Before the season began, the Nevada football team set a goal for regular-season wins.
“We probably couldn’t say it publicly until now, but our goal was to win eight games,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said earlier this week. “We wanted to win two games in every quarter and if you do that that’s eight games.”
In its regular-season finale against UNLV (3-8, 1-6) on Saturday night, the Wolf Pack (7-4, 5-2) has a chance to hit eight victories for the first time since moving to the Mountain West in 2012. A win also would ensure the Fremont Cannon stays blue for a third straight season, the year no doubt being a success if both of those things come true after the annual rivalry game.
“The 2018 team has a chance to win eight football games Saturday,” Norvell said. “The significant thing of that is we’ve played at a school with tremendous football tradition and the four years you get to play college football is your opportunity to add to that football tradition. That’s what our kids have done. They want to make the jersey better.”
Here are three keys to Nevada-UNLV, which kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium.
1. Limit UNLV to 150 rushing yards or less
UNLV is a run-first team that keeps the ball on the ground on more than 60 percent of its plays, and with mobile quarterback Armani Rogers back after missing several weeks with injury, you could see UNLV running the ball 70 percent of the time against Nevada if it gets traction in the trenches. That’s a big if. While the Rebels average 224 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry, Nevada has one of the best run defenses in the nation, limiting teams to 126.9 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. Nevada won this battle last season while holding UNLV to just 16 points. If the Wolf Pack keeps UNLV to 150 rushing yards or fewer, it wins this game – likely by a lot. The Rebels’ passing attack is limited, so UNLV has to win the run game if it is going to score the upset (the Rebels are two-touchdown dogs).
2. Don’t get hijacked by emotion
Rivalry games can do great things for players or it can over-hype them into too many mistakes. Nevada needs to stay on the right side of that emotion and avoid silly personal fouls or the desire to do things on their own. That’s especially true given the presence of Rogers, who could damage the Wolf Pack with his legs on read options if Nevada's players don't stay disciplined on their assignments. “The biggest thing for us is you have to do your job,” linebacker Lucas Weber said. “Everybody is going to have their assigned role and they can’t get greedy. If they think the running back has the ball but the quarterback has it on the read we have to make sure that person has the quarterback before they go after the run.” Both teams played nearly penalty-free games last season, with UNLV being flagged just once for five yards and Nevada three times for 35 yards. The teams combined for just two penalties in the 2016 game, too. That hasn’t always been the case. Nevada had 13 penalties in the 2013 game and 11 penalties in the 2014 game. The Wolf Pack must channel the emotions of playing in a rivalry game in the correct way. Same goes for UNLV.
3. Win the turnover battle
Norvell said he has a chart in his garage from the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry games with the Sooners tracking two major stats in the Red River Rivalry: (1) combined rushing attempts and pass completions and (2) turnovers. “You throw the records out,” Norvell said of rivalry games. “The records don’t mean a whole lot in a rivalry game and typically the most physical team and the team that protects the football wins.” Nevada actually lost the turnover battle (2-1) last season but still picked up the victory, but turnover margin is always a key stat. The Wolf Pack is 4-3 under Norvell when winning the turnover battle and 4-8 when not winning it (it’s 2-2 when tied). Turnover margin is one of the few areas Nevada has not improved this year. It is minus-five in the turnover game in 2018 after being minus-2 in 2017. UNLV also is in the negative this season (minus-one) and as a big underdog Saturday, the Rebels likely need to be plus-two or better to win this game.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @MurrayNSN.