Nevada has some of Mountain West's most dangerous offensive personnel, a group headlined by quarterback Carson Strong and his trio of pass-catchers, Romeo Doubs, Cole Turner and Elijah Cooks, but it is two other offensive players coach Jay Norvell is focused on getting the ball to when Nevada comes off its bye week.
Running backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee haven't had much of an impact on Nevada's first three games, wins over Cal and Idaho State and a loss to Kansas State. The Wolf Pack is averaging just 76.7 rushing yards per game, sixth fewest in the nation, and 3.38 yards per carry. Nevada was held to 25 rushing yards in the loss to the Wildcats, the lowest total in Norvell's five seasons. Taua has 155 rushing yards, with 59 of those coming on one run against Idaho State, while Lee has only 93 rushing yards. Taua, who was banged up against Kansas State, has 29 touches this season and Lee 31. That's around 10 each per game.
As Nevada conducted a self-scout of itself during the bye week, Norvell came to the conclusion his offense, which has looked sub-par against FBS foes given its talent level, needs more Taua and Lee. Despite running a pass-first Air Raid offense, Norvell has tried to maintain offensive balance over the course of his tenure.
"I think we've tried to do the things we needed to do to win the games," Norvell said on Thursday's NSN Daily. "But in this last game (against Kansas State), the fourth quarter got out of whack on us. We really need to crank our run game up. We need to get Toa and Devonte more part of what we're doing offensively, and we're really focused on that this week."
Nevada could find some success on the ground in its next game. The Wolf Pack plays at Boise State on Oct. 2, and the Broncos have struggled in the trenches. Boise State has allowed 212.7 rushing yards per game, 116th out of 130 FBS team. Although that's a little misleading as the Broncos have faced run-first teams and have allowed just 3.43 yards per carry (opponents have averaged 62 rushing attempts per game against them).
In addition to getting the running game going, Norvell wants his team to be more aggressive defensively, especially from the linebacker position.
"We've really got to come downhill," Norvell said. "And when I say that, our linebackers have got to attack the line of scrimmage more. Our safeties have to fit in and we have to play more downhill, more velocity defensively. So attacking the run game and also improving our run game offensively, and then fundamentals on special teams. Those are my three areas of improvement. We really focused on that in practice, worked hard at it this week and we should see some changes in our play next week."
Norvell impressed with Mountain West
The Mountain West is off to a strong start to the season with the conference scoring five wins over Pac-12 schools in the first three weeks, including four from West Division teams. Fresno State beat No. 13 UCLA last week and entered the Top 25. San Diego State has two wins over Pac-12 schools, and Nevada and Utah State have one each. Wyoming and Utah State, from the Mountain Division, also have gotten off to strong starts and sit at 3-0. Norvell said this is the strongest the MW has been in his five seasons at Nevada.
"I would agree with that, just looking at these first three weeks and some of the performances of the teams in our league," Norvell said. "I'm just really, really impressed with the ability for people to move the ball and score points, and so the teams are dynamic. Our conference has stepped up against really good competition and haven't backed down. We know how talented San Diego State and Fresno are as programs. Utah State's improved tremendously. Wyoming is back on track. It's going to be a very interesting and wild league, and the team that's the most consistent and plays at a high level week to week is going to be the one that comes out on top."
Norvell, whose program is focusing on recruiting during the bye week, said the league's success against the Pac-12 this season has been a boon to recruiting.
"There are so many quality players here in the West Coast, and we get many of those in our conference," Norvell said. "The thing about really good athletes, they're not always a finished product in high school. If you have good coaches and you develop players, you can take a lot of these guys that maybe have been overlooked and develop them into very talented guys. And we have so many of them. We've got Romeo Dubs, Cole Turner, Toa, Devonte Lee. These guys were all magnificent high school players, and we've put them in our program and we've developed them. Carson Strong is another great example. He was in Cal's camp summer after summer after summer, and he was overlooked.
"I think our league is very well respected, and I think in this age of one-time transfers and all that, there's going to be some real opportunities for our league."
Overall, the MW is 5-10 against the Power 5 this season, including a 5-5 record against the Pac-12. The West Division is 4-7 versus Power 5 schools; the Mountain Division is 1-3. The conference has one game left against a Power 5 opponent with Colorado State visiting No. 5 Iowa this weekend.
'Running of the Wolves' coming
Norvell was thrilled with the nearly 24,000 fans that showed up to the Wolf Pack's home opener against Idaho State, the largest home crowd of his coaching tenure.
"I was working out in the morning and I just started smiling, thinking about the game as 'Mackay Magic,'" Norvell said. "When the student energy is in the stadium, you can tell the difference, and the team connected with it. From the time we came out onto the field and recognized the students to the very end of the game. When we were out there singing the school song after the game, the students were still there. And that last touchdown, I was watching the game film and when Nate Cox threw that last touchdown to Harry Ballard, I looked down on the right-hand corner and there's this guy going like this with his hands (waving arms) and it's (UNR) President (Brian) Sandoval. When you see that type of enthusiasm from our president and our student body, it's what college football's all about."
The Wolf Pack typically has the "Running of the Wolves" — when the school's freshmen students run across the field before the opening kickoff — at its first home game, but that was moved to the team's second home game this season. The students will run on the field before the Oct. 9 contest against New Mexico State. Norvell said the "Running of the Wolves" was moved back because of the poor air quality in advance of the home opener.
"It's such a big deal for the freshman class to be able to run with the wolves and lead the team out," Norvell said. "It'll be at our next home game against New Mexico State. We're so excited. We want the students to understand that this is their stadium, their school, their football team. We want them to totally enjoy the college experience, get out there and yell their heads off, have a great time and really affect the football game. It makes a difference when they come out and support us like that."
You can watch Jay Norvell's full NSN Daily interview below.