Northwestern football is just a few hours away, and this season’s campaign pits Pat Fitzgerald and company against a Nevada Wolf Pack program that hasn’t seen the national spotlight since Colin Kaepernick led the charge in a 13-1 2010 season.
In 2016, the team finished 5-7 and sported one of the worst defenses in the nation, sitting at 124th in defensive S&P+ rankings (per Football Outsiders). Jay Norvell has taken over, and the former offensive coordinator and wide receiver guru, who held gigs at Arizona State, Texas and Oklahoma, will get his first test as a head coach against a stalwart Northwestern secondary in perfect shape to counter Norvell’s first-year Air Raid offense.
Here are three things to know about the Wildcats’ week one opponent.
- A starting QB will more than likely not be named until game time
It’s sort of poetic that a strategy that Nick Saban used at Alabama will be employed for Nevada as last year’s starter, junior Ty Gangi, against junior Alabama transfer David Cornwell, a pro-style quarterback with a power arm. The QB battle will come down to, yes, performance in the spring, but down the stretch it’ll be who can most effectively lead and execute the new Air Raid offense.
An offense that favors lots of passing to multiple targets would seem to push the job in the favor of Cornwell. Indeed, that’s where the Nevada sports pundits think it’ll go given his performance in the spring, but Cornwell has never thrown a college pass, sitting behind Jalen Hurts in his time at Alabama. There’s an argument to be made that since he’s never technically played under a different offensive scheme there’s no transition to be made, so he’s better suited for the job.
That’s not the case for Ty Gangi, who played in a run-heavy offense last year. But the junior does have experience, and is a mobile quarterback, rushing for three touchdowns to go with his eight passing TDs last year, so with him taking snaps, defenses are kept more on their toes. An Air Raid offense also aims to put further pressure on defenses with no-huddle plays and audibles called purely based on how a coach and quarterback can read a defensive alignment. Again, there I give the edge to Gangi.
- The Air Raid offense is a complete shift from last year
Maybe in two years, this is a team that would be scary to face on a down week, given a pass-heavy, up-tempo offense in theory. But not this year. Quarterback situation aside, the rest of the offense is having to undergo a complete philosophical shift here. Last year, their best player was star running back James Butler, who left to attend Iowa as a graduate transfer after rushing for 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns.
This year, they’ll try to win games by simply out-bombing other teams. The Wolf Pack has some playmakers in the receiving corps in senior Wyatt Demps, who racked up 686 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2016, junior Andrew Celis, who has caught long bombs from Gangi in the past, and Notre Dame graduate transfer Justin Brent, but other than those three no receiver has more than six career catches.
The offensive line is also thin. All-conference senior LT Austin Corbett is the leader in a line with a lot of size, but not a lot of depth. Like I said, in theory this seems like a recipe that is at least manageable for a team on the rebound adapting to a completely new offense, but the Sky Team™ will be ready this year.
- Nevada’s defense is porous
The big reason Nevada has to rely on running up the score to win is that its defense is very bad. There’s really no need to mince words when your defense allowed an FBS-worst 297.6 rushing yards per game in 2016. On the bright side, there’s nowhere to go but up for the Nevada defense, but Justin Jackson will have a field day to start off what will with overwhelming probability be his fourth 1,000+ rushing yard season.
It’ll be new defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, formerly of Arizona and West Virginia, who has the responsibility of implementing his 3-3-5 “stack” defense effectively. It shifts the focus onto the secondary, which is probably the right move given the defensive atrocities committed by the front four last year. Three safeties and two defensive backs sit behind three linebackers, who in turn position themselves right behind three linemen. Asauni Rufus and Dameon Baber were solid in their safety roles last year, but the defense managed just five interceptions all season.
The lone bright spot on the D-line was All-Mountain West defensive end Malik Reed, who registered five sacks last year. Problem is, the rest of the team managed eight. All year. On paper, Justin Jackson could win this game by himself, and while the opposing offense will come out firing with not a lot to lose in a matchup against a Big Ten school on the road, Northwestern will not repeat the same early-season debacles from last year.