“Offensively, I’m just going to take the bullet on that whole thing.”
That’s how Nevada football coach Jay Norvell opened his weekly press conference. While the Wolf Pack has struggled defensively (giving up 37.6 points per game, tied for the fifth most in the nation) and the special teams has tailed off after a good start to the season, Nevada’s offense has been the most frustrating aspect of the team's season to date.
Nevada is scoring just 19.1 points per game. That ranks last in the Mountain West and 117th out of 130 FBS teams. It’s the lowest scoring average for Nevada, a program known for its offense, since 2000 when the Wolf Pack averaged 17.3 points in its first year under Chris Tormey.
And while Nevada has had scoring totals of 41 points (San Jose State), 37 (UTEP) and 34 (Purdue), it also has been held without a touchdown in three games, its most in a single season since 1975, the last year under Jerry Scattini. It’s fair to say Nevada’s offensive performance to date has been historic, and not in a good way. Here is a look at what has gone wrong with the Wolf Pack offense in 2019.
Offensive line play
Nevada graduated three seniors off last year’s line and then dropped a fourth veteran when three-year starting left tackle Jake Nelson broke his arm in a 54-3 loss to Hawaii. To say the Wolf Pack line has struggled would be charitable. The team has toggled between two centers, both getting their first major work at the FBS level, and is starting a converted tight end and converted defensive lineman who are learning on the fly.
“We’re not playing very good up front right now,” Norvell said. “We have to be realistic and we have to do what our offense line can do. That’s where it starts.”
The Wolf Pack line isn’t opening many holes in the run game, resulting in Nevada averaging just 3.47 yards per carry, down from last year’s 4.53-yard average. While the Wolf Pack runs an Air Raid scheme, Norvell has tried to emphasis the power run. But Nevada has averaged more than 4.53 yards per rush (last year’s standard) in only one of eight games this season. That was at UTEP (193 yards on 37 carries, 5.26 yards per carry).
The pass protection hasn’t been good, either. The line has allowed 21 sacks (one for every 14.2 pass attempts) after yielding 17 sacks (one for every 29 pass attempts) last year. The starting line consists of three juniors and two sophomores, so improvement could come in the years to come, but for now, the line has taken a step back.
Prior to the start of the season, Norvell said this about his quarterbacks: “I think we have more talent at quarterback than we’ve had and we have an opportunity to play a lot better at that position.” It hasn’t turned out that way. Nevada hasn’t been able to fill the shoes of Ty Gangi, the team’s two-time Golden Helmet Award winner who was a little turnover prone (24 interceptions) but also accounted for 56 touchdowns (49 passing, seven rushing) in the last two seasons.
The Wolf Pack has toggled through three starting quarterbacks this season – Carson Strong (five starts), Malik Henry (two starts) and Cristian Solano (one start). That trio has combined to account for six touchdowns against 15 turnovers (12 interceptions and three fumbles lost). While the quarterbacks have not gotten much help from its line, Norvell said his quarterback play must improve.
“I think that position, we’ve had some inconsistencies and playing different guys,” Norvell said. “That’s settling down now. It’s a combination of our offensive line play and our quarterback position. Part of the problem with young players is you have to play within a time clock and get the ball going. At times we haven’t done that very good at quarterback and the weaknesses up front have shown. It’s a combination of the two positions. I think Carson will continue to improve every week that he plays.”
Nevada’s passing efficiency rating of 109.80 ranks 118th out of 130 FBS teams and is last in the MW.
While turnovers were an issue for Nevada last season, the Wolf Pack balanced that with plenty of explosive plays. That hasn’t been the case this season. Nevada is still turning the ball over (19 times this season, the fourth most in the nation), but it is not balancing that out with chunk plays. The Wolf Pack is averaging nearly as many first downs as last season (18.5 compared to 20.9), but it is gaining just 4.8 yards per play this season compared to 6.0 yards per play last season.
The turnovers, coupled with a large increase in penalties, have short-circuited a number of Wolf Pack drives. Nevada has more turnovers (19) than touchdowns scored (16) this season, which clearly is not a recipe for success.
“We’re certainly capable of taking care of the ball, and that comes back to execution and getting the ball in your better players' hands,” Norvell said. “We have to really do a good job of planning that and making sure our better players are getting the ball, and then Carson has to be more disciplined when he breaks out of the pocket.”
Stars not shining
Nevada entered the season with four returners who were considered to be All-MW-caliber, but none of those have hit that level this season, although it hasn’t always been their fault.
Nelson, a preseason All-MW pick at left tackle, broke his arm in the conference opener; WR Romeo Doubs suffered a concussion against Oregon, which got him off to a slow start; RB Toa Taua, a preseason All-MW pick, dealt with a thigh contusion and has gotten minimal help from his line; and WR Kaleb Fossum has been unable to match last year’s production, the quarterback play impacting that to a degree.
Taua, the reigning MW freshman of the year, has seen his yards per touch fall from 5.4 in 2018 to 4.6 in 2019. Taua has run hard, but the number of holes he’d had to work with have been few and far between. Doubs is on pace for roughly the same numbers as he posted as a true freshman when he caught 43 passes for 562 yards and two touchdowns, in part because of the early-season concussion. And Fossum, a senior captain, caught 70 passes for 734 yards last season but has just 26 receptions for 251 yards this season.
“We have to lean on our good players,” Norvell said. “That’s really important right now. When you’re not playing a high level, your good players have to step up and do what they do best.
“It’s frustrating to watch us play the way we’ve played the last couple of weeks because I know we’re capable of playing much better. We have some good play-makers.”
Red zone proficiency
Nevada has reached the red zone 26 times this season. It has cashed in touchdowns in 10 of those appearances (eight rushing, two passing), a conversion rate of 38.5 percent. Last season, Nevada scored touchdowns on 55.3 percent of its red zone appearances. For comparison, during Chris Ault’s final five seasons as Nevada’s head coach, the Wolf Pack scored touchdowns on 212-of-317 red zone appearances. That’s 66.9 percent, nearly double the rate Nevada is putting up this season..
“We really need to capitalize in the red zone,” Strong said. “Once we get inside the red zone, we need to be able to score. We were moving the ball pretty well on Saturday (in a 31-3 loss at Wyoming), but as soon as we got in the red zone everything just started to stall out. We really need to score when we get in there.
“We just need to be physical and execute our plays. We just need to be able punch it in there and make them respect the run so we can beat them one-on-one in the pass game. When they drop into a zone on the goal line, we just need to be able to punch it in there.”
While the play-calling of offensive coordinator Matt Mumme and Norvell, an offensive-minded coach who spends almost all of his time at practice with the offense, has been questioned by fans. But Norvell downplayed the impact of play-calling on the offensive woes. Instead, he said the issues stem from a lack of consistency and a lack of execution.
“I just think it’s offensive execution,” Norvell said. “I really do. I don’t think there’s any magic to it. It’s a combination of us as coaches making exactly what we want clear and then getting the players to do it. I think it’s more of that than anything. We’ll really look at what we’ve done and how we’re doing it and we’ll really dial it in to get what we want, especially in our situational football.”
Strong has taken accountability, saying he must play better. He downplayed the impact of the play-calling.
“It’s definitely not a play-calling issue,” Strong said. “It’s definitely the players making mistakes and that’s what causes third-and-long. If we’re making mistakes on first down and second down, then we’re stuck in a hard situation. We really just need to focus on executing the plays that are called. The play-calling is great. He’s calling the right plays when we need them. Coach Mumme is a great coach. I’ll always stand up for him. He’s calling the right plays. We need to execute.”
Level of competition
It’s not like Nevada’s offense has simply been awful. In fact, it has looked good at times. But almost all of those instances have come against bad defenses. The Wolf Pack put up 41 points against San Jose State, 37 against UTEP and 34 against Purdue. But those showings have been overshadowed by a three-point outing in losses to Hawaii and Wyoming, a six-point showing at Oregon and a 10-point game at Utah State where Nevada’s lone touchdown came on its final drive with the game over.
Norvell said the Wolf Pack’s struggles against average or better defenses could be related to confidence.
“I think it’s a lack of confidence, especially offensively,” Norvell said. “Whether it’s youth or inexperience or whatever you want to call it, it’s a lack of confidence and execution and we have to do a better job. We have to do a better job against better defensive teams. That’s a simple fact. We’ve been overwhelmed somewhat by better defenses, so we have to play more confidently to execute and score against the better defenses that we’re going to see. The teams that we’ve been better against have probably not been as good defensively, so we have to step up and obviously be more productive. We need to be scoring in the 30s in all of these games to really give yourselves a chance.”
A 30-point game could be imminent as Nevada faces New Mexico on Saturday. The Lobos have the nation's fifth-worst scoring defense, allowing 37.6 points per game. The Wolf Pack gets a vulnerable UNLV defense in the regular-season finale. But it also has upcoming road games against a solid defense (Fresno State) and a great one (San Diego State). If Nevada is going to close this season as strong as last year – when the team won five of its final six games, including a bowl – the team’s offense must play a lot better.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.