BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Nevada coach Jay Norvell had plenty of reasons to be emotional as he challenged his team before it took the field in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. And his players responded.
Carson Strong threw for 271 yards and five touchdowns, Devonte Lee and Toa Taua each rushed for over 100 yards, and Nevada’s defense recorded eight sacks for the first time in 17 years as the Wolf Pack beat Tulane 38-27 on Tuesday.
Nevada (7-2) finished 2020 the same way it started the year — by playing in the same bowl game, which the Wolf Pack lost 30-21 to Ohio on Jan. 3.
That game was also the last time Norvell saw his father, Merritt Norvell, in person before the coronavirus pandemic reached the U.S. and prevented them from seeing each other. Merritt died in October.
“As I was getting ready for this game, I realized that this was the last time I saw my father alive,” Norvell said. “It was at this bowl game. It was emotional today. But I was proud of how we stepped up to the challenge of the game and executed phenomenally in a lot of the situations that we had to.”
Nevada got stuffed at the goal line on its first possession and turned the ball over on downs. Then the Wolf Pack defense got things rolling with an interception by Christian Swint. Two plays later, Strong hit Turner for an 11-yard touchdown, the first of three quick scores for Nevada.
“We needed to score early to put pressure on them,” Norvell said. “And I’m really happy and satisfied with what our guys did. We talked about playing our best football game and a lot of ways we did that.”
Nevada was coming off a loss in its regular-season finale to San Jose State, which cost the Wolf Pack a spot in the Mountain West title game.
“Last game out still stings us little bit because we felt like we had a good enough team to win a championship,” said Strong, who garnered MVP honors with a Potato Bowl record-tying five touchdown passes. “But at least you can go home with a smile on your face now. I’m glad we could come back here and redeem ourselves.”
Cameron Carroll rushed for 120 yards — more than half on a meaningless late touchdown — for Tulane (6-6), which was one of 19 schools to play 11 regular-season games amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Green Wave failed in their bid to win three consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history.
“Our margin for error is very slim,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said. “We’ve got to do the little things every game in order to win. We didn’t do that the whole ballgame and didn’t execute today.”
Nevada built a 19-0 lead early in the second quarter, but the Green Wave rallied, pulling within 26-20 midway through the third quarter.
Then Nevada’s dominant ground game took over, imposing its will on a Tulane defensive line thinned by injuries and absences, and Strong put the game away with two fourth-quarter TD passes.
Lee rushed for 105 yards and Toa had 102 yards rushing with a touchdown to go along with 77 yards receiving.
ONLY IN THE POTATO BOWL
With 17 seconds left in the game, Nevada received an unusual unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Celebrating players dumped a bucket of French fries on Norvell’s head near the sideline, and the fries spilled onto the playing surface, resulting in the penalty.
Players and coaches had to rake the deep-fried potatoes to the side before play could resume. When it did, Carroll ripped off a 65-yard scoring run for Tulane.
Tulane should be a team to contend with in the American Athletic Conference next season, especially with quarterback Michael Pratt returning. Pratt, who was the first Tulane freshman to win a game as a starter since 1985, also brings back most of his receivers.
Norvell has Nevada headed in the right direction, and Strong will be back next year along with leading rushers Lee and Toa. Nevada will need to find some answers on a defense that will be hit hard by players graduating.
Tulane hosts Oklahoma to open next season on Sept. 4.
Nevada plays at California on Sept. 4.
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