The Nevada football season ended last month with a 38-27 win over Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as the Wolf Pack finished 7-2 overall and 6-2 in conference play (third in the Mountain West). We will review how each position performed in 2020 and look at that group heading into 2021. Today’s position: coaches.
Nevada doesn't have a fruitful bowl history, but Jay Norvell is starting to change that. Prior to Norvell's hiring, the Wolf Pack was 5-10 in bowl games, including Chris Ault going 2-8. Four seasons into his Wolf Pack tenure, Norvell is 2-1 in bowls, the latest victory coming in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, a 38-27 decision over Tulane that marked the coaching highlight of the season (the overall highlight was either the win over UNLV or the win over SDSU). Bowl games can be tricky, and that was especially true this season with Nevada and Tulane both playing without valuable pieces. But even after the Wolf Pack's devastating loss to San Jose State 11 days prior, Norvell and his staff got Nevada prepared and mentally engaged for its bowl game. Norvell's decision to pound the running game early due to a heavy wind was a smart decision as provided great balance to the Wolf Pack offense, whose 38 points were a season high. Defensively, the staff did a nice job of scheming blitzes to rattle Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt, who played poorly (12-of-25, 168 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions, eight sacks). Overall, it was an outstanding effort from the Wolf Pack to cap a most unique season.
The lowlight of the year was Nevada's loss to San Jose State, although the coaching wasn't an issue in that game. The coaching wasn't responsible for Toa Taua's two lost fumbles, Brandon Talton's missed 25-yard field goal or the first of Tyler Nevens' two 69-yard runs in which Tyson Williams met him in a hole at the line of scrimmage and was run over. So I'm not picking the SJSU game despite how devastating it was for Norvell and his staff. The Wolf Pack was only outcoached twice in 2020, those being the games against New Mexico (a 27-20 win) and Hawaii (a 24-21 loss). And both of those games were more about the great game plans New Mexico and Hawaii put together rather than anything the Wolf Pack failed to do. In fact, there wasn't a game last season where (a) Nevada failed to show up, which happened several times in 2019, or (b) the coaches made a lot or poor clock management/strategy calls. Neither of those things happened in 2020. Nevada was sharp all year from that standpoint. Against New Mexico, the Wolf Pack struggled to deal with the Lobos' blitz packages. Against Hawaii, it fell into the trap of taking what Hawaii was giving it on the ground and got away from its strong passing game. Since the Hawaii game resulted in a loss, we'll pick that one, but the coaching, from a player development, game plan, play calling, strategy and motivational standpoint, were all strong.
A- – The most important thing college coaches can do is recruit and develop, and when you look at Nevada's roster, Norvell has done that in his first four seasons with the Wolf Pack. Nevada tied with Boise State for the most All-Mountain West first- and second-team selections last season, so first and foremost you must credit Norvell and staff for that recruiting. Did the Wolf Pack squeeze the most of its talent in the win-loss column? Probably not. Nevada likely had the most talented roster in the MW but didn't make the conference championship game because of its second-half collapse in the regular-season finale against SJSU. So we won't go with a full "A," but the staff deserves major credit for not only its 7-2 record but keeping the program in a position where it didn't have any games canceled due to COVID-19. Nevada was one of two MW teams to play all eight of its regular-season games, and it rarely was without any important players due to positive cases. In the end, the Wolf Pack put together one of its 10 best football seasons ever, and you could make the argument Norvell is already the second-best coach in program history.
Nevada made it through this offseason cycle without losing Norvell, who has been connected with Power 5 jobs the last two cycles and reportedly interviewed with Arizona this year after interviewing with Missouri the year prior. The question now might be, "How long will Nevada be able to keep Norvell?" as he remains the conference's lowest-paid coach. While some of Norvell's staff have received interest this offseason, the full 10-coach set is still in place, which would be big for cohesion purposes. That's especially true of Brian Ward, who was Nevada's first-year defensive coordinator last season. His unit should be better in a second season in the system as long as he's not poached. Almost all of Nevada's roster is coming back with 11 seniors returning for a second senior season. Things appear set up for major success, although it's worth noting Nevada went 0-2 against the two above-.500 teams it played last season. It also very easily could have lost to Wyoming (a 37-34 overtime win), San Diego State (a 26-21 win in which the Aztecs blew a wide-open touchdown pass in the waning seconds), New Mexico (a 27-20 win in which the Lobos got inside the Nevada 25-yard line with less than 90 seconds remaining) and Fresno State (a 37-26 win in which the Bulldogs outgained the Wolf Pack by 183 yards but were undone on special teams without a kicker or its starting punter due to COVID). This is not to take credit away from Nevada for those wins. They earned them. But Nevada must improve a great deal to win its first Mountain West championship in 2021, especially with its schedule stiffening next season. As Norvell himself has said, you don't pick up where you left off the season before but must start anew with winter conditioning, which Nevada has already begun. There's great potential for 2021. Now, Nevada must capitalize on it.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.