EVANSTON, Ill. — Jay Norvell’s head coaching debut for Nevada wasn’t without its fair share of bumps in the road. But for leading a young team into battle and contending until the last minutes against a talented Power Five program, it’s certainly safe to say that he is on the right track.
Nevada lost its season opener to Northwestern on Saturday 31-20, but it was, in some ways, a positive result for the Wolf Pack. For a team that went 5-7 last season and now has 42 new players, a completely revamped coaching staff, and a new offense can compete and stay close with a formative Big Ten opponent in the first game of the season, their performance on Saturday was impressive.
The Wolf Pack came into Saturday’s season opener the heavy underdog, with Northwestern the 24-point favorite. From the beginning, they did their best to dispel those odds, and put up a fight against the defending Pinstripe Bowl champions, but in the end, they were overpowered. Even though they interchanged leads and were tied up until the fourth quarter, all it took for the Wildcats to narrowly walk out of Ryan Field with a win to their name was two Clayton Thorson crunch time touchdown sneaks.
One of the bright spots of the game for Nevada was an effective job by their front seven of shutting down Justin Jackson and the Northwestern run game. That is especially surprising when you consider that this is a team that had one of the worst rushing defenses in the league and allowed just under an average of 300 yards per game.
Here’s a breakdown of the game’s major events:
Northwestern got on the board less than ten minutes into the game, with junior quarterback Clayton Thorson launching a superb 33-yard touchdown to senior Macan Wilson. That touchdown capped a five-play drive which started at Nevada’s 43-yard-line after recovering a Kaleb Fossum fumble.
The Wolf Pack fired back quickly, marching 75 yards down the field in a span of a minute and 42 seconds on eight plays. Ending with Ty Gangi hitting Wyatt Demps over the middle on a successful play action fake. Demps was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his celebration following the play, his tenth career TD.
Later, in the second quarter, Gangi aired out a 41-yard pass to freshman wideout McLane Mannix to break through an offensive stalemate, making it 14-7 in Nevada’s favor. For Mannix, a true freshman, his first career reception couldn’t have come under better circumstances.
With less than four minutes to go in the first half and the Wildcats poised to score, Thorson completed a pass to sophomore tight end Bennett Skowronek, who fumbled. The turnover was forced by junior cornerback Asauni Rufus and recovered by fellow corner Vosean Crumbie, who fell on it at their own thirteen-yard line. Rufus forced three fumbles last season.
The turnover resulted in sophomore kicker Spencer Pettit draining a 31-yard field goal with 36 seconds left in the half sent Nevada into the locker room up 17-7.
On the first Northwestern drive of the second half, Flynn Nagel bobbled what could have been a momentum shifting touchdown pass on third-and-goal. That drop set up a 23-yard field goal for Charlie Kuhbander, which made it 17-10.
The Wolf Pack had Gangi attempt his second pooch kick of the game, since it worked well in the second quarter when he effortlessly booted a 44-yard punt that pattered out-of-bounds at the Northwestern four-yard line. Gangi’s second attempt at a surprise kick didn’t fare nearly as well as his first one, because he skied the ball a mere 18 yards, landing out-of bounds at the Northwestern 30-yard line.
That unfortunate punt led to the Wildcats taking it down to the other end of the field. Late in the drive, Thorson flashed his dual-threat capabilities, as he called his own number on a third-and-12 within Nevada territory, gaining a first down and then some, as an extra 15 yards was tacked on following a late hit from a Nevada player. That rush set up another score, with the redshirt junior gunslinger firing a 19-yard touchdown pass to a streaking Riley Lees to tie the game back up at 17-17.
On the ensuing kickoff, Warren Long forced his second fumble of the game, although it was recovered by Nevada’s Brandon Scott. Nevada receiver Kaleb Fossum was injured on the play after taking a massive hit while attempting to block. He stayed down for a while and had to be taken off the field on a cart. After the game, it was revealed he had suffered a dislocated knee.
“I think he dislocated his knee,” said Jay Norvell in his post-game press conference. “We’re really hoping it’s not as serious as we originally thought, and that we’ll get him back out there soon.”
Up to that point, Fossum, a junior transfer from Washington State, had been fairly productive for the Wolf Pack, catching four passes for a total of 36 yards.
Early in the fourth quarter, both teams threw red zone interceptions. The second of which came when Elijah Moody corralled a pass intended for receiver Jalen Brown. The easy interception gave Nevada an easy opportunity to score from well within the red zone. However, the Wolfpack made little of a crucial opportunity, settling for a field goal after Gangi was sacked on third-and-six. Spencer Pettit converted his second field goal of the game from 33-yards out to put Nevada up 20-17, giving Northwestern over ten minutes to respond.
Thorson and Skowronek reconnected for 15 and 26 yards passes. On third down, Thorson hit Macan Wilson, who was wrapped up at the one-yard line. Thorson used his big athletic build to power his way past the Nevada defensive front and put Northwestern up 24-20 with just a short amount of time left in the fourth quarter.
Inthe ensuing series, Nevada pushed it to four-and-one in their own territory. They put in backup quarterback Griffin Dahn in for Ty Gangi. Dahn was met by a slew of Wildcat defensive lineman at the line of scrimmage, and the ball was turned over.
Northwestern needed one final score needed to solidify the victory, and Nevada had used up all of their timeouts. Justin Jackson’s ten-yard run and Wilson’s 41-yard reception led to another Clayton Thorson one-yard rush touchdown, which was all the insurance the Wildcats needed with less than a minute left in the game.
With that, Northwestern squeeked out a 31-20 victory, and Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald is now 10-2 in season openers since taking over as the head coach in Evanston in 2006.
Northwestern: Away against Duke (Durham, N.C.) @ 11 a.m. CT on ESPNU
Nevada: At home against Toledo (Reno, Nevada) @ 4 p.m. PT on ESPN3