If you watched Nevada's win over New Mexico closely, you noticed head coach Jay Norvell had a play sheet in his hand, something that was not the case in previous games. It also appeared he was more involved in the play-calling process.
So, during his weekly Monday press conference, the question had to be asked. Did Norvell call more plays than usual Saturday?
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said coyly.
Was that expected to continue?
“Probably," he said before stopping.
While Norvell didn't decisively say he was the Wolf Pack's new play caller, it certainly appears that way. After a 54-3 loss against Hawaii earlier this season, Norvell was asked whether he would take over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Matt Mumme. He said he was already involved in play calling and a change was not forthcoming. But after more offensive struggles ensued, including just 13 points scored in Nevada's two games prior to New Mexico, that changed.
“Just needed to have my pulse on everything that’s going on, and we’ll just kind of play it day-by-day," Norvell said when asked why he's taken a larger role in play calling. "I need to have my finger on more of what’s going on and I just felt like it was important. I’ve been through a lot of rough stretches through my life, so I figured I was well prepared for this. I just wanted to help out any way I can. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility, and I’m comfortable with that. Our kids really want to win. Our kids really want to have the opportunity to compete and have an edge every Saturday. And we’ll use our entire staff to give our kids the best edge they can (have), and this is just the best thing for us right now.”
Nevada's offense looked better in the 21-10 win over New Mexico, although the level of competition should be factored into the analysis. The Lobos entered the game ranking sixth worst in the nation in scoring defense, allowing nearly 38 points per game. They were last in the country in passing yards allowed per contest. The Wolf Pack will get a tougher test this week at San Diego State, which is eighth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 14.1 points per game.
During his career as an assistant, Norvell has called plays for UCLA, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, so he has extensive history in that area. He said he enjoys calling plays.
“I do like it," Norvell said. "I’ve always liked it. And I’ve got every confidence in Matt, but I do enjoy calling plays. It’s very consuming obviously, but the situational football I can have a little more control over it. These are important situations coming down the stretch, and it’s important we make the right decisions at the right times, and ultimately I’m responsible for it. I just think it’s only fair for me to handle that. Excited to finish up the year.”
Asked prior to the New Mexico game about Nevada's play-calling, Norvell downplayed that being an issue in the team's lack of production (the Wolf Pack is averaging 19.3 points per game, its lowest figure since 2000). Instead, Norvell said the team's execution and lack of consistency and experience were the main culprits for the offensive struggles. But a change was made in play-calling duties prior to the New Mexico game, a contest in which the Wolf Pack totaled 369 yards of offense (Nevada is averaging 358.4 yards per game overall this season).
When Norvell was hired by Nevada in December 2016, he said he'd run an Air Raid offense, which led to the hiring of Mumme, the son of the offense's co-creator, Hal Mumme. Now in his third season as Nevada's head coach, Norvell has tried to incorporate more power run plays into Nevada's scheme in the so-called "Air Pistol," which has some elements of the Pistol offense system created by former Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault. Asked Monday if he would make a deeper evaluation into what Nevada is trying to do offensively this offseason, Norvell said he likes the blend of the Air Raid and a physical run game.
“We’re constantly evaluating everything," Norvell said. "I love what we do. I think it’s the way to play. And we’re constantly tweaking it and really finding different ways to practice. Arguably, you could say we’re not pure Air Raid. We play more tight ends than most pure Air Raids do. But we’ve adjusted and evaluated and we like to run the ball. We have good backs, and there’s a part of physicality that goes with winning over the long term, so we always want to have that in our game. There’s certain times in the game where I just believe you have to run the football and you have to be physical, and we do that. We’ll just keep evolving. We want to play the Nevada offense. That’s what we want to play. Whatever’s best for us to win, that’s what we’ll do.”
In the New Mexico game, Nevada actually passed the ball a little more than it had on average this season. Versus the Lobos, the Wolf Pack had 40 passes to 34 rushes, a pass rate of 54 percent. Nevada has passed the ball 50.7 percent of the time overall this season. The Wolf Pack's play-calling in the third quarter against New Mexico was called into question by the ESPN broadcasting crew, namely color commentator Ryan Leaf. In the third quarter, Nevada ran the ball on six of nine plays, gaining minus-one yard on those carries while going three-and-out on all three series.
Norvell said Nevada turned to the run game in the third quarter to avoid a potential turnover and protect the Wolf Pack defense, which was playing well against New Mexico.
“I can get into a long discussion about that, but basically we want to protect our defense with our special teams and our offense," Norvell said. "We don’t want to turn the ball over. We don’t want to put our defense in a tough situation. We want to protect our quarterback. We want to protect our punter. We want to win the field-position battle. We just feel like that gives us the best chance to win. One of the things I was so proud of – we didn’t play great in the third quarter – but I was proud of the fourth quarter. We had the ball for 10 minutes and 17 seconds in the fourth quarter, and I think that’s important for us."
Nevada didn't turn the ball over against New Mexico, snapping a streak of seven straight games with at least two giveaways. But the Wolf Pack's issues running the ball continued. Nevada averaged just 1.9 yards per carry against the Lobos and its 3.30 yards per carry is sharply down from last year's average of 4.53. Norvell made it clear he wants to continue to try and run the ball in order to keep Nevada's defense off the field.
"We have to realize that our best defense is when our defense is on the sideline," Norvell said. "The other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball. We have to be mindful of that. We’ll kind of keep our eye on that. Sometimes even if you’re not running the ball well, it’s important to run the ball. We have to be mindful of that and play some keep-away at times. We have a roster that we go compete with every Saturday and we try and maximize the strength of our roster – whether it’s special teams, defense, offense – and we try and lean on things that our roster does well. That changes sometimes, and we have to be mindful of that.”
Norvell said the staff has tried to tailor the offense to the strength of Nevada's players. At times this season, Nevada has simplified its scheme to allow for that. Norvell said injuries to the offensive line (the Wolf Pack is currently down two starters) also have played a factor in the kind of offense Nevada can run and the kind of plays it can call. Norvell said it has taken some time to try and figure out what his personnel can do successfully.
“Sometimes you really don’t learn about your personnel," Norvell said. "You try in practice and in scrimmages, but we’re college football. We’re not professional football. We don’t get four preseason games to learn about our personnel. Sometimes you don’t really learn until you’re playing games. We’ve had a lot of injuries this year, too. We’ve lost some really good players, so we’ve had to adjust to the guys we have healthy, and sometimes we have to manage things a little differently. We have to do what’s best for our players. I’ve always believed that. It’s about the players first. We have to do what they can do well to have success on Saturdays. That’s something that we’ll continue to evaluate and try to put the best plan together to let them have success on Saturdays.”