston Asterisks stealing a title; Steve Pearce turning into Reggie Jackson; Dave Roberts' repeated mistakes, including putting Kershaw in via relief in game five of the NLDS against the Nationals in 2019; Games 3 and 5 of the 2017 World Series; Game 4 of the 2020 World Series. The list goes on and on. I have a lot of shrapnel built up over the last 15 years. I expect the worst because I've always gotten the worst in the playoffs. But the Dodgers will break through eventually. Hopefully this is the year. I have my champagne bottle ready.

Kenley Jansen is either supposed to be: (a) Backing up third base or (b) backing up home plate to the left of the catcher. The ball bounced to the right of the catcher, so the fact Jansen was basically still on the mound was bad, but him backing up as he should have been would not have impacted the Rays scoring the game-winning run because it bounced to the right of catcher Will Smith. While that play was a complete cluster, at least it was not one person screwing it up ala Bill Buckner, whose life was greatly impacted by is World Series misplay. Chris Taylor, Max Muncy, Will Smith and Jansen all messed up on that play, so there's plenty of blame to go around rather than one person being spotlighted.

Dave Roberts. Always and forever.

My reaction was not as PG as his to that play.

All that former Minister of Culture has to do is click on this link and donate $60. Even my brother's pug made the Mackay Stadium cutouts. Good job, Miles pug!

Coach Norvell is calling the plays this season, but offensive coordinator Matt Mumme installed the offense, so it's his playbook with some tinkering. The play-calling had been pretty collaborative the last couple of years, so they both pitch in. But Norvell has taken the lead since the New Mexico game last year and "has taken the training wheels off" this season, as he said Monday. With the team more experienced, you saw a more traditional Air Raid scheme in Saturday's win. It's the best Nevada's offense has looked in a while.

As for the second part of your question, the "Pack Goes Marching In" thing was started by Chris Ault in the mid-2000s. He said on NSN Daily a couple of years ago: "I believe it was 2005 after I came back into coaching. We just beat UNLV. Wanted to start a new tradition. Wanted to start something that's pretty special. We said, 'Hey, you know the Saints Go Marching in? We're going to go Pack Goes Marching In.' We did it one time with the first couple guys singing the first verse, and the rest is history."

Here is the team singing it after the 2010 win over Boise State.

See y'all next week (hopefully with a World Series championship in tow)!

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. He writes a weekly Monday Mailbag despite it giving him a headache and it taking several hours to finish. But people seem to like it, so he does it anyway. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

Offbeat News

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER