The formula to beat the Nevada football team two seasons ago was simple.
Run the ball 50 times. Scores a lot of points. Celebrate your victory.
In 2016, the final season under coach Brian Polian, the Wolf Pack allowed 298 rushing yards per game. That was the most in the nation. It gave up 6.10 yards per carry. That was the second most in the nation. It allowed 32 rushing scores. That was the 15th most in the nation. When Jay Norvell took over as Nevada’s head coach following that season, he had many things to fix. No. 1 among them was the run defense.
So far, so good.
Lasts season, Nevada cut those numbers down to 208 yards per game, 4.42 yards per carry and 24 rushing touchdown. This year, the run defense has been even better, a downright strength.
The Wolf Pack, which hosts Fresno State on Saturday night, is allowing just 154 rushing yards per game and 3.52 yards per carry, its lowest total since 2008. The last time Nevada held opponents to fewer than four yards per carry was the historic 2010 season, which marked the third straight year under that figure.
“We’re just more physical,” said Wolf Pack linebacker Lucas Weber, who is sixth on the team with 23 tackles. “Guys are really attacking blocks, trying to get off blocks right away and guys just know what they’re supposed to do. I think that’s a big thing in the run game. We’re playing fast and physical.”
Nevada had one of its best defensive efforts in recent memory in last week’s 28-25 win at Air Force. The Wolf Pack held the Falcons to 24 yards on 26 plays in the first half and limited Air Force to just 16 offensive points and 250 total yards. The Falcons’ triple-option, which rolled up 550 rushing yards against Nevada last season, was limited to 154 yards on the ground on 51 attempts. That's just 3.0 yards per rush.
“I just think as a team we trust each other way more than we did a year ago,” Norvell said. “We’re less selfish. We’ve bought into the team concept of playing together and you could really see it in our defense Saturday. That was a total team effort: guys playing their responsibility, trusting their angles and I think guys are just more decisive and confident about what they’re doing, pulling the trigger in competition. When you’re playing ball, it has to be all gas, no brakes. That’s how we played Saturday.”
For Norvell, the improved run defense has been affirmation that his mid-stream change last season is paying off. The Wolf Pack tinkered with its class of 2018 recruiting template late in the process to add bigger bodies on the defensive line. It also moved two-time All-Mountain West defensive end Malik Reed to linebacker, where his smaller frame is better suited. Nevada began an “Eat to Win” nutrition program. And some Wolf Pack alums in the NFL bought the program additional sleds for practice. It was all a part of Norvell’s plan to make his team more physical, which was something it lacked against top competition in 2017.
“We made a lot of changes last offseason,” Norvell said. “Position changes, we started the 'Eat to Win' program, that was significant. We really worked hard in the weight room to get stronger. We got these sleds that our alumni helped us buy. We put them in the weight room. There used to be sleds in the weight room when Coach (Chris) Ault was here, and Coach Ault had one of the most physical programs in the country the way they ran the ball. We got it back to that.
"We have the sleds in the locker room. We have the sleds back out in the pit. And we’ve got a rule: We hit those sleds five times before we hit the weights. Before they work out, they have to hit the sleds. I just think it’s a culmination of all those little things we do that is making us more fundamentally sound and more physical.”
Nevada’s defense has a tough challenge against Fresno State, which ranks 17th in ESPN’s offensive efficiency rating. The Bulldogs, powered by quarterback Marcus McMaryion, is potent through the air and on the ground. McMaryion completes 72.1 percent of his passes while Fresno State averages 165.5 rushing yards per game.
As the reigning MW West Division champ, Fresno State will present Nevada's improved defense its stiffest challenge of the year. The Wolf Pack lost to the Bulldogs, 41-21, last season while Fresno State surpassed the 500-yard mark on offense. Norvell has been pleased with his defense’s improvement, but said Nevada must match Fresno State’s physicality on Saturday night.
“This game has never changed,” Norvell said. “You have to block and you have to tackle to be a good football team. We’re behind the teams in our conference. We’re trying to catch up with the teams in our league and being more physical. We have to continue that. We have to grow throughout this year. This is another step for us. That will be huge in this game. We have to keep managing the opponent’s run game by being physical.”
In addition to being more physically able to stand up against the run, the Wolf Pack defense has been more attentive, too, according to linebacker Gabe Sewell, whose 27 tackles are second on the team.
“We basically live in the film room now,” Sewell said. “Guys are staying later, asking questions more, no matter how dumb they may seem. We asked the ‘What ifs’ or ‘If this happens’ or ‘If we get blocked a certain way on this play.’ We’re taking it almost as an extra class and we’re all taking that to heart. Nobody likes the feeling of a losing season and we want to get to a bowl game and make Nevada fans proud of the program.”
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @MurrayNSN.