The Nevada Wolf Pack football team’s offense has gone from the prolific pistol to a putrid pop gun in seven short weeks.
The pistol offense, invented by former Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault after the 2004 season, revolutionized the sport of football. The high-powered, seemingly unstoppable offense put the Wolf Pack on the college football map, made Colin Kaepernick a second round NFL draft pick and turned Ault into a offensive mastermind. The pistol became the latest, greatest thing in football and most every coach in America wanted to learn from Ault, the Pied Piper of the Pistol.
Well, almost every coach. Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian jumped at the first chance he got this past winter to push the pistol — and the last vestiges of its pied piper — out of Nevada. When Ault’s former offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, the only coach other than Ault to call plays for the Pack pistol, left to become Hawaii’s head coach, Polian made sure to orchestrate a subtle parting of the ways between the pistol and the Pack.
“The traditionalists want to see us line up in the pistol on every play,” Polian said in August before this punch-to-the-gut season started. “That’s not going to happen.”
A lot of things have not happened since Polian hired Chip Kelly disciple Tim Cramsey as offensive coordinator last January. The most disturbing development is that the Wolf Pack has all but obliterated its tradition of putting a productive, potent and powerful offense on the field. The Wolf Pack, now 3-4 after an anemic 14-10 loss at San Jose State last Saturday night, has arguably the worst offense in the Mountain West right now. The Pack is last in the 12-team Mountain West with 354.3 yards of offense a game. It is also 11th in scoring at 20.9 points a game, eighth in rushing at 175.1 yards a game and ninth in passing (179.1).
NOT THE SAME PROGRAM
The traditionalists barely recognize the Wolf Pack football program anymore.
This is the same program, don’t forget, that led the nation in passing in 1948 with 1,922 yards and 22 touchdowns thanks to quarterback Stan Heath. Pack running back Frank Hawkins led Division I-AA in rushing for three straight years (1978-870) and the Pack led all of I-AA in scoring in 1978 (35.6 points a game) and again in 1991 (45.1).
Since the Pack made the jump to Division I-A in 1992, the traditionalists also remember that the program led the nation in total offense in 1993, 1995 and 1996 and was in the Top 10 in 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001 and from 2008-12. The Pack passing game led the country in 1993, 1995 and 1997 and was in the Top 10 in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998 and 1999. The Wolf Pack rushing game led the nation in 2009 and was in the Top 10 in 2008, 2010 and 2012. The Wolf Pack offense was also in the Top 10 in scoring from 1993-1996 as well as in 1998, 2009 and 2010.
That is a lot of tradition to wipe away in seven games.
Jeff Tisdel was fired after the 1999 season in which his offense was second in the nation with 472 yards a game. Chris Tormey was fired after a 2003 season in which the Pack was in the Top 100 in the nation in scoring, rushing yards, passing yards and total yards. The Pack is only in the Top 100 right now in rushing yards (65th) among those four offensive categories. This is a season, as Polian told us, for new traditions. The offense is currently 109th in the nation in total offense, 106th in passing and 114th in scoring.
Cramsey was full of confidence this summer as he talked about his new position at Nevada.
“We took this job because the expectation is to score on every drive,“ Cramsey said.
How is that working out? Well, the Pack is now lucky if it scores in a half, let alone on every drive. The Pack has scored on just 24 (19 touchdowns, five field goals) of its 68 drives this year that did not end because of the clock at halftime or the end of the game. The Wolf Pack has been shut out in four entire halves of football so far and in 11 of its 28 quarters through seven games. Last year the Pack did not score in an entire half just twice all season long.
And that was an offense that Polian said needed repairing.
“It’s been exciting to get back into a room, strip down the offense and build it back up,” Polian said back in August.
Let’s hope the offense is still under construction.
The Pack offense so far in 2016 has been a Nerf offense. You can shoot it at an opponent but it won’t hurt anyone. Quarterback Tyler Stewart has been efficient with 1,114 yards, nine touchdowns and just three interceptions, running back James Butler has been a force with 822 yards and five touchdowns and wide receiver Wyatt Demps (29 catches, 335 yards, six scores) has emerged as one of the best receivers in the conference.
But it’s a Fool’s Gold offense so far. The Pack doesn’t chew up yardage, score enough points or even eat up the clock anymore. The team’s 28:42 average time of possession is the first time it has been under 30 minutes since Ault invented the pistol in 2005.
Make no mistake, Polian and the Pack can’t be criticized for the hiring of Cramsey. The 41-year-old guided the Montana State offense a year ago to 42 points and 520 yards a game. The Bobcats scored 35 or more points in 10 of 11 games and 40 or more seven times. They also piled up 500 or more yards seven times. The hope was that Cramsey would bring some of that good old fashioned Big Sky Conference innovation to the Pack.
Polian was right about the Pack offense needing a spark this past off-season. Rolovich never really seemed to fully grasp the potential of the pistol in his three seasons at Nevada without Ault. The offense became predictable and lifeless, falling to 26.2 points and 375 yards a game last year. In Ault’s final year in 2012, by comparison, the Pack averaged 37.8 points and 515 yards.That 2012 season, by the way, was the last time the Pack averaged 30-plus points and 500-plus yards a game after doing it for five consecutive years. The Pack averaged 30 or more points a game in the first eight years of the pistol (2005-12) under Ault.
We’ve seen flashes of Cramsey’s influence. The Pack has used safety Asauni Rufus at quarterback and even brings in backup Ty Gangi to spark a fire under Stewart. The best call all year was when Cramsey had wide receiver Andrew Celis toss a 36-yard scoring pass to Demps against Fresno State.
But the Rufus experiment is painful to watch, Gangi is not the second coming of Chris Vargas coming off the bench and the breath of fresh air that was the Celis pass to Demps usually gives way to the predictable sight of Stewart turning and handing off to Butler.
Polian and Cramsey have made good, though, on one of their promises. They have made the Pack offense far more balanced than it was in 2015, when it produced 211 rushing yards and 165 passing yards a game. This year it is churning out 179 passing yards and 175 rushing yards. But that balance has been achieved by merely reducing the effectiveness of the running game. The Pack is gaining 35 fewer yards on the ground this year while producing just 15 more passing yards.
The offense’s struggles this year are even more pronounced when you look at the defenses it has gone up against. The Pack offense has been stymied by a Division I-AA defense (they didn’t score in the second half against Cal Poly) and by six of the worst Division I-A defenses in the nation. None of the Pack’s six Division I-A (FBS) opponents this year are allowing fewer than 400 yards or 28 points a game this year. The Pack scored 17 points against a Hawaii team that is allowing 39 points and 488 yards a game, 14 against a Purdue team that is allowing 34 points and 446 yards and 10 against a San Jose State team that allows 36 points and 444 yards.
Cramsey’s offense is the single biggest disappointment in a season so far filled with frustration and false expectations. It was assumed that the Pack would be averaging 30 points a game right now, given their patsy opponents. Had the Pack scored 30 or more in every game, it would be 5-2 right now instead of free-falling at 3-4. The Pack has scored 30 or more points in regulation time in just one game (a 38-14 win over Buffalo) this season.
The hope is that Cramsey’s offense just needs a bit more time. Not even Ault’s prolific pistol hit the ground running with amazing results right from the start. It wasn’t as bad as Cramsey’s Wolf Pack debut so far but the Pack started just 1-2 in 2005, scoring 21, 22 and 21 points in its first three games with the pistol. Yes, it kicked in during Week 4, a 30-23 win at San Jose State and never looked back, averaging 38.4 points over the final nine games of 2005.
So maybe these first seven games of 2016 are just Cramsey’s getting-to-know-us grace period. The first thing he should know about us is that this offense right now is unacceptable. Pack fans expect more out of their offense. They expect to be wowed and entertained, not bored and frustrated. We always have the defense for that.
“We’re methodical on offense,” Polian said a couple weeks back. “That’s who we are.”
It’s not who the Pack used to be.
Joe Santoro covers Wolf Pack football and basketball.