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Nevada position review: What grade do coaches get after up-and-down 2019?

Jay Norvell
Jay Norvell runs onto the field for a game this season. (NSN file)

The Nevada football season ended earlier this month with a loss to Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as the Wolf Pack finished 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the Mountain West. We will review how each position performed in 2019 and look at that group heading into 2020. Today’s position: coaches.

Highlight

The Wolf Pack had a couple of notable wins this season, but the highlight was Nevada’s first road win over a Top 25 team, which ended an 0-18 skid against ranked opponents away from home. That victory came over then No. 24-ranked San Diego State as the Wolf Pack played its cleanest and best game of the season, especially on defense, while the Aztecs made all of the little mistakes to swing the contest. Nevada held the Aztecs to 13 points and made the key plays on offense, including a 50-yard trick-play pass from the arm of wide receiver Elijah Cooks to set up the game-winning touchdown. Also worth a mention were Nevada’s 17-point second-half comeback in a win over Purdue, marking the first time the school has won games against Power 5 opponents in back-to-back years, and a road win over Fresno State, which included some good tactical moves late in the game in which the Wolf Pack out-coached the Bulldogs.

Lowlight

The game where Nevada’s coaching staff drew the most criticism was the loss in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, which included some late-game tactical decisions that didn’t work out. And the Wolf Pack failed to show up for the home game against Hawaii, a 54-3 loss in which Nevada was embarrassed. But it’s hard not to pinpoint the UNLV game given how much that one means to the state, community and fan base. The Wolf Pack was a touchdown home favorite against the rival Rebels, which had fired their coach earlier in the week, but came out sluggish (UNLV led 17-0 after the first quarter) and couldn’t quite make a full comeback, losing 33-30 in overtime in a game that was marred by a post-game fight, which is never a good reflection on a program. It was a poor way to end the regular season, and unlike in 2018, the Wolf Pack wasn’t able to make amends with a bowl game win, instead losing to Ohio, 30-21, in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Grade

B- – This was one of the weirdest seasons in program history with a lot of highs and a lot of lows. Nevada simply didn’t show up for four games: Oregon, Hawaii, Utah State and Wyoming, contests in which the Wolf Pack was out-scored by 176 points. But it also won three games as a double-digit underdog, contests over Purdue, San Diego State and Fresno State (although I have no idea how Nevada was a 14-point underdog to a 4-8 Fresno State team) after entering the season 6-52 as a double-digit dog. So the Wolf Pack did overachieve in some ways to finish 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the MW, but it also was 1-5 against bowl teams, lost to UNLV for the second straight season and couldn’t cap the year with a bowl win. Nevada never got the most out of its offensive skill players and tinkered around with the quarterback spot for the second time in three years under Jay Norvell. The defense was solid for the most part, but its propensity to give up big plays cost it in a few contests. Given Nevada ranks ninth in the MW in football budget and total coaches salaries, 7-6 is a solid mark even if it isn’t spectacular.

2020 vision

The staff is undergoing massive changes this offseason with Norvell firing three defensive staffers, including coordinator Jeff Casteel, after the regular season and watching two more take jobs with other teams, meaning half of his 10-person assistant staff will be new. Given a soft non-conference schedule, a favorable MW slate and the West Division once again appearing to be mediocre, it’s not crazy to think the Wolf Pack could hit double-digit wins in 2020, although the preseason Vegas betting line will probably be seven victories. New defensive coordinator Brian Ward will have his hands full teaching a new scheme to a unit that loses some key pieces, including its best cornerback, best linebacker and best interior lineman. But 2020 really comes down to the offense. If that unit doesn’t get a lot better, it will be hard for Nevada to hit the championship level Norvell has been aiming for since landing his first head-coaching job in 2017.

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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