While Nevada is bowl eligible, it hasn’t undeniably locked up a bowl berth just yet. The Mountain West has seven bowl-eligible teams for five guaranteed bowl spots and while horse trading does happen in the bowl season, the Wolf Pack knows adding a seventh win would basically clinch a postseason berth.
Still, Nevada isn’t necessarily looking at this week’s game at Fresno State in those terms. It wants to beat a divisional rival, one it hasn’t topped under coach Jay Norvell, and push its win streak to three games.
“Our thought process is that we want to finish strong, we want to win as many games as we possibly can and this team has an opportunity to do something special,” Norvell said. “Even with some of our early hiccups and losses early in the year, this team really has a chance to do something special. If we can win this week, we put ourselves in a position to win again. That’s our whole focus and our whole goal.”
“We know this. The more wins you have, the better the bowl games and you eliminate any question marks. That’s how we’ve talked about it. We’re pressing this team to play to its potential.”
Here are three keys to victory for Nevada’s game at Fresno State, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
1. A fast start
A reader in this week’s Monday Mailbag wanted “A Fast Start” to be one of the three keys, so we will give him his wish. Nevada has been out-scored by 35 points in the first quarter, 52 points in the second quarter and 56 points in the third quarter, so fast starts haven’t been a forte for Nevada this season. Fresno State has been pretty even across the board in terms of quarter production and has played a ton of four-quarter games, so it hasn't really blown teams out. Carson Strong said this week he must get off to a better start, adding the key to doing that is not being overly aggressive early on. Nevada has gone with a more conservative offensive approach in recent games, so falling behind wouldn’t be ideal as the Wolf Pack has become turnover prone in situations where it has to try and rally from behind (the Purdue game withstanding).
2. Win the turnover battle
Both teams have done a good job of forcing turnovers on defense but a bad job of limiting them on offense, so if those trends hold up there will be a lot of giveaways in this one. Fresno State’s defense has taken a step back this season but it is still forcing a lot of turnovers. The Bulldogs’ 20 takeaways rank 12th in the nation, but it has turned the ball over 16 times. Nevada is the reverse: 20 giveaways with 16 takeaways. So Fresno State has been eight better in turnover margin than Nevada and if it wins the turnover battle in this one, it probably wins the game. Nevada has made strides in this area with just one turnover in the last two games, that being an interception against San Diego State that should have been a reception. The Wolf Pack is 7-3 under Norvell when winning the turnover battle and 6-12 when losing it, so this is an obvious key made more important given how much these teams have turned it over.
3. Establish a ground game
Nevada has won its last two games, but its rushing attack, which has struggled all season, hasn’t improved. The Wolf Pack has gained just 174 yards on the ground over the last three games. That’s on 90 carries. That’s a paltry 1.93 yards per carry. On the season, Nevada’s 3.1 yards per carry rank last in the Mountain West. Fresno State’s run defense has been so-so this season. The Bulldogs allow 4.1 yards per rushing attempt. Nevada hasn’t been able to sustain very many drives this season, and that’s because it hasn’t been able to establish a ground attack. Fresno State’s defensive front is solid, so it won’t be easy to run the ball against the Bulldogs, but it also won’t be as difficult a task as Nevada faced last time out when it was held to 29 rushing yards on 28 attempts against San Diego State's stingy unit. Nevada needs balance in this one.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @MurrayNSN.