Joe Santoro: Saturday was no longer groundhog day

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Air Afraid finally turned into Air Raid on Saturday night at Mackay Stadium.

It took nearly six games, a handful of quarterback changes and a truckload of wide receivers and running backs jumping into the mix but the Nevada Wolf Pack much-hyped offense has finally showed up for the 2017 season. The Wolf Pack rolled out a season-high 35 points, 566 total yards and 26 first downs while steamrolling the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.

“We’ve done it in spurts but tonight we just put it all together,” offensive tackle Austin Corbett said as Saturday night approached Sunday morning.

Over the first five games, all losses, the Air Raid would merely poke its head out of its hole like a frightened groundhog and then quickly go back underground. It was more Punxsutawney Phil, afraid of its own shadow and six more weeks of winter, than the potent, productive, powerhouse Wolf Pack passing attack we were told it could be.

“I think it just finally clicked,” quarterback Ty Gangi said.

The Wolf Pack quarterback quandary, at least until Saturday when the Pack plays at Colorado State, appears to be over. Gangi, who seems to play as if he’s some sort of human amalgamate of the best and worst parts of Wolf Pack quarterbacks of the past, was just slightly short of brilliant against the Rainbow Warriors.

“I think you saw a quarterback who really started to use the tools in this offense,” Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “I can’t say enough about Ty Gangi’s performance.”

You have to understand Norvell, who fashions himself as a wide receiver guru, only looks at quarterbacks as if they’re janitors walking around campus with about 50 keys on a ring. It’s the keys that unlock the offense. The quarterback in Norvell’s fantasy football game is the guy who simply uses the tools. But it’s the tools that do the work and finish the project.

Ty the Tool Man was the ultimate Air Raid janitor against Hawaii.

The 6-foot-2 junior with the Southern California surfer looks turned in one of the top quarterback performances in recent memory. He completed 25-of-32 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns and also ran the ball six times for 38 yards and a touchdown. He’s the first Wolf Pack quarterback to be personally responsible for five touchdowns in a game since Cody Fajardo ran for two and threw for three against Boise State on Nov. 4, 2014. Gangi is also the first Pack quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in a game since Tyler Lantrip on Dec. 3, 2011 against Idaho.

“Guys around me were making plays all night,” said Gangi, spoken like a true Ty the Tool Man.

The guys around Gangi who made the most plays were running back Kelton Moore (216 yards) and wide receiver Wyatt Demps (seven catches, 111 yards, two touchdowns). And, oh yeah, the ultimate Air Raid janitors, the offensive line.

Gangi poked his head out of his hole and barely saw the shadow of a Rainbow Warriors defensive player all night long. “In the first half I didn’t get touched once in the pocket,” said Gangi, who wasn’t sacked on Saturday.

Moore, particularly on his 66 and 43-yard runs in the first half, looked like the only player on the field at times. That’s when you know an offensive line is truly humming, when your offense seems to be operating in a comfortable vacuum.

“I was just really harping on the guys (his fellow offensive linemen), saying, ‘We’ve got to get back to being the Union,’” said Corbett, referring the Pack offensive line’s three-decade old nickname. “There’s a reason this place has the reputation of being the Union. There’s a certain way you have to play to be able to call yourself a Union member.”

You have to pay your dues to be a Wolf Pack Union member. We now know the first five games were those dues.

“The Union did that,” said Moore, who averaged 11.4 yards on each of his 19 carries. “They made the holes. They do the dirty work.”

Norvell has been saying all season long the Air Raid would click once somebody flipped on the switch. That’s indeed what it looked like on Saturday, that the lights had finally been turned on. The Wolf Pack scored in all four quarters for the first time since a season-ending 45-10 win at UNLV last November. The 566 yards were the most by a Pack team since it had 570 against San Diego State on Oct. 4, 2013.

“You never quite know when the lights are going to go on,” Norvell said. “But once the skill players get on the same page and think the same way it can be extremely explosive.”

The talent on this Wolf Pack team has never been in question. Former coach Brian Polian left Norvell quite a few offensive playmakers (namely Gangi, Moore, Demps, Corbett, Brendan O’Leary-Orange and Jaxson Kincaide) and Norvell brought in a few nice additions (namely wide receivers McLane Mannix and Daiyan Henley). The problem before Saturday is they looked like a bunch of talented guys who had just met each other 20 minutes before kickoff. And none of them knew where the light switch to the offense was located.

“This is a sign of what we’re capable of doing,” Norvell said.

It’s about time. Before Saturday the Pack’s Air Raid was just a random collection of players and coaches thrown together who simply talked the talk. We heard all about the explosiveness and efficiency of the Air Raid. But all we saw was Air Afraid. The Pack’s offense before Saturday looked like a bunch of scared third graders in the 1950s and 60s hiding their heads under their desks during an Air Raid drill.

On Saturday the Wolf Pack finally walked the walk.

But what, exactly, did we see? Was that the Air Raid in all its overhyped glory? Or was it just some watered down Wolf Pack version of the Air Raid? If that was the real Air Raid, well, the Air portion seems a bit overstated.

The Air Raid Wolf Pack offensive coordinator Matt Mumme ran the last three years as head coach of the Division III LaGrange College Panthers was heavy on the Air. LaGrange ran the ball 781 times the past three years combined and threw it 1,350 times. Hal Mumme (Matt’s dad) is widely thought of as the Father of the Air Raid. As head coach at Kentucky in 1997 and 1998, Hal Mumme threw it 1,136 times and ran it 547 times combined. Mike Leach, who helped Hal Mumme develop the original Air Raid, threw it 1,398 times and ran it 643 times over the past two seasons as head coach at Washington State.

History tells us a 2-1 pass-to-run ratio is what one could reasonably expect from the Air Raid. Some teams that use a version of the Air Raid heave it in the air 75 percent of the time. The Wolf Pack on Saturday threw 34 passes (one by a flustered field goal holder who dropped a snap and another by a wide receiver) and ran it 38 times. This entire season the Pack, which seemingly trailed by three touchdowns the entire month of September, has run the ball 191 times and has thrown it 220 times.

That’s not an Air Raid. That’s more of a Share Raid.

But forget, for now, what they call this Pack offense. Air Raid is just a cute, catchy name coaches can put on a resume. That’s just Matt Mumme making sure his daddy’s legacy remains alive. So hold off on any real judgments about the Air Raid. We’re likely not seeing vintage Air Raid this year anyway.

“We’ve been wanting to run the ball more to help our defense stay off the field,” Norvell said. “When we can run the ball the way we did (against Hawaii) and complement with plays in the passing game, that’s what we need to keep our defense off the field.”

Sounds like Chris Ault’s 1970s and 80s run-it-down-their-throat offenses with Frank Hawkins, Anthony Corley, Otto Kelly, Charvez Foger and Lucius Floyd. The quarterbacks were the complementary parts. The janitors and tool men. But we’ll worry about what to call this current offense somewhere down the line when it grows and matures. For now it’s simply about getting positive results.

Share Raid sounds fine for now.

“This is really a great step forward for us,” Norvell said.

We’re still not sure if the Wolf Pack found the Share Raid’s light switch by itself or the Hawaii defense gave it a flashlight. Hawaii’s defense, after all, can locate an offense’s light switch blindfolded in a dark room. Hawaii had given up 38 points and 456 yards a game going into Saturday night. Colorado State, the team the Pack plays this weekend, torched Hawaii for 51 points and 610 yards on Sept. 30 in Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors defense warmly greeted the Pack offense on Saturday dressed in a hula grass skirt, two strategically-placed coconuts and a smile and then promptly draped a Hawaiian lei over the Pack’s heads and pointed them in the direction of the end zone.

But don’t brush off the Pack’s Air Raid production on Saturday as meaningless. It wasn’t only meaningful, it was desperately needed. If the Share Raid had done on Saturday against Hawaii what it did over the first five games (20 points, 323 yards a game) it would’ve been reason enough to stop paying attention to this Pack season until UNLV comes to town on Nov. 25.

You can now not only pay attention over the final six games but you can also feel a bit excited about what you might see each weekend. Share Raid works. Those who could stay awake past midnight saw it for themselves Saturday night.

“You saw the offense we want to play,” Norvell said.

And not a moment too soon.


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