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Pre-Snap Read: Previewing No. 18 WSU vs. the Nevada Wolf Pack

A final tune-up before the big game ... we hope.

Nevada v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

With their win over hapless Oregon State last Saturday, the Washington State Cougars moved into the AP Top 20 for the first time since 2003. The No. 18 Cougars play host to a reeling Nevada squad that has been very consistent at putting up losing efforts, dropping games to Northwestern (31-20), Toledo (37-24), and the Pride of Pocatello, Idaho State (30-28).

That last one stings a little bit.

Jay Norvell is in his first year as head coach of the Wolf Pack, taking over for a mostly consistent seven-win-a-season tenure by Brian Polian. Norvell is a Hayden Fry-era defensive back from the Iowa Hawkeyes who had a short stint in the NFL with the Chicago Bears before immediately transitioning to coaching.

Norvell’s coaching history is littered with different types of experience; he’s coached the offensive line, quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends, and he’s coordinated offenses at all sorts of places. Most recently he was the Passing Game Coordinator for Todd Graham at Arizona State in 2016 after coaching receivers at Texas the year before and a long stint at Oklahoma before that. (You might remember a guy named Mike Norvell who also coached at ASU recently and is now the head coach at Memphis; they’re not related.)

One of the biggest changes in Nevada is that Norvell has largely scrapped Nevada’s trademark Pistol offense in favor of a version of the Air Raid. When Mike Leach left Norman, he also left the Air Raid in the Sooners’ playbook, and eight years later — when Norvell took over as Offensive Coordinator — most of those concepts were still there. He told the Reno Gazette-Journal, “I probably wouldn’t (be running the Air Raid) if I wouldn’t have been at Oklahoma and been exposed to it.”

Norvell is, of course, not the headline staff connection with Mike Leach; that honor belongs to his Offensive Coordinator Matt Mumme, son of Hal Mumme, co-creater of the Air Raid offense with Leach at Iowa Wesleyan and then Valdosta State in the early 90s.

Mumme is an Air Raid guy, like Leach and his father, but he has also incorporated some of Chris Ault’s Pistol concepts that Nevada is famous for into his scheme.

So far, that transition from a 60 percent run team to a 60 percent passing team has been a little challenging for the offense, which ranks 112th in S&P+.

(Fun side note: Timmy Chang is coaching the inside receivers for Nevada. Chang once held NCAA records for passing yardage, total offense, total completions, total attempts and total plays when he orchestrated June Jones’ run-and-shoot at Hawaii in the early 2000s.)

Defensively, the Wolf Pack is lead by coordinator Jeff Casteel. Casteel, if you remember, ran Arizona’s defense back when they were good and was at West Virginia for a decade before that. His name is synonymous with his 3-3-5 scheme.

Nevada will be fast and aggressive at linebacker, stunting from different angles to supplement a steady 3-man pass rush from the defensive line. The Wolf Pack played a rather unusual amount of snaps in Cover 1 against spread sets in their game against Northwestern, so keep an eye out for that.

If the outside receivers are able to get clean releases off that Nevada jam at the line, there could be more than a few big plays down the sideline. And anytime there’s man coverage, you know there’s an automatic advantage in the pass game to the running backs.

We just might be talking about wheel routes next week. Also, PCP (post-corner-post) tags, screens, and shallow crosses should all do fairly well.

No opposing beat writer this week, you only got me.

What has me concerned about the Nevada Wolf Pack

Look ahead: This is a blatant trap game. Most fans saw that the minute the schedule came out. Behind WSU is an after-dinner mint conference game that followed a main course of Pac-12 After Dark against Boise State; sitting in front of WSU is a national television broadcast at sold-out Martin Stadium against No. 5 USC next Friday night.

Between them is Reno on the “probably gonna skip that” weekend for season ticket holders who were asked to come to Pullman on five consecutive weekends.

On paper, this game looks unimportant. Off paper, too, with a lot of the more optimistic attendance estimates being close to 20,000. Martin Stadium will be noticeably more flat than previous games and there’s always a chance the lack of fan energy will infect players. Stuff’s contagious.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Nevada
Jaxson Kincaide is pretty good.
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

And just as lip-service to the inner COUG DOOM that sits in a dark place within all of us ... losing to a team that just lost to Idaho State, after starting the season 3-0 and rolling into a ranked match-up with USC, feels so incredibly Wazzu it hurts.

Pistol (sorta): Most of the Nevada pass concepts will be recognizable for the WSU secondary (and vice versa). What’ll look a tad different is the run game. The two primary running backs — Jaxson Kincaide (42 carries, 245 yards, 5.8 per carry) and Kelton Moore (32 - 162 - 5.1) — are both pretty solid and the Wolf Pack doubled their typical mid-20s rush attempts per game to 56 against Idaho State.

With a true freshman QB making his first road start, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see a run-heavy attack Saturday, despite the Air Raid background of OC Matt Mumme.

As it is now, Nevada is just as likely to run (~45 percent of the time) on passing downs as they are on standard downs, which is pretty weird for an Air Raid team but we all witnessed strange growing pains when Leach first took over.

Not Talking Injuries: WSU’s #SpeedD is down one Peyton Pelluer for the rest of the season after he sustained a 100% healthy foot, following a seemingly innocuous play early in the game against Oregon State.

Pelluer’s leadership cannot be understated and there’s a definite opportunity for someone on the defense to fill that not purely physical vacancy for the rest of the year.

Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch and his staff played around a little with their linebacker options and it looks like senior Isaac Dotson and redshirt freshman Jahad Woods will be responsible for picking up a lot of the slack going forward, perhaps with a dose of fifth year senior and former walk-on Nate DeRider. How exactly all those different parts fit together is probably a work in progress we’ll get to witness on Saturday.

What has me confident in the Cougs

Falk Got Right: We mentioned that the Wazzu QB needed to have a confidence-building game against a team he should shred last week. Falk responded with a noticeable persistence of targeting his outside receivers and found the endzone half a dozen times before ceding reps to the back-up on his own terms.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

He now faces a defense that allows the 114th worst TD:INT ratio (6.0) and gives up 284.3 yards per game (105th) through the air. The Wolf Pack are 107th at defending successful passing plays, while Passing Success Rate is the hallmark of Falk’s WSU offense, ranking 18th.

Belle Glade Boys: Outside receivers Tavares Martin Jr. (CougCenter POTW) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack went off last week, totaling just over 63 percent of offensive yardage (273 yds) on just under half of all receptions (19).

Nevada wasn’t shy about their man coverage against Northwestern, and if the corners try the same press-coverage tactic against the Cougs it’ll be Martin Jr. and Johnson-Mack that make them pay for it.

Watching these two work their releases at the line against jamming Nevada corners — who are pretty good — will be one of the more fun match-ups to watch in the game.

Takeaway Ball: The Coug defense has been lights out at forcing turnovers, ranking 19th nationally with 2.33 takeaways a game. Wazzu sits at plus-3 in turnover margin on the season. Nevada, on the other hand, is 115th nationally at forcing turnovers and has a minus-5 turnover margin.

5 Mississippi: Luke Falk should have plenty of time in this game; the Nevada defensive line is 121st in havoc rate, 105th in sacks per game (1), and 117th in sacks per pass attempt.

History and Vegas: The Wolf Pack are 0-16 facing Top 25 teams on the road and are 27-point underdogs, which is one of the bigger spreads I’ve ever seen for WSU. That’s gotta count for something, right?

I sort of hate how much this game makes my spider sense tingle. Everything about it says “this will be a cakewalk,” which is exactly what is so damn unsettling.

Whatever. Boat race.

WSU builds on that chemistry with the outside receivers and works Nevada for a few methodical drives that are perfectly fine if yet unassuming, before opening up on a tired secondary in the middle of the second quarter for a more than a few huge plays.

The defense tinkers with personnel and you lose track of how many substitutions are getting into the game. But they remain stout, minus a couple missed run fits that lead to explosive runs, and force a couple of interceptions out of a freshman quarterback who is harassed so frequently the pocket is never quite comfortable or even safe.

Final Score: WSU 72 - 24 Nevada

See you all in Pullman for the fourth consecutive weekend.