Toledo spoils Nevada Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell’s home debut
Special to The R-C
The Nevada Wolf Pack football team continues to sputter down the highway.
“We’re not firing on all cylinders,” Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell said after a 37-24 loss to the Toledo Rockets on Saturday in front of 18,617 fans at Mackay Stadium. “It’s like we have water in the gas tank. It’s just doesn’t run smoothly.”
With the loss in the home opener, Norvell joined Chris Tormey (2000) as the only head coaches since 1955 to start out their Wolf Pack career 0-2.
“I‘m not discouraged,” Norvell said. “I‘m just disappointed because I know we can play better.”
The Wolf Pack, who lost to Northwestern 31-20 a week ago to open the year, were inconsistent in all phases of the game for the second week in a row. Quarterback Ty Gangi completed 19-of-37 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns but he also fumbled the ball away and tossed an interception in the fourth quarter. The defense held Toledo to 3.2 yards per carry on the ground but also allowed 426 yards overall as the Rockets controlled the ball for just over 40 minutes.
“Some of it was good, some of it wasn’t good,” Norvell said. “We’re still learning about each other. We’re not there yet.”
The Wolf Pack felt encouraged after the loss at Northwestern. The mood after the loss to Toledo wasn’t as upbeat. The loss was the Pack’s first in its home opener since 2012 when it lost to South Florida (39-38).
“This one stings a bit more today (than the loss at Northwestern),” Wolf Pack offensive tackle Austin Corbett said. “I think we’re there but it just wasn’t for the full four quarters like we needed. We see it work in practice all week. It’s tough to then not see it work in games.”
The Wolf Pack fell into a 20-3 hole late in the second quarter thanks to Gangi’s inconsistencies — he completed just nine of his first 20 passes — and some aggressive play calls by Norvell that backfired. The Wolf Pack gave the potent Toledo offense a short field to work with twice in the first quarter, misfiring on a 4th-and-3 pass from their own 45-yard line to end their first drive of the game and then failing on an onside kick after evening the game at 3-3 on a 47-yard field goal by Spencer Pettit.
“We wanted to be aggressive in this game,” Norvell said. “We wanted to try and steal a possession. Whether we got the onside kick or not, we wanted our kids to understand that we were going to go for it.”
“We’re trying to win the game,” Wolf Pack defensive tackle Malik Reed said. “You have to be aggressive.”
It was a bit of aggressiveness that also got the Pack in trouble on defense in the first quarter. Safety Asauni Rufus was penalized for “targeting” Toledo tight end Jordan Fisher on an incomplete pass over the middle at the Wolf Pack 32-yard line. The Wolf Pack lost Rufus for the game because of the play because targeting comes with an automatic ejection. Toledo scored on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Logan Woodside to wide receiver Diontae Johnson seven plays later for a 10-3 lead with 3:21 to go in the first quarter.
“I don’t know how you call that,” Norvell said of the targeting penalty on Rufus. “There were 30 other plays in the game exactly like that one. It hurts when you lose a leader like Asauni. I can’t fault anything he did on that play.”
A short 20-yard punt by the Pack’s Quinton Conway gave the Rockets another short field early in the second quarter. Woodside then engineered a five-play, 34-yard scoring drive as Terry Swanson scored on a 3-yard run for a 17-3 lead. Two more Gangi incompletions forced another punt on the Pack’s next possession. Toledo then drove 60 yards on 12 plays for a 26-yard field goal by Jameson Vest and a 20-3 lead.
“Everybody is going to make mistakes,” Gangi said. “You just have to go out there and make the next play.”
Gangi did exactly that as the Wolf Pack seemed to steal the momentum back going into halftime. The junior quarterback led the Pack on a much-needed 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive to cut Toledo’s lead to 20-10 at the break. Gangi was 5-of-9 on the drive, finding Brandon Scott for 11 yards, Wyatt Demps for 3 and 11 yards and Daiyan Henley for 4 yards and then a 19-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline. The Wolf Pack also got some help from Toledo on the drive as the Rockets were called for pass interference and offsides. The Rockets did their best to help the Pack all game long, getting whistled for 14 penalties (110 yards).
“There were plenty of times the momentum shifted in our favor,” Corbett said.
Toledo, though, would usually steal it right back.
The Rockets jumped out ahead 27-10 on a 1-yard scoring run by Swanson mid-way through the third quarter and later took a 34-17 lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Woodside to Cody Thompson. Gangi and the Pack, finally finding their rhythm, answered both times. Gangi scored on a 1-yard run to cut the deficit to 27-17, capping a 75-yard, six-play drive, and later found McLane Mannix streaking down the right sideline for a 75-yard touchdown to pull the Pack within 34-24 late in the third quarter. Mannix would finish with six catches for 139 yards.
“McLane is a great player,” Gangi said. “We want to give him the ball.”
But that was as close as the Wolf Pack would get as Gangi’s two turnovers in the fourth quarter killed the Pack’s comeback hopes. He fumbled the ball away at the Toledo 30, one play after finding Demps on a 50-yard completion. Toledo defensive end Tuzar Skipper stripped Gangi of the ball as the Pack quarterback dropped back to pass and Toledo tackle Nate Childress fell on the loose ball. On the Pack’s next drive Gangi’s right arm was hit as he threw and the ball floated right to Toledo’s Ja’Wuan Woodley at the Pack 36.
The Rockets turned Woodley’s interception into a 23-yard field goal and a 37-24 lead with 4:31 to play. The Wolf Pack then drove down to the Toledo 18, but Gangi’s 4th-and-2 pass missed Mannix at the left sideline, turning the ball back over to the Rockets with 2:29 to go.
“I’m disappointed and a little frustrated,” Gangi said. “But we just have to keep learning and moving forward.”
Gangi threw for 277 yards but 125 of those yards were on just two plays (75 to Mannix on the touchdown and 50 to Demps in the fourth quarter).
“I think we’re real close,” Gangi said. “But now we just have to do it consistently and get rolling.”
Norvell said there were times on Saturday that he thought of making a quarterback change, if only for a series or two.
“There are always times when you think about that,” he said. “And we have to do a better job of executing. Our receivers have to start beating their man and our quarterback has to hit the open man. We have some quarterbacks that can do some things. We might give them the opportunity. We’ll certainly consider that. We’re certainly not throwing for a high enough percentage. That is a concern of ours.”
The Wolf Pack will host Idaho State, a Football Championship Subdivision team, this Saturday at Mackay Stadium.
“We’ve done plenty of losing here the last few years,” Corbett said. “It’s time to start winning.”