Jay Norvell has been a head coach for all of one week and he already might be headed straight into his first quarterback controversy.
Only he won’t admit it.
“I thought Ty (Gangi) played well,” Norvell said of his starting quarterback after a 31-20 loss at Northwestern on Saturday. “I’m proud of the way he competed. We can build on his performance.”
Gangi completed just 16-of-37 passes for 199 yards against a Wildcat team that was just begging to get beat. The junior did throw two touchdowns but he also threw into double coverage and was picked off at the 2-yard line on a key fourth-quarter drive. And did we mention those 21 incomplete passes?
“I was OK,” Gangi said. “I had some throws I wished I could have taken back.”
A few of them nearly landed in Lake Michigan. Gangi, the Wolf Pack’s main quarterback the last five games of last year after Tyler Stewart injured his knee, left a ton of yards on the field. That’s what happens when nearly 60 per cent of your passes hit the ground. The most notable of his errant tosses were two that sailed over a wide open wide receiver Brendan O’Leary-Orange down the middle that might have gone for touchdowns.
“Those are throws I have to make,” Gangi said. “It’s a completely different game if we hit those.”
Gangi makes those throws and we are now likely talking about the greatest debut for a head coach in Wolf Pack history. Instead, we are left wondering just where is the much-ballyhooed Air Raid offense that offensive coordinator Matt Mumme was supposed to bring to Nevada. For the most part on Saturday Mumme’s Air Raid looked like a drone that got knocked out of the sky by a pigeon.
“There were some things we did that shot ourselves in the foot,” offensive linemen Austin Corbett said.
If what we saw on Saturday is indeed the Air Raid - 43 percent completion rate, just 63 plays, a mere 341 yards and 20 total points, just three in the second half - well, give us back those predictable four-yards-and-a-cloud of Field Turf dust into the defensive line we saw the last two years. But that offense on Saturday, we hope, was not the Air Raid. What we saw at Northwestern was sort of an inefficient pistol hybrid. The offensive line and the running game (142 yards on 26 carries) were the stars. That was more Chris Ault than Air Raid.
“The explosive play,” Corbett said. “We’ve been lacking those the last couple years. We had that.”
Not so much.James Butler and Don Jackson gave the Pack many explosive plays the last couple years on the ground. Wyatt Demps, Hasaan Henderson, Jerico Richardson, did the same through the air. Let’s not start to rewrite history with some more hype and hyperbole about the amazing Air Raid.
Let’s see it on the field. We didn’t see it on Saturday.
What we saw on Saturday was Ty Gangi. He was the same guy we saw last year. The Air Raid didn’t change him. He changed the Air Raid. But that’s what Gangi does. It doesn’t really matter what offense he runs. He’s always going to be Ty Gangi. He’s good, bad, great and awful seemingly from play to play. One moment he leaves you with your mouth and eyes wide open in amazement. The next moment you find yourself scratching your head as your punter trots out onto the field.
Norvell, though, is a very kind, forgiving and supportive head coach. He wasn’t about to throw his first starting quarterback under the bus in his very first post game press conference as a head coach.
“Ty really was clear-eyed,” Norvell said. “He handled the leadership of the team and got us in and out of plays. I thought he made great decisions.”
To be fair, Gangi made more right decisions than Mumme, whose play calling was a bit spotty, especially in the second half. But Gangi’s erratic right arm just couldn’t execute all the decisions. But that’s the same Ty Gangi we saw a year ago. He’s a dynamic leader with a magnetic personality and his teammates would jump off the roof of Lawlor Events Center for him. He breathed life into a morbid program the final month of last season, beating Utah State and UNLV in the final two games.
But that was last year. Wolf Pack fans want to forget last year. The Air Raid was supposed to do that. The Air Raid, though, looked an awful lot like the Gang Gangi attack we saw the final month last year.
Every third or fourth pass out of Gangi’s right arm seems to have a mind and a flight pattern all its own. Some of those passes find the wrong team at the worst possible moment, like in the fourth quarter on Saturday down near the goal line with the game tied 17-17. On Saturday Gangi became just the fourth Wolf Pack quarterback since 2003 to attempt at least 35 passes in a game and complete less than half of them. Jeff Rowe was 19-of-40 against San Diego State on Sept. 25, 2004, Colin Kaepernick was 19-of-50 against Boise State on Nov. 22, 2008 and Tyler Stewart was 20-of-44 against UNLV on Oct. 3, 2015.
If that’s the Air Raid, well, it might be time to rename the offense Friendly Fire.
The Air Raid, we were told, was supposed to operate with an efficient, accurate quarterback who sprayed short and intermediate passes to a ton of receivers. When you throw 40 or more passes a game you better know where they are going. With Gangi, it is sort of like throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.
To be sure, he’s fun to watch. It looks like he’s fun to play with. He has a heart the size of Washoe County. It’s just that his heart sometimes makes promises his right arm can’t deliver.
Then again, the young man was already supposed to be tucked away safely on the Wolf Pack sideline, never to be heard from again. The first thing Norvell and Mumme did last January was go get a new quarterback.
Ty Gangi could have been Ty Cobb as far as Norvell and Mumme were concerned last January. There was Norvell, new quarterback David Cornwell and Mumme, standing left to right on a cold day at a snow-covered Mackay Stadium last January pictured on Twitter for everyone (Gangi included) to see. They were all smiling as if they hit the quarterback Air Raid lottery, all wearing their new Wolf Pack gear, smiling and flashing some goofy hook-’em-horns thing with their hand.
Cornwell was the first recruit Norvell signed early last January. Most guys go get a new sports car when they get their dream job. Norvell went out and got a quarterback. Cornwell gave up two more years of standing on the sideline and watching Alabama win national championships to come play quarterback for the Pack. He was supposed to be the prototype Air Raid quarterback. Big (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) with a Fremont Cannon arm. And, oh yeah, that Alabama pedigree.
Cornwell enrolled at Nevada quicker than you could say “Ty Who?“ and was the starter during spring practices. Things went so well in the spring that Norvell announced that Cornwell was the starter going into summer camp just a little over a month ago.
“He (Norvell) sold me on a dream,” Cornwell said two weeks ago. “I knew I was coming here even before I took my (recruiting) trip.”
Well, guess who started in the season opener? It wasn’t the kid from Alabama with the big dreams.
It was the kid with the big heart.
“We felt like Ty had the edge and we wanted to play him,” said Norvell, again answering a question by not saying much of anything.
We are still wondering why Gangi started and Cornwell never saw the field. But for Gangi to beat out Cornwell - Norvell and Mumme’s own handpicked quarterback - it must be that Gangi made tremendous strides from a year ago. Heck, from about two weeks ago. A quarterback, after all, who gets by on heart, tenacity, leadership and a never-ending will to win is fine for a program that has nothing to lose and is about to fire its head coach.
But this was supposed to be the vaunted Air Raid, the offense that was supposed to make us forget the pistol and that sleep-inducing slop that Polian came up with the last two years. Norvell, after all, had all of these wide receiver and offensive coordinator credentials from Power Five schools. Mumme was taught the wild and crazy Air Raid by his father Hal even before he could tie his shoes. And he had the wild and crazy hair and beard to prove it.
If Gangi won the job then he must have been amazing the last two weeks. We trust Norvell and Mumme, two guys who make their living in the passing game. If they picked Gangi over Cornwell then it must be the right decision. They couldn’t possibly screw up their very first quarterback decision.
Well, Gangi wasn’t amazing on Saturday. He was just Ty Gangi. It left us wondering if Cornwell and his big right arm would have found O’Leary-Orange on those two touchdowns down the middle. It left us wondering if Cornwell would have torched an obviously over hyped Northwestern defense in the second half to put the game away. It left us wondering just what the heck the Air Raid is supposed to be. It promised yards, a flurry of passes, first downs and touchdowns. All we got was hype and hyperbole and a reminder of last year. And, oh yeah, a field goal in the second half.
The Wolf Pack had just one drive of more than four plays in the second half. Only one of those drives lasted more than two minutes. The offense had the ball for all of 21 minutes the entire game. It takes longer than that to get through the security checkpoints at O’Hare Airport.
The Air Raid didn’t make the trip to Chicago. Cornwell, who never took off his baseball cap, also could stayed home.
We are still going to give Norvell and Mumme the benefit of the doubt. Their resume has earned that respect. We really don’t know why Gangi was given the start. Maybe it was just to light a fire under Cornwell. Maybe Cornwell lost the starting job more than Gangi won it. That’s what it looks like one game into the season. Norvell hinted on Saturday that Gangi will start this Saturday at home against Toledo. The following week your pet poodle could throw for 300 yards against Idaho State. But there will be an Air Raid shootout at Washington State on Sept. 23 when the Pack is going to need a quarterback that does more than just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks.
Is Gangi that guy?
If not, well, it will be time to find out if Cornwell is more than just a guy with a big arm and some Alabama sweatshirts tucked away in his closet.