With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
We start with the opening opponent, Nevada, which will pay Ryan Field a visit to kick off the season. A reminder, this game cost $1.2 million.
Returning Starters: 7 (three offensive, four defensive)
Returning Experience: 61%
2016 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Mountain West)
Coach: Jay Norvell (1st year)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 124th
2016 S&P+ Offense: 103rd
2016 S&P+ Defense: 124th
2017 S&P+ Projection: 117th
In 2016, Nevada went 5-7 and fired coach Brian Polian at the end of the season. This was sub-optimal. Despite winning five games, the Wolf Pack were 124th out of 128 FBS teams in S&P.
The season started with a 30-27 overtime win over Cal Poly, an FCS school. Nevada then lost to Notre Dame 39-10. This may have seemed like an okay loss at the time, but Notre Dame went 4-8 last year. People forget that. Losing to Notre Dame may sound good on paper, but it really wasn’t. Nevada bounced back by beating Buffalo, one of the four teams in the FBS worse than the Wolf Pack in S&P, but then lost to Purdue (still with Darrell Hazell) at Purdue. Oh dear. Then the Wolf Pack got blown out by Hawaii.
After a surprising 27-22 win over Fresno State in Reno, Nevada lost to four straight conference opponents. Somehow, the Wolf Pack managed a stunning 38-37 win over a good Utah State team and a 45-10 win over a 4-8 UNLV team to close out the season. Anyway, Nevada has hired Jay Norvell to right the ship.
Offense was technically the strongest aspect of Nevada last year. The Wolf Pack managed to have an very efficient offense. Nevada ranked first in power runs and Tyler Stewart usually managing a completion percentage of over 60 percent. However, Nevada was still 103rd in offensive S&P. The offense was just never very explosive and didn’t have the talent to change that. Nevada was able to ride its efficient offense to some big wins, but when things broke down, Nevada had some of the worst losses in the FBS statistically last season. For example, scoring 10 points against San Jose State is not ideal.
Ok, so what does Nevada even have for 2017? Former starting QB Tyler Stewart graduated, presumably leaving Ty Gangi to run the offense. But despite his experience from last year after Stewart got hurt, Gangi might not even win the starting job. Hunter Fralick is gone, but Jay Norvell may have new plans for 2017. Nevada’s new offensive coordinator, Matt Mumme of the Mumme Air Raid Dynasty, will probably want to throw the ball as much as possible next season. Gangi will be competing against Alabama transfer David Cornwell. Who knows if Gangi will fit that scheme. With his inaccuracy and lack of poise, he probably won’t. Thus, the smart money is on Cornwell to start in Week 1.
Nevada should also have a relatively inexperienced receiving corps. Wyatt Demps (no relation to Tre), was the team’s leading receiver last year and will return. Running back James Butler was pretty good in the passing game and as a power runner, but he transferred to Iowa, leaving a huge hole there. Three starters on the offensive line are gone, and Nevada has apparently had to go to JUCO to fill out its roster. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s also not ideal.
Nevada is also adding former Notre Dame wide receiver and four-star Justin Brent to its roster. Brent is eligible to play immediately, but he never caught a pass for the Fighting Irish.
Nevada gave up 31.7 points per game last season. The defense completely failed to stop the run last season, which is a very bad sign when you’re facing Justin Jackson. Opponents ran on Nevada on seventy-five percent of offensive downs last season. As Ron Burgundy sort of once said, 75 percent of the time, it worked every time.
Norvell has brought in West Virginia stalwart Jeff Casteel to run Nevada’s defense. Casteel’s 3-3-5 defense helped the Mountaineers to multiple top-10 defensive efforts, but he was fired from Arizona in 2016 and hasn’t ever really been as successful as his run from 2005-2008.
Casteel does not have too much talent to work with. He will want to play three safeties on the field, which is good as Nevada has three experienced safeties in Asauni Rufus, Dameon Baber and Jaden Sawyer. On the other hand, Casteel will have to hope that the crop of linemen and linebackers who put together one of the worst run defenses in college football can simultaneously turn it around and produce a bounce back season.
If Nevada can get to 100th in defensive S&P, it would be a huge improvement. That’s really what you need to know.
Three Players to Know
DB Asauni Rufus
Rufus is a talented safety who should thrive in Casteel’s new system. He earned preseason All-Conference nominations from Athlon Sports and has the talent to become a really good player at safety. He made 20 solo tackles last season with a squad that almost never faced pass attempts, and he is primed for a big year in 2017.
LT Austin Corbett
Corbett is Nevada’s only true anchor on the offensive line. He made the All-Mountain West team last year and has been a solid starter for years.
RB James Butler
Whoops, he transferred to Iowa.
If there’s any player that could’ve given Northwestern trouble, it would’ve been James Butler. Butler rushed for 1300+ yards in both 2015 and 2016, and added 381 receiving yards last season. He will be coming to Ryan Field, but on October 21st. You should definitely watch out for him then.