The Star-Tribune is taking an early look at each of Wyoming’s opponents in the order they appear on the Cowboys’ 2020 schedule. Next up is Nevada.
LARAMIE — Jay Norvell has Nevada as a program that’s trending up in the Mountain West’s West Division. After beginning the Norvell era with a 3-9 flop in 2017, the Wolf Pack have turned in top-3 finishes in the division each of the last two seasons. Nevada will try to make it three straight bowl-eligible seasons this fall. Wyoming will get its shot at Nevada when the Cowboys travel to Reno, Nevada, for a Nov. 14 road tilt, assuming the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t affect UW’s schedule.
The Wolf Pack have combined for 15 wins the last two seasons, and there’s enough experience left on the roster to believe Nevada could take another step forward in Norvell’s fourth year at the helm. Start with quarterback Carson Strong, who had his share of ups and downs (just four more touchdown passes than interceptions) as a redshirt freshman last season but showed plenty of potential.
Strong completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 2,335 yards and finished the season by setting school bowl game records for passing yards (402) and completions (31) in Nevada’s loss to Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. He lost some of his receivers, but the Wolf Pack’s top two pass-catchers, Elijah Cooks (926 receiving yards, 8 TDs) and Romeo Doubs (649, 4), are back as the young signal caller’s go-to targets.
Assuming Strong remains the starter — 6-foot-9 junior college transfer Nate Cox could make the quarterback competition interesting — he’ll have a seasoned running back to hand off to in junior Toa Taua, who’s been the Wolf Pack’s No. 1 back since his freshman season. Taua ran for 807 yards and six touchdowns last season while his running mate, junior Devonte Lee, also is back after notching a team-high seven rushing scores, giving Nevada what should be a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield.
Still, Nevada averaged just 3.3 yards per carry last season while allowing opposing defenses to get to its quarterbacks for 33 sacks. But returning all five starters along the offensive line should help improve those areas this fall.
Defensively, everything seemingly runs through junior Dom Peterson, a sawed-off defensive end who plays much bigger than his 6-foot stature. Peterson’s nine sacks and 15 tackles for loss last season were the most of any returning player in the MW, but he was largely the extent of the Wolf Pack’s production in opposing backfields.
New defensive coordinator Brian Ward plans to implement a multiple defense with an array of looks up front for a unit that allowed the third-most points in the MW a season ago (31.9 per game). Ward has more than just Peterson to work with.
Sam Hammond (35 tackles, three tackles for loss) returns at the other end spot while Tristan Nichols (four sacks, 3.5 TFL) is back at defensive tackle. Gabriel Sewell and Kyle Adams are gone from the linebacking corps, but senior Lawson Hall returns in the middle after finishing third on the team with 56 tackles last season.
Speaking of experience, Nevada’s secondary has gobs of it, even with the departure of cornerback Daniel Brown, who led the Wolf Pack with four interceptions last season. Safeties Tyson Williams and Austin Arnold, as well as cornerback EJ Muhammad — three of Nevada’s top five tacklers last season — are all back. Williams led the way with 85 tackles and combined for 13 pass breakups with Muhammad, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility this spring. Arnold’s 51 tackles a season ago were a career-high.
Nevada also returns a weapon on special teams in all-conference kicker Brandon Talton, who made 84 percent of his field goals last season as a true freshman. His 21 field goals included game-winners against Purdue and San Jose State.
UW handled Nevada 31-3 last season, but that much experience up and down the roster figures to make the Wolf Pack a tougher out for any opponent this fall.
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.
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