Wolf Pack take on Northwestern
Special to The R-C
WHEN: Saturday, 12:30 p.m. local time
WHERE: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
RECORDS: Nevada (0-0); Northwestern (0-0)
TV: Big Ten Network
RADIO: 630 AM, 94.5 FM
SERIES: Tied, 1-1
Jay Norvell is certainly no stranger to the Chicago area.
“It’s neat,” the rookie Nevada Wolf Pack football head coach said this week. “I’ve spent a lot of time there. I am very familiar with the city. Great food there.”
Norvell will make his head coaching debut this Saturday afternoon (12:30 p.m.) when the Pack visits Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., a suburb just north of Chicago.
“There will be a lot of friends and family and college friends there,” the 54-year-old Norvell said. “I was told they rented a bus from Madison (Wis.) and about 30 people are coming down. It’s a blessing.”
Norvell has made many trips to Chicago in his life, having grown up about 125 miles to the north in Madison. This will also be his sixth game at Northwestern as either a player (at Iowa from 1982-85) or coach (at Wisconsin from 1989-94). Norvell, who played six games for the Chicago Bears in 1987 and coached a game in Chicago in 2003 as an assistant with the Indianapolis Colts, has a record of 9-2 against Northwestern (6-0 at home and 3-2 at Northwestern) as a coach and player combined.
“I remember going to Mustard’s Last Stand to get a burger (in downtown Evanston),” Norvell said. “Can’t wait to go back there. Chicago is a great town. A great sports city. We’d go down from Madison to watch the (Chicago) Cubs play and go to Taste of Chicago (an outdoor food festival in downtown Chicago).”
The game against the Wildcats of the Big Ten on Saturday will be Norvell’s first against Northwestern since he was a Wisconsin assistant and won in Evanston, 46-14, on Oct. 8 1994.
“That was a long time ago,” Norvell said. “A lot has changed.”
The biggest thing that has changed since Norvell last stepped on the field at Northwestern is that he is now the head coach. “Your attention changes as a head coach,” said Norvell, who has taken over a program that finished 5-7 a year ago and has won seven or fewer games in each of the last six seasons. “It’s an attention to detail and you are more involved in all of the game day decisions. I‘m right in the middle of all that now.”
The Wildcats finished 7-6 last season, beating Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl, after starting the year 1-3. It is that slow start a year ago that will motivate the Wildcats on Saturday. Northwestern was upset in its first two games of the season last year by Western Michigan and Illinois State, both at home.
“Our thought last year was that we were just going to walk in and take it away,” defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster said this week. “We were wrong. We learned that we have to play every week like it’s our Super Bowl.”
“Last year we started 1-3 and that really put us in a hole,” Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “We’ve used this whole off-season as motivation to start faster this year.”
The Wolf Pack also has plenty of motivation to play well on Saturday. The Wolf Pack are just 2-16 in season openers against Division I (Football Bowl Subdivision) teams since making the move from Division I-AA in 1992. Norvell is also hoping to become the first head coach in Wolf Pack history to debut with a victory on the road. Just six new Pack coaches (R.E. Courtright in 1919, Jeff Horton in 1993, Jeff Tisdel in 1996, Chris Tormey in 2000, Chris Ault in 2004 and Brian Polian in 2013) have debuted on the road and all six lost.
“This is going to be a big challenge for us,” Norvell said.
Northwestern is led on offense by the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Thorson and 5-11, 193-pound running back Justin Jackson. Thorson passed for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns a year ago while Jackson rushed for 1,606 yards and 15 scores.
“The quarterback has a very strong arm,” Norvell said.
“You can tell he’s the heartbeat of the offense,” Wolf Pack safety Asauni Rufus said. “He’s a great decision maker. When things break down he can make things happen.”
Thorson graduated from the same high school (Wheaton North in Wheaton Ill.) that produced Chuck Long, a teammate of Norvell’s at Iowa. Long will also be part of the television crew (on the Big Ten Network) this weekend at Northwestern.
“He’s kind of the same type of quarterback as Chuck Long,” said Norvell, who said he talked to Long this week. “He’s a big, strong guy.”
“It’s been neat to see his maturation at quarterback,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who lost to the Wolf Pack in Reno in 2006 (31-21) and beat them (36-31) in 2007 in Evanston. “This is his offense, his team now.”
Norvell is also impressed with Jackson, a senior who hopes to become just the second player in Big Ten history (after Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne, 1996-899) to rush for 1,000 or more yards in four consecutive seasons.
“He is big time,” Norvell said. “A tremendous back. We have to be real sound defensively.”
“He’s an elusive runner with great vision,” Rufus said. “We have to be able to tackle in space. But I haven’t seen one person take him down too often.”
The Wolf Pack defense, which has switched to a 3-3-5 alignment under new coordinator Jeff Casteel, allowed 29 points and 456 yards a game last year.
“No offense is perfect,” Wolf Pack defensive lineman Malik Reed said. “Our job is to go exploit it.”
Northwestern’s defense, which allowed 26 points and 398 yards a game last year, also figures to be challenged by the Wolf Pack offense, which has become a pass-happy spread attack under new offensive coordinator Matt Mumme.
“Nevada has a huge advantage against us with a new head coach and new coordinators,” Fitzgerald said. “They obviously know a lot more about us than we know about them. It‘s a big challenge. We have to put together a puzzle without having a picture.”
“We have a leg up on them,” Reed said. “We have a new offense and a new defense. But we still have to go out and execute.”
Adding to the mystery surrounding the Wolf Pack is that Norvell refuses to name a starting quarterback. Newcomer David Cornwell, a transfer from Alabama, was expected to become the Pack’s starter this year but Norvell has purposely clouded the situation by tossing returning starter Ty Gangi back into the competition.
“I am not going to reveal to our opposition how we’ll use our quarterbacks,” Norvell said with a smile.
The Wolf Pack is expected to fill the air with footballs above Ryan Field with passes, no matter which quarterback is on the field.
“I’m especially excited to play in a passing offense for once,” said wide receiver Wyatt Demps, who led the Pack last year with 53 catches for 686 yards and nine touchdowns.
Demps said the Wolf Pack has undergone tremendous changes, both on the field and off, this off-season. “The intensity, the passion we have for the game, has really been pumped up,” he said.
“We’ve been practicing with a chip on our shoulder,” Rufus said. “We know we are able to accomplish more than we did last year.”
Norvell has overhauled the Wolf Pack football program since he was named head coach on Dec. 9, hiring a completely new coaching staff, changing the offense and defense, and bringing in almost four dozen new players.
“The new players have brought a real hungry attitude to our team,” Norvell said. “They’ve just added a total change of mindset. The competitiveness of each position has changed.”
The Wolf Pack is a three-touchdown underdog in Nevada sports books.
“People are going to doubt us,” Reed said. “I feel it’s that way every year. But the only thing that matters is how we go out and play. We’re the ones that can determine how our season is going to go.”
“This group has a lot of potential,” Norvell said. “We have plenty of athletic ability to be a real good team. But we really don’t know until we see live bullets.”