Joe Santoro: Pack defense better but not yet great

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Jeff Casteel knew his Nevada Wolf Pack defense would show improvement this season.

“Watching spring practice, you could tell they were getting better,” the Wolf Pack’s second-year defensive coordinator said this week. “I’ve seen the kids improve from game one to Saturday night. I could tell early on we had a chance to be better. It’s been kind of building.”

The Wolf Pack defense is coming off its best half of the season. The Pack shut out the San Diego State Aztecs in the second half of a 28-24 victory last Saturday night at Mackay Stadium, holding the Aztecs to just eight first downs and 117 total yards over the final 30 minutes.

“When you can’t score a point in the second half you’re probably going to get beat,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said.

It was the first time a Casteel-coached Wolf Pack defense hadn’t given up a point in the second half to a Football Bowl Subdivision team (Division I-A). The last time it happened at Nevada was the final game of the 2016 season, a 45-10 win at UNLV. The last time it happened at Mackay (against a FBS team) was against those same Aztecs, a 30-14 Pack win in 2014.

“To pitch a shutout, that was really big,” Wolf Pack offensive coordinator Matt Mumme said.

Any shutout, even one that lasts just half a game, should be praised at Nevada. So go right ahead and pat this Pack defense on the back. They’ve earned it.

“People are starting to take notice of their efforts,” Casteel said.

Last Saturday’s defensive effort brought back memories of the 30-14 win over San Diego State four years ago. It was the last time we were this excited about the Pack defense. The Pack held the Aztecs in 2014 to just 17 first downs and 324 yards while outscoring them 20-0 in the second half.

All of the hope and promise the defense gave us that night in 2014, though, never really showed up again until this past Saturday night. Yes, there have been solid defensive efforts since then before this past Saturday but none of them came against a team like San Diego State (the Aztecs had a six-game winning streak), in a game so meaningful.

“It shows we can play with anybody in this league,” said Wolf Pack senior linebacker Malik Reed, who was at Mackay Stadium in 2014 as a redshirt freshman.

That’s what we thought back in 2014. It turned out to be a mirage.

This Wolf Pack defense should come to you with a warning on the side of its package. Yes, the Pack defense is improved. And, yes, Saturday was a wonderful effort. But an improved defense that can play great for a half of football isn’t necessarily a good defense, let alone a great one.

Treat this Pack defense as if it’s a 5-year-old learning how to ride a two-wheel bicycle. Yes, they’re not running straight into the garage door anymore. But they’re also not ready to enter the Tour de France either. We’re not sure if they’re even ready to take that bike off the driveway just yet and venture into traffic.

Enjoy last Saturday. But also keep it all in perspective.

The Pack defense wasn’t even the best defense on the field on Saturday. San Diego State’s defense held the high-powered Pack offense to just 14 first downs and 297 total yards. San Diego State’s offense, such that it is, had 24 first downs and 456 yards. The Aztecs hadn’t scored more than 28 points in a game all season and came out and shredded the Pack defense for touchdowns on its first two drives last Saturday and led 24-15 at halftime.

“We got down 14-0 and were taking a beating,” Casteel said.

Aztecs quarterback Ryan Agnew, who had completed just seven passes the week before against mighty San Jose State, was 8-of-10 for 117 yards in the first quarter. He would have 209 yards by halftime, just four yards less than his career high for an entire game.

“We thought it was going to be easy in the second half,” said Agnew, who finished with 283 yards.

A great defense, or even a good one, doesn’t give up 24 points and 320 yards by halftime to a San Diego State offense that was averaging 20.7 points and 334 yards a game. A great defense doesn’t struggle to get off the field in the fourth quarter against Boise State, Oregon State and Air Force. A great defense doesn’t struggle the entire game against Vanderbilt and Toledo.

So before you go out and label this Pack defense the second coming of the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 2001 Baltimore Ravens or Alabama (pick a year, any year), just remember this Pack defense allows 407.8 yards and 31.2 points a game. Yes, those numbers are down from 33.9 and 471.3 a year ago. But it’s still just seventh in both categories in the defensively-challenged Mountain West.

This Pack defense is, well, OK. There are times when they’re good. The first half against Air Force and the second half against San Diego State are the best examples of that this year. At other times, well, you cover your eyes, cross your fingers and hope Ryan Agnew remembers he’s Ryan Agnew.

This Wolf Pack defense should be better this year. Yes, it would be difficult to be worse than last year when it allowed 33.9 points and 471.3 yards a game. But we’ve said that before and were proven wrong.

This year’s defense is proving us correct. This Pack defense, after all, has been blessed with an abundance of experienced seniors, players like Korey Rush, Malik Reed, Jomon Dotson, Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus. They’re all good players and even better leaders. They have made everyone around them better. They’re playing like seniors are supposed to play. Juniors Hausia Sekona, Gabe Sewell, Maliek Brody and Daniel Brown have also played extremely well.

The Pack defense, to borrow a line from Dennis Green, is who we thought it was going to be this year.

“They have better players that understand the system that are playing at a much higher rate,” said Long, explaining the improvement in the Pack defense this year.

Yes, it really is that simple. Couple that with the fact most of the teams in the Mountain West (San Diego State is in that group) are clearly more inept offensively than they were just a year ago and, well, a defense can’t help but to improve.

“For me, it was the Air Force game,” Pack head coach Jay Norvell said, when asked when he was first convinced this defense was indeed better this year. “Our kids just dialed in and listened to the plan. This is a testament to our seniors. These guys have really bought in to what the coaches are telling them to do.”

Casteel, though, says the improvement is all about the players. He’s still the same coach he was last year when he implemented the Pack’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme. Scheme, though, only takes you so far on defense. You can’t, after all, trick an opponent into falling down before he gets to the end zone. You have to knock him down. Last year the Pack didn’t knock anybody down.

“I like our toughness,” Casteel said. “The kids are learning how to be a little more tough-minded and being more physical. The kids have a resolve about them. We’ve grown to be a great-effort team. Our effort has been absolutely outstanding.”

Norvell, a former Big Ten defensive player, vowed to toughen up his defense after the 2017 season.

“We’ve been pressing our guys to show that toughness, that grit, that mental fortitude to play good defense,” Norvell said. “It’s really an attitude. I can’t stress enough that we’ve made a lot of progress in becoming a team that can line up and beat teams physically.”

That willingness to stand up to an opponent and compete has, at times, paid off at just the right moments this year. The Pack defense has been a great defense on third down, allowing opponents to get a first down just 32.6 percent of the time. The Pack has allowed just 57 first downs all year on third and fourth down combined. Last year it happened 89 times when opponents picked up a first down on 44 percent of third down plays against the Pack. Last Saturday the Pack stopped San Diego State on 4-of-5 third and fourth down plays combined in the fourth quarter.

“These kids have worked their tails off,” Casteel said.

Casteel’s defenses have always been a high-risk, high-reward type of unit, even going back to his West Virginia and Arizona days. His defenses love to gamble and force the action upon the offense. Last year it was like watching a bunch of kindergartners trying to catch a feather blowing in the wind. This year the Pack has shown an ability to grab the feather before the wind picks up.

The Pack already has 24 sacks this year after getting just 23 all last season. The Pack also has 72 tackles for a loss after getting 82 all of last year.

“We get a ton of people to the football and that covers up a lot of things we don’t do as well,” Casteel said. “They play as a unit and have learned how to play team defense.”

Reed, the Pack’s best player on either side of the ball, has 178 career tackles, 34.5 tackles for a loss and 20 sacks in his career.

“It’s maturity,” Reed said, explaining the improvement on the Pack defense. “You can just see it each and every week. You can see us getting better and more confident in each other.”

The rest of the Mountain West is also seeing it this year. A year ago the Wolf Pack gave up an average of 42.3 points a game to Fresno State, Boise State, Air Force and San Diego State. All four games ended up in defeat. This year, against those same four teams, the Pack allowed just 25.3 points a game and won two of them.

Now that’s improvement.

“It’s the confidence we have,” Reed said. “It’s not the same team.”

It’s about time.


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