California quarterback Chase Garbers throws against Oregon on Dec. 5, 2020 in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
The Nevada Wolf Pack football team’s offense is a confident bunch.
“I don’t think we have any doubt about what we want to do on offense,” Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said this week in preparation for the season opener Saturday (7:30 p.m., FS1, 94.5-FM, 630-AM) against the California Golden Bears in Berkeley, Calif. “We expect to start fast.”
The Wolf Pack offense, led by quarterback Carson Strong, averaged 31 points and 441 yards a game last year while winning seven of nine games.
“I know what I’m doing out there,” said Strong, who underwent off-season knee surgery after passing for 2,588 yards and 27 touchdowns last year. “I’m very confident.”
“He’s probably not 100 percent yet,” Norvell said. “But he understands what he needs to do to perform.”
Strong became the first underclassman in the history of the Mountain West last season to be named Offensive Player of the Year. Norvell, though, expects his quarterback to be even better in 2021.
“He had a very good year last year,” Norvell said, “but he should be better. He should take another step in his development this year and be much better.”
The entire Pack offense could improve this season. Strong, who beat a Power Five team (Purdue, 34-31) in his first college start in 2019, will lead an experienced offense this season. Returning are receivers Romeo Doubs (58 catches, 1,002 yards, nine touchdowns), Cole Turner (49-605-9) and Elijah Cooks (injured in 2020 but had 76 catches, 926 yards, eight touchdowns in 2019) as well as running backs Toa Taua (675 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Devonte Lee (427-2).
“We’re really just completely focused on the moment,” Norvell said, ignoring the expectations and hype surrounding his football team this summer. “The expectations are just a by-product of what we’ve done in the past.”
The Wolf Pack offense’s potential certainly caught the attention of the Cal coaching staff this summer and this past week.
“I started getting the gray whiskers the last couple days,” Cal defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said this week. “They are a hell of a team on offense. These are real dudes.”
Doubs, like Strong, is considered a future NFL player by various media outlets.
“They get the ball on the perimeter to (Doubs) and he can just outrun players,” Sirmon said. “A lot of times it looks like the defensive back is standing in cement.”
Norvell is also aware that teams focused on Doubs over the final month of the 2020 season, holding him without a touchdown catch over his final four games.
“They (Cal) don’t give up a lot of big plays,” Norvell said. “They force you to execute.”
Cal allowed 26.5 points a game last year over its four games against Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA.
“We have a ton of respect for them,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “We understand why they are so highly thought of.”
Strong has been touted as a possible first-round NFL draft pick next spring. The 6-foot-4 quarterback, though, was not recruited by Cal out of Wood High School in Vacaville, Calif., likely because the quarterback sat out his senior year in high school because of a knee injury.
“I was interested in Cal but they didn’t recruit me,” Strong said. “I went to a lot of games there and I went to their (football) camps. I saw Aaron Rodgers play and Marshawn Lynch and Keenan Allen.
“But things happen for a reason. I wouldn’t want to play for any other coach but Coach Norvell. I am very happy to be here (at Nevada).”
The Wolf Pack should feel right at home on Saturday night. The Pack practiced for two weeks at Stanford in August because of recent wildfires that made the skies over the Wolf Pack campus unhealthy.
“We had no choice but to leave,” said Norvell, who added that the Wolf Pack has practiced on eight fields this summer throughout Northern Nevada and California because of the wildfires. “Without that (the practices at Stanford) we wouldn’t have been able to get ready to play this game.”
“I think it has gotten us closer as a team,” Strong said. “It’s been good, just focusing on football.”
Wilcox, in his fifth season (21-21 record) as Cal head coach, saw his Bears limited to just four games (1-3) a year ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bears’ offense, led by quarterback Chase Garbers, averaged just 20 points a game in 2020. The 22-year-old Garbers threw for 771 yards and six touchdowns last year after passing for 1,270 yards and nine scores in 2019 and 1,506 and 14 touchdowns in 2018.
“Chase is a veteran player,” said Norvell, who will also be entering his fifth season as the Pack head coach (25-22 record). “When you play a quarterback with experience you have to be on your toes.”
Cal will rename its historic stadium “FTX Field at California Memorial Stadium” on Saturday because of a sponsorship deal. The last time Nevada was in Berkeley (2012) the Golden Bears were celebrating the renovation of Memorial Stadium and the Pack left Northern California with a season-opening 31-24 upset victory.
The Wolf Pack, which also beat the Golden Bears 52-31 in 2010, will bring a two-game winning streak in the 122-year-old rivalry to FTX Field on Saturday. The victory in 2012 is the only time in school history that Nevada has opened a season with a victory over a Power Five team on the road.
“We have a big chance to go in there and make a big statement,” Strong said. “This is a real big opportunity for us. We’re not afraid of anybody.”