Jay Norvell cares not to comment on the Jay Norvell Bowl … unless, of course, it's to talk about actual football.
But like it or not, the emotions are high — and have already been — in the lead-up to the head coach's return to Reno with his new charges, the Colorado State Rams.
Norvell left his post as head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack ahead of last year's bowl game to take on the same challenge at the rival school in Fort Collins, becoming the first-ever sideline boss to leave one program for another in the Mountain West Conference.
"I think what happened to the players here doesn't happen in college football very often," Norvell's replacement, Ken Wilson, told reporters last week. "I don't think coaches, at least coaches that I work with, leave their team before a bowl game and take players and tell players not to play in the bowl game and tell players to go to the NFL draft.
"There's just a lot of things here that don't usually happen."
Wilson's words drew the ire of plenty in Colorado, but Norvell didn't take the bait. At least publicly, he didn't. He appears to be focused simply on the game at hand — Nevada hosting Colorado State late Friday night at Reno's Mackay Stadium.
And why not, given it's a chance for his struggling team to put an 0-4 start to the season behind it with a win in its first scheduled conference contest?
"The fact that we coached there and all that is not what's important," Norvell, who took a number of assistants east with him to CSU, told reporters. "What's important is that these kids have an opportunity to play and we need to prepare them for the challenge they have. There's always noise wherever you go, whatever game you're playing. It's just not important.
"It really isn't to this football game."
Pumped-up players might feel differently, however.
Ten members of the Rams roster played under Norvell in Reno last year, and word is a handful of true freshmen verbally committed to the Wolf Pack before making their way in the end to Colorado State. They could all be feeling the heat of a game against their former teammates of Nevada, which is 2-3 to start the schedule — and on an 0-3 tumble — and 0-1 in Mountain West action.
So it's more than just a tilt between two sides on a slide.
Colorado State at Nevada
When Colorado State Has the Ball
Of anything that should be on Norvell's mind heading into Friday, it's how to get his offense moving. The Rams are dead-last of the 131 FBS squads, averaging just 241.8 yards per game.
After losses to then-No. 8 Michigan, Middle Tennessee, and Washington State, CSU bottomed out in their last game to FCS Sacramento State, falling painfully at home 41-10.
Adding injury to insult was the loss of starting quarterback Clay Millen. Despite the winless start, the freshman QB has proved accurate in his four appearances — including a 7-for-7 opening before getting hurt against Sac State — but he isn't expected to make a fifth appearance after suffering a sprained throwing shoulder. The injury happened when Millen was sacked for the 24th (!) time this season.
The guy most likely to be under center for the Rams in Reno is fellow freshman Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi, who was one of those recruits originally committing to Nevada before following Norvell to Fort Collins.
"Clay's going to be day-to-day," Norvell said. "He's got an AC sprain in his shoulder, and it gets fatigued on him. He is working out. Brayden's been working and getting the bulk of the first-team reps, but (Millen's) day-to-day and he's not ruled out yet. So we'll just see how he does the rest of the week."
In Fowler-Nicolosi's debut — that against Sac State — he was just 6-of-15 for 116 yards. All totaled, Norvell's offense finished that game with 253 total yards — underscored by just 75 rushing yards — and 10 first downs.
The only bright spot of Norvell's Air Raid offense seems to be former Nevada receiver Tory Horton. The junior pass-catcher is tops in the Mountain West with 427 receiving yards, on 23 catches.
When Nevada Has the Ball
OK, so the defense is a worry spot for Norvell's crew, as well. It's ranked 126th in the nation, allowing 41 points per outing. But how about the Wolf Pack's offense?
After getting shut out by Iowa two weeks back, it scored just 20 against Air Force in Week 5's 28-point loss on the road, and two of the three TDs came in garbage time.
Up-and-down QB performances and an enigmatic offensive line have pretty much been the culprits behind Nevada's offensive woes. In particular, they need to come together to produce a better passing game, with both Nate Cox and Shane Illingworth — Cox was just 12-of-20 for 130 yards in going it alone against Air Force.
Expect Illingworth, who was the guy stumbling against Iowa's vaunted defense in a 14-of-28, 82-yard effort, to join him in trying to turn around that attack this week against the Rams.
"We got to get consistent," said Wilson, whose top receiving target is junior wide-out Jamaal Bell with 20 catches for 181 yards. "We got to get consistent play from both those guys whenever their number is called. We have to have consistency. Both those quarterbacks have the talent to be starting quarterbacks and run this offense, and when they get out there, they have to have the focus and the consistency to move the team and not do things that will cut us out of drives too fast."
Fortunately, the Wolf Pack still have a running game.
Senior running back Toa Taua is among the Mountain West's best with 350 rushing yards on 85 carries. His 4.1-yard average and five touchdowns are helping to prop up the offense in Reno. Taua was a bright spot last week with 73 yards and two TDs on seven hauls.
Although used sparingly for just 20 yards on five carries against Air Force, senior running back Devonte Lee has helped in the ground game, as well. He has nearly 200 yards on 45 totes for a healthy 4.3-yard average.
Nevada's ground attack should determine control and the bottom line in this one.
Norvell is likely to hear it from Nevada fans Friday night. But the noise back home isn't any better.
That loss to Sac State two weeks ago marked the 10th straight loss by CSU dating back to last year. The Rams' 0-4 start is the worst since 2007. And all that brought out the boo-birds in that last outing in Fort Collins.
"I understand their frustration," said Norvell of the fans. "But they gotta hang in here with these kids. We got a long ways to go. This is the hard part — building a community, building a family, and having accountability in what we're trying to do."
So maybe it's good the Rams are on the road.
"We got a lot of football players that are not playing right now," said Norvell of injuries, including day-to-day safety Jack Howell. "We're not going to get a whole lot of reinforcements at this time of the season, so the guys that we have gotta get better."
At least in Reno, Wilson's words may have fired up the Rams.
And the Wolf Pack aren't exactly lighting the world on fire, but they have enjoyed a more promising start to the season and did just face the two toughest opponents on their calendar.
"Every time we play now, it's a big game … it's a conference opponent," Wilson said. "We talk to our team about how this is a huge game because it's the next game. Every time we go out, it's a big game."
It's bigger because it's the Jay Norvell Bowl.
Prediction: Nevada 26, Colorado State 13
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