But this year, the Nevada offense once known as ‘‘Air Wolf’’ has been running over most of its opponents. And now it is on the verge of doing something no NCAA school has ever done before — have three players each finish with more than 1,000 yards rushing in the same season.
Luke Lippincott, a sixth-year senior medical redshirt who has battled through two different knee surgeries, needs 134 yards to reach the milestone along with junior running back Vai Taua, who already has 1,059 yards rushing, and junior quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has 1,015 with at least two games to go.
‘‘About two weeks ago, that’s when it started to sink in that this might be a reality,’’ Nevada running backs coach Jim Mastro said.
‘‘You almost have to pinch yourself because you think about it and it’s like, this has never been done before in the history of this game. And now we are right there on the verge of it,’’ he said.
The Wolf Pack (7-3, 6-0 WAC) lead the nation in rushing, averaging 353 yards per game, nearly 40 more than second-place Georgia Tech’s 314. They bring a seven-game winning streak into New Mexico State on Saturday night after opening with losses to Notre Dame, Colorado State and Missouri.
Nevada closes the regular season at No. 6 Boise State, which is giving up only 112 yards rushing a game. But New Mexico State’s defense allows 192 yards a game on the ground, and with the possibility of a bowl berth still on the horizon, the Wolf Pack faithful are optimistic Lippincott will seal the deal.
‘‘What we’ve done on offense this year, it is special,’’ said Chris Ault, now in his 25th year as head coach of the squad that joined the WAC in 2000.
Significant changes in the offense began three years ago when he implemented the ‘‘Pistol’’ — a variation of the shotgun but with the quarterback only a few steps back from center in a mostly one-back set designed to bolster a run game that had been lacking.
‘‘It all starts with the guys up front,’’ Ault said. ‘‘And the biggest part of it is Kap, he is the trigger man on the whole deal.’’
Last year, Kaepernick became only the sixth player in NCAA history to throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 in the same season. The 6-foot-6, 215-pounder who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs last year has a long, loping, but deceivingly quick stride, often turning the corner to escape linebackers for big gains.
Taua has topped the 100-yard mark six straight games to tally 15 for his career, the same as Lippincott.
Kaepernick has surpassed 100 yards rushing 10 times in his career. He’s second on Nevada’s career total offense list with 9,400 yards, trailing only David Neill, who had 11,145 from 1998-01.
The emphasis on running is quite a change for a team that finished no worse than sixth nationally in passing yardage from 1992-99, leading the nation in 1993, ’95 and ’97.
‘‘We ran the ball but nothing like what we are seeing with this offense,’’ said Chris Vargas, who quarterbacked Nevada in the early 1990s and is fifth on the total offense list with 8,181.
‘‘It is pretty special what these guys are doing this year,’’ said Vargas, who now works as a television commentator. ‘‘Even in the heyday of 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust — the Oklahoma Sooners and running the wishbone and all that type of stuff — you never saw a team that had three guys go for a thousand yards.’’
At times, the numbers have been staggering: 559 yards rushing and a school-record 773 yards total offense against rival UNLV, 517 yards rushing at San Jose State, 484 against Idaho and 461 against Fresno State to pull within 80 yards of last year’s school record 3,611 rushing yards.
To put it in perspective, freshman Mike Ball ran for 184 yards and five touchdowns against UNLV when Taua was hurt but found himself back on the bench the next week.
‘‘We set a rushing goal as a team before each game and when you are playing, you don’t really think about the yards,’’ Taua said. ‘‘After the game, you look at the stat sheet and everyone’s eyes just get big.’’
Lippincott insists all the credit should go to the offensive line, led by two seniors in center Kenny Ackerman and tackle Alonzo Durham, junior guard John Bender, sophomore tackle Steve Haley and redshirt freshman guard Chris Barker.
‘‘The size of the holes that they create, I mean, you’ve never seen anything like it,’’ he said.
Ackerman said Lippincott is ‘‘an inspiration.’’
‘‘He’s a workhorse. He’s been through so much adversity. He’s the perfect picture of the Nevada back. I love playing with him and I love playing for him,’’ he said. ‘‘I can’t wait to block for him, get him his 1,000 yards, get us our spot in the record books.’’