Nevada football expects to get back a key piece Friday against Air Force.
All-Mountain West tight end Cole Turner, who suffered a concussion against San Jose State on Nov. 6 and missed last week’s game against San Diego State, is on track to suit up this week versus the Falcons.
Nevada put up some smokescreens heading into the SDSU game indicating Turner was going to play, including putting out pictures of him practicing and boarding the team plane on Twitter in the days leading into the game. He also dressed and went through pre-game warmups. But Turner was in street clothes at kickoff and never appeared in the 23-21 loss, although he did get a personal foul called on him for running on the field after a Nevada touchdown.
“We wanted to be smart with the doctors,” Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said. “The best thing was to protect him. We do a lot of tests. The doctors do a lot of reactionary things. And he really passed a lot of those. But we wanted to air on conservatism and protect him and really make sure that he could play this weekend and next week, and so we feel good about that. Every decision on a player’s health, I always go back to what I was taught: If a player can protect himself, then he’s healthy enough to play.”
Turner was missed in the SDSU loss and has been one of the nation’s most productive tight ends the last two seasons, catching 104 balls for 1,223 yards and 17 touchdowns over 18 games since the start of 2020.
Against SDSU, the Wolf Pack also lost key defensive back JoJuan Claiborne, who has started eight games at safety this season and 12 in his career. Claiborne injured his knee but will not require surgery. While he’s expected to miss the Air Force game, he could return for the regular-season finale at Colorado State on Nov. 27. Claiborne is third on the team in tackles with 51, adding four pass breakups and an interception.
“JoJo got hit,” Norvell said. “I’m going to bite my tongue, but it’s a play that should have been a penalty. I really get my back up when it comes to player safety. And he got hit, a lineman was picking guys off the pile. It’s supposed to be illegal to do that, and it wasn’t call. I was pretty disappointed that it wasn’t called and we end up losing a good player because of it. I don’t know that JoJo will be ready to play this week. Hopefully he’ll be ready next week. He did suffer a knee injury. It wasn’t anything that will require surgery. But he’s probably not going to be able to play this week, and it’s unfortunate.”
Nevada trying to keep motivation up
While the Wolf Pack has not been eliminated from MW title contention, it’d take a far-fetched scenario for Nevada to win the West Division. And while morale around the team facility hasn’t been as high as previous weeks, Norvell is trying to get his team as motivated for Friday’s game against Air Force as possible given the heart-breaking loss to San Diego State.
Norvell said it was fair to ask how motivated his team will be for the final two regular-season games.
“We signed up for 12 games, and this team has been amazing in their maturity and how committed they are to doing that and being as good as we can be,” Norvell said. “We qualified for a bowl game a couple games ago, but we said our goals are much higher than that. We’ve got a chance to win eight games. We’ve got a chance to win nine games. We’ve got a chance to win 10 games with a bowl game. And that would be an amazing accomplishment for this team, something that Nevada hasn’t done since it’s been in the Mountain West to win that total number of games.”
Since moving to the FBS in 1992, Nevada has had only one double-digit win season, that coming in 2010 when it went 13-1. A three-game winning streak to end of the season would give Nevada 10 wins and is the Wolf Pack’s new goal.
“We’ve got a lot to play for,” Norvell said. “We talked about some of those accomplishments that this senior class has made since they’ve been here and for them to be able to finish, I believe it is a special group of guys. Last week I told them, I said, ‘Gosh, the preparation for these games has been so special because these kids are so unselfish and they really want to do their very best.’ It guts me that we didn’t win that game Saturday night. It was hard. It’s still hard. It’s hard for me to talk about it, but it is a special group of players and I think they deserve to finish out the season in a special way.”
The Wolf Pack run game
Nevada’s run game has hit a historic lull this season, the Wolf Pack averaging just 64.2 yards per game on the ground, underscored by an 8-yard rushing game at SDSU, the lowest for the program since 2004. And while Norvell would like to run the ball more effectively, he’s largely been pleased with his team’s offense.
“We’ve got to be better,” Norvell said of the run game. “It’s been an interesting dynamic. Obviously we want to run the ball. We know it is important to run the ball. We’ve kind of made some decisions to do what we feel like we need to do to win games. The most important stat is the win, and the most important stat is to score points. We are the highest-scoring team in the conference and we’ve done that through throwing the ball and not running the ball. We’ve also won the time of possession over this last month consistently. We didn’t win it this last game, but consistently we had won it.”
Norvell said the Wolf Pack’s ability to not turn the ball over despite throwing it 48 times a game has led to the team’s heavy pass-first attack.
“We’ve got the best turnover ratio in the league,” Norvell said. “Is it important to run the ball? Yes. Do we want to do better? Yes. But if we protect the football, we score more points. is it necessary that we run the ball more? Those are the decisions we have to make. We have high-quality receivers and a quarterback that’s playing at a unique historic level. When we get in those situations, we’ve made choices to throw the ball and ride those guys out. That’s just what we’ve decided to do.
“There’s a misnomer that if you throw the football, you’re putting the ball at risk or you’re turning it over. We’re not turning it over. We’re the No. 1 team in the league as far as turnover ratio. We’ve chosen to do that through the air. We feel like that’s the best way for us to win games right now. But to answer your question, we do want to run the ball better and we think it’s important that we do, and we’ll put the best plan together to do that this week.”