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Know Thy Opponent 2019: Nevada Wolfpack

With kickoff in 100 days, let’s start looking at our 2019 opponents.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In just 100 short days summer will be drawing to a close and the 2019 Purdue Football season will kick off in Reno, Nevada. It is one of the most anticipated seasons in a long, long time. Two years ago we were just hoping to be competitive again, yet Jeff Brohm took us to a surprising bowl game. Last season was another season of growth as Purdue beat ranked team and was a handful of plays away from 10 wins instead of six with the close losses to Northwestern, Eastern Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Now Purdue turns an interesting corner. After surviving overtures from Tennessee and Louisville we are paying Jeff Brohm a ridiculous amount of money. Yes, his overall record in West Lafayette is 13-13, but the change from the 9-39 in the previous four years is huge. Eight of his 13 losses were by a single possession. Purdue lost much of the experience it has relied on the past two years, as there are currently only 21 scholarship players in their final two years of eligibility, but we’re getting the most significant one-year talent upgrade since recruiting rankings have been published.

This is going to be a young team. It is facing a tough schedule with 11 games against Power 5 competition. It will be a team that will set the stage for a potentially huge 2020 and 2021 season, however, because the great 2019 recruiting class can start to snowball into good 2020 and 2021 classes. We might see another 6-6 or 7-5 record this year as the youth works out, but soon that talent will have experience as well, making us dangerous.

It all begins in 100 days in Reno. Don’t worry though, we’re not going to shoot a man just to watch him die.

Nevada Wolfpack

2018 Record: 8-5, 5-3 Mountain West

Bowl Result: Beat Arkansas State 16-13 in Arizona Bowl

Blog Representation: Mountain West Connection

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 1-0

Last Purdue win: 24-14 at Purdue on 9/24/2016

Last Nevada win: None

Head Coach: Jay Norvell (11-14 in third season at Nevada)

Last Season for the Wolfpack

Nevada had a slow start last season but finished strong. Under Jay Norvell they alternated wins and losses in the first six games, beating Portland State, Oregon State, and Air Force while losing to Vanderbilt, Toledo, and Fresno State. After falling to perennial power Boise State 31-27 on October 13ththey reeled off four straight wins over Hawaii, San Diego State, Colorado State, and San Jose State. They had a bad loss at UNLV in the regular season finale, but beat Arkansas State in their bowl game for a nice 8-5 season.

They had a decent offense that averaged over 31 points per game, but it was up and down. They scored 72 against Portland State, but only three against Fresno State. The defense was similar, getting lit up for 63 points by Toledo but giving up only 10 against Colorado State. The two best teams they played were 12-2 Fresno State (who only lost to Minnesota and Boise) and 10-3 Boise State.

Purdue took the first game of this home and home in a 24-14 win back in 2016. It was the final home win for Darrell Hazell and the Boilers had to recover from a 14-3 deficit. This included and almost accidental 51-yard TD from David Blough to Brycen Hopkins with 1:17 left. Purdue was facing a critical 3rdand 7 and Blough tried to roll out under pressure, but Nevada forgot to cover Hopkins.

Nevada Offense

The Nevada offense had a really good season before tailing off late. They had excellent balance with over 3,300 yards passing and more than 2,000 yards rushing on their way to more than 31 points per game. This was under offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, and there is a lot of experience returning. Most of the offensive line is back as they started a freshman and three sophomores. They also have a solid freshman running back and most of the top receivers.

The biggest question is at quarterback. Ty Gangi graduated, leaving senior Christian Solano as the heir apparent. He saw very limited action last season, completing 23 of 45 passes for 200 yards, no touchdowns, and four interceptions. Malik Henry, a former Florida State player who then went to Last Chance U, will also be in the mix.

Toa Taua had a solid freshman season put of the backfield with 872 yards and 6 TDs. Devonte Lee was excellent in short yardage with 193 yards on 45 attempts and a team high 7 touchdowns. That makes for a good 1-2 punch out of the backfield.

At receiver, Nevada spread the ball around well. Kaleb Fossum (70-734-1) is no Rondale Moore, but he is a solid possession receiver. Romeo Doubs (43-562-2), Elijah Cooks (22-348-6) and Brendan O’Leary Orange (14-214-4) will test Purdue’s young secondary. As a team, Nevada had 25 touchdowns through the air last year. The potential is there for a big step forward if the quarterback question can be answered per Bill Connelly at SB Nation:

I’d predict a major breakthrough in 2019 if the quarterback were also returning, but Ty Gangi ran out of eligibility after throwing for 3,331 yards. The job will be senior Cristian Solano’s if he can fend off a crowd.

The previous time Solano was a starting quarterback at any level was at high school in 2013, Polian’s first year at Nevada. He started for an injured Gangi against Fresno State, and it went predictably bad (Fresno’s defense was really, really good last year). Still, his mobility and seniority made him the favorite heading into the spring.

Norvell’s going to make it competitive, though. He’s signed two three-star freshmen in the last two years (Carson Strong in 2018, Austin Kirksey in 2019), and he also inked Florida State-via-Last Chance U quarterback Malik Henry in this class.

Nevada Defense

The defense was not that great for much of last season and loses most of its top players according to Bill C.:

After a rocky transition in 2017, we got a sustained look at what Casteel could accomplish with the right pieces. Linebacker/edge rusher Malik Reed exploded for 15.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks, and the safety trio of Asauni Rufus, Dameon Baber, and Nephi Sewell combined for 13 TFLs, five interceptions, and five pass breakups. Tackle Korey Rush provided a jolt up front, too, with 12.5 TFLs and six sacks, and Nevada surged from 127th to 63rd in Def. S&P+. They were decent against the pass and great near the line of scrimmage, and they teed off when you were leveraged into blitz downs.

That was the good news. The bad news: everybody in the above paragraph (Casteel aside) is gone. Nevada ranks 98th in returning defensive production and is projected to fall back to 84th in Def. S&P+.

Daniel Brown is a standout defensive back who broke up 11 passes last season and had an interception. He will probably draw the difficult task of defending Moore. Dom Peterson was a solid freshman last year with 10.5 tackles for loss at defensive end and three sacks. Lucas Weber had 56 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss at linebacker and will be asked to play an even larger role. Gabe Sewell also returns as the team’s top tackler with 92 tackles and three sacks.

What concerns me is that Nevada had quite the varied pass rush with 36 sacks on the season. Purdue’s offensive line is the largest question mark we’re facing, and Elijah Sindelar is not nearly as fleet of foot as David Blough. I like Sindelar’s potential a lot, but Blough’s ability to escape pressure set him apart from Sindelar. This is going to be a good test to see how our restructured line holds up.

Nevada Special Teams

Quinton Conaway was a great punter at over 43 yards per kick and he will be back. This is a big advantage, especially since Joe Schopper is gone for Purdue. In the kicking game the Wolfpack must find a new kicker after Ramiz Ahmed graduated. Spencer Pettit will likely get the first crack at it as he was the primary kicker in 2017 and 2016. He is 15 of 20 in his career with a long of 47 yards. There was pretty much no return game to speak of, but it only takes one mistake for there to be a return game.

Game Outlook

I think the most interesting factor about this game is that it will be at the highest elevation Purdue has ever played a football game. Reno sits at 4,506 feet and it can reach 90 degrees on average in August. The 6:30pm local kickoff time and the dry air will help mitigate some of those effects, however, making for a pleasant evening in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We will even have someone on site, as Juan is making the journey up from LA to cover the game for us.

It has also been 10 years since Purdue played a regular season game out west, and that was the fun 38-36 loss at Oregon. This is Nevada’s big game of the year, as we’re the only Power 5 opponent coming to Reno this year. They are just 1-6 all-time against the Big Ten, but the one win was 31-21 over Northwestern in 2006, the only time they have had a Big Ten team visit.

It is always interesting to start the season on the road, and on the road, in different weather, at altitude, and on a Friday makes it even more interesting. Purdue last started the season with a true road game at Marshall in 2015 (a 41-31 loss). Purdue last won a true road game to start a season at Toledo in 2007.

Way-too-Early Prediction

This is probably not going to be an easy one. It is our longest road trip of the season and it comes against a pretty good non-power 5 team on the road. Purdue has questions on the lines and in the secondary. Nevada needs to find a quarterback. Overall, the talent levels will be approximately equal, but the star freshmen like George Karlaftis, Marvin Grant, and Stephen Faucheux can have a big impact defensively. I think if the offensive line holds up Purdue can win a potentially fun little shootout. Purdue 41, Nevada 31