You could point to a number of games as the true turning point for Nevada football under Jay Norvell.
It could be this year’s win over Oregon State, the Wolf Pack’s first over a Power 5 school since 2014.
It could be this year’s win at Air Force, the first time the Nevada defense truly instilled its will on an opponent.
Or it could be this year’s win against San Diego State, the Wolf Pack’s first victory over a high-level Mountain West team in some time.
But most of the people associated with the Wolf Pack actually fingered a game last season as the turning point for the program. They point to the 23-16 victory over UNLV in the 2017 season finale.
“There’s no question,” Norvell said of last year’s victory over UNLV being a springboard for this season’s success. “I just felt like the way we played as a team, we played Nevada style of football.”
The Wolf Pack was 2-9 in Norvell first 11 games prior to that win over the Rebels. They’re 8-4 since stepping on the field to beat UNLV last November, that victory being the model for how Nevada has played this season, a run-stuffing, high-level defense complemented by a big-play offense.
“The way that we played in that game was significant,” Norvell said. “We played hard-nosed defense, we ran the football and we put some building blocks together for this program. That catapulted us into this season, the way that we prepared and the way that we played. We’ve tried to build on that this year.”
On Saturday, Nevada faces UNLV for the first time since that game in a far different place than it was last year. The Wolf Pack was playing the role of spoiler last season, trying to keep the Rebels from reaching a bowl game. This year, Nevada (7-4, 5-2 MW) is looking to not only retain the Fremont Cannon but tack on one more win so it gets to the best bowl possible. It’s UNLV (3-8, 1-6) in the spoiler role.
“I know Coach (Chris) Ault mentioned it in his meeting today: ‘This is the difference between being good and great,’” linebacker Malik Reed said. “I feel like we’ve been a good team this year and to have a chance to win eight or nine games would separate us from being good to great. I feel like this is a tremendous opportunity.”
Nevada struggled defensively last year, allowing at least 30 points in nine of its first 11 games, including 40-plus-points six times. But something clicked for the team against UNLV, which brought one of the nation’s top rushing attacks to Mackay Stadium only to see the Wolf Pack completely stuff the Rebels.
Nevada held UNLV to 164 rushing yards on 50 carries, just 3.3 yards per attempt (the Rebels averaged 5.7 yards per carry in its other games). The defense also delivered two big fourth-down stops in the second half and completely dominated the Rebels in the trenches. After years of poor run defense, that game signaled a change. This year, Nevada ranks 24th in the nation in run defense just two seasons after placing last in the NCAA two seasons ago. The Wolf Pack also ran the ball well in the win.
“I’ve said it many times, the history of this program is a blue-collared program, it’s a physical program,” Norvell said. “When Coach Ault was here, they were arguably one of the most physical teams in college football and were recognized for that nationally. We have a lot to live up to as a program and we try to emulate that. We want to be physical on both sides of the ball, we want to play hard-nosed and we want people to respect how hard we play and there’s no question that game had a lot to do to springboard us into this year and we’ve tried to build on that performance.”
Norvell has been pleased with the physicality of his program this season, saying there’s a correlation to the increased number on the wins column. The Wolf Pack defenders who played in that game and returned this season said the win over UNLV was big for their confidence.
“Last year was a really big win,” said linebacker Lucas Weber, who has 48 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, and 4.5 sacks this year. “The season didn’t go as we wanted it to go, but last year that last win things just started clicking, with the run defense, too. Guys just started understanding the defense better. It was our first year with the defense and last year just gave us a lot of hope going into this year.”
Nevada has turned that hope into wins, with Ault, the godfather of Wolf Pack football, saying the 2017 UNLV victory “set the table for Jay this year.” Ault spoke to the team Monday to not only give them some history on the Nevada-UNLV rivalry but also tell them he’s proud of how they’ve played this year.
“What I told them is this,” Ault said. “This program now has gone from being a program of hope– hoping to win, I hope the offense can score, I hope the defense, I hope the special teams – to a program of expectations. Expectations is an attitude; hope is a vision. I told them, ‘You’re done with hope. You’re expected to beat UNLV. You’re winners.' That’s real Nevada football.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.