Joe Santoro: The problem with the Nevada Wolf Pack’s Air Raid

Nevada wide receiver Elijah Cooks dives in for a touchdown as Fresno State defensive back Wylan Free gives chase in Fresno, Calif., on Nov. 23. Cooks and Romeo Doubs combined to catch 185 passes for 2,485 yards and 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

Nevada wide receiver Elijah Cooks dives in for a touchdown as Fresno State defensive back Wylan Free gives chase in Fresno, Calif., on Nov. 23. Cooks and Romeo Doubs combined to catch 185 passes for 2,485 yards and 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

The Air Raid offense has sent the art of scoring points at Nevada backward nearly two decades.

“We couldn’t generate enough big plays and score enough points,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said after the 30-21 loss to the Ohio Bobcats in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl earlier this month.

Sound familiar? We heard those sentiments often enough this year to justify chiseling them on the tombstone of the Wolf Pack’s 7-6 2019 season. Not enough points. Not enough big plays. Too many field goals. Wasted opportunities. The Air Raid, which was supposed to dazzle us by now with a flurry of touchdowns, end zone celebrations and YouTube highlights game after game, simply didn’t drop enough bombs on opponents this season.

“If we could have scored a little more in the first half,” Norvell said after losing to Ohio, as if reading off a worn-out script from the entire 2019 season, “if we could have finished with touchdowns instead of field goals, we could have made it more interesting there at the end.”

Interesting, for the most part, turned into frustrating for the Wolf Pack offense this season. It was, without question, the worst season of Wolf Pack offense since 2000.

Yes, the 2000 season with the 2-10 record. The first year in the Western Athletic Conference. The debut of coach Chris Tormey. A seven-game losing streak from late September to the middle of November. Quarterback David Neill running for his life and somehow surviving 49 sacks. This past season on offense smelled an awful lot like 2000.

The Wolf Pack averaged a mere 21.3 points a game this season, its lowest output since the 2000 team put up 17.3 points a game. But even that 21.3 average is a little misleading since the Pack scored 21 points or fewer in eight of its 13 games. The last time the Pack scored 21 or fewer points in at least eight games was 2000.

The Wolf Pack’s 31 touchdowns this year is its fewest since it had 26 in 2000. It’s 21 red zone touchdowns is the fewest since it had 14 in 2000. The Pack’s 365.3 yards a game this year is its lowest production since it had just 358 a game in 2006 and, you guessed it, 312.4 in 2000.

Brandon Talton, a freshman kicker that didn’t even have a scholarship when the season started, scored nearly a third of all the Pack’s points (90-of-277) this season. In three games (Oregon, Wyoming, Hawaii) he was the only Pack player who scored at all.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” said Norvell after the loss to Ohio, as if the Pack’s offensive frustrations were out of his control.

The Air Raid, more often than not, left us wanting more this year. The Pack failed to score as many as 10 points in the first half in eight games. It didn’t reach double figures in the second half five times. The Pack scored two touchdowns or fewer in seven games. It’s best offensive game of the year (41 points, 541 yards against San Jose State) was engineered by a third-string quarterback (Malik Henry) who started two games and then was kicked off the active roster at midseason.

The Pack was 11th in the 12-team Mountain West in scoring (21.3), rushing (115.6 yards a game), offensive touchdowns (30) and red zone touchdowns (21). It was last in rushing touchdowns (16), yards per rush (3.4) and sacks allowed (33). It was 10th in total offense (365.3), passing touchdowns (14) and third-down success rate (37.1 percent).

Norvell, don’t forget, was hired to breathe life back into the Pack offense. The guy was supposedly a wide receiver whisperer and a former Power Five offensive coordinator. He got us all excited about the Air Raid.

We’re not all that excited anymore. And the only whispering you now hear concerning the Pack offense is that it might be time to give the Air Raid a one-way flight out of town.

Well, forget it. That is not happening.

Norvell, it seems, is as dedicated and loyal to the Air Raid as he is to his native Wisconsin cheese. He brought the Air Raid to Nevada because that is what he learned at Oklahoma from 2008-14 under head coach Bob Stoops. Air Raid guru Mike Leach spent just one year at Oklahoma as offensive coordinator in 1999 but the Sooners kept his playbook and told Norvell to study it.

So it is not going anywhere as long as Norvell is around. And, like Norvell, it shouldn’t go anywhere. Not yet.

“The passing concepts that Mike Leach installed stayed on (at Oklahoma) so I was very familiar with those pass concepts,” Norvell said three years ago when he was hired at Nevada. “So when I got the (Nevada) job I wanted to go full circle and go back to the basics of the Air Raid.”

That, it must be noted, might be the last time Norvell actually called it the Air Raid. He now just smiles and gives out a little chuckle when asked about the Air Raid, saying his Wolf Pack offense is the Air Pistol.

“A lot of people run similar systems,” Norvell said back in 2017 when he was selling the Air Raid to Nevada. “What really matters is how coaches teach those systems and how they can recruit to those systems.”

In other words, it’s difficult to recruit the types of explosive athletes to Nevada that Norvell once had at Oklahoma, Nebraska, UCLA and Arizona State. So, welcome to the Air Pistol, Pack fans.

But more than just the name has been changed to protect the guilty parties. Norvell has had five different starting quarterbacks in three years. He also removed offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, the son of Air Raid father Hal Mumme, from the play-calling responsibilities in Week 9 last year.

But don’t let anyone fool you. The Pack offense is still, down deep, the pass-happy Air Raid.

Don’t believe all of that Air Pistol stuff. The Pistol offense, after all, was a running offense, averaging over 200 yards rushing a game every year from 2007-12 under Pistol father Chris Ault. The Pack also averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry every year with Ault’s Pistol from 2004-12. This year’s Pack averaged 3.4 yards a carry, its lowest since the 2000 team averaged 2.2 a carry with the David Neill Run For Your Life offense.

When Norvell took over the playcalling he talked about a renewed emphasis on the running game, saying, “Sometimes you have to keep running the ball even when you are not running the ball well.”

Yeah, well, they still don’t call it the Run Raid. The Pack wasn’t running the ball well against Ohio and then basically abandoned the run. The Pack ran the ball just 19 times for 29 yards against Ohio and threw it 50 times. That doesn’t sound like the Air Pistol. That sounds like the Air Prayer.

The Pack, which has two outstanding backs in Toa Taua and Devonte Lee, attempted 500 passes this year, its most in a season since 1995 (507) and 1993 (516) when it was called Air Wolf.

Norvell and Mumme’s Air Raid has passed the ball more than it has run it in all three of its seasons in Nevada. The last time the Pack threw the ball more times than it ran it in a year before Norvell and Mumme came to town was 2004 in the first year of the Pistol (473 passes to 463 runs).

So what we saw this season at Mackay was the Air Raid, no matter what Norvell calls it. And that is all well and good. The Air Raid is fun. The Air Raid is unpredictable. The Air Raid is exciting, frustrating and thrilling, often on the same play.

“I want our fans to come to games not quite sure what they are going to see,” Norvell said. “In a positive way.”

Nobody, even after three seasons, knows what to expect out of Norvell’s Pack to this day. So mission accomplished. Yes, it hasn’t all been positive. But not even Ault’s Pistol was perfect. See the six losses in eight bowl games from 2005-12.

So don’t blame all of the struggles this year on offense on the Air Prayer/Raid/Pistol. The offense’s concepts work. Leach has now taken his lounge act to Mississippi State. Kliff Kingsbury is now in the NFL with Kyler Murray. The Air Raid has worked since LaVell Edwards at BYU in the 1970s and ’80s with quarterbacks such as Jim McMahon, Robbie Bosco, Steve Young and Ty Detmer. It made Tim Couch a No. 1 NFL draft pick, for goodness sake. It can win games in the Mountain West.

The Pack problems this year on offense were not Air Raid problems. They were play-calling problems, they were player problems and they were coaching problems.

All of the problems stemmed from a freshman quarterback (Carson Strong) learning the offense on the fly and were made worse by an impatient coaching staff benching him for three-plus games in the middle of the year.

The problems also came from an inexperienced and struggling offensive line that by the end of the year was held together by glue, string and tape. The entire team also displayed a disturbing lack of discipline this year, committing 96 penalties, the most in one Pack season since, of course, 2000 (107). That lack of discipline was also evident immediately after the Pack’s 33-30 overtime loss to UNLV in the Fremont Folly.

Injuries to wide receivers Kaleb Fossum, Romeo Doubs, Brendan O’Leary-Orange and others also didn’t help this year. And why didn’t we see more of O’Leary-Orange and Melquan Stovall all year long instead of just in the bowl game? Another hidden factor for the offense’s lack of explosiveness this year that nobody up on North Virginia Street will ever admit was the loss of wide receiver McLane Mannix. Mannix transferred to Texas Tech after the 2018 season and took the bulk of the Pack’s big-play explosiveness with him. Doubs has the same big-play explosiveness but he needs to learn how to stay on the field.

The coaching was also all over the place last year. It took the Pack more than half the season to finally smooth out, streamline, simplify and tailor the game plan to a freshman quarterback. And that was only after they tried to give everyone else on the roster with a live arm the chance to play quarterback.

The Air Raid wasn’t the problem this season. But almost everything else was. But a lot of those problems just might be solved with a simple flip of the calendar from 2019 to 2020.

“I learned a lot from this season,” Strong said after the Ohio game.

Odds are Norvell and Mumme also learned a great deal.

“Basically our entire offense is back next year,” Norvell said. “I’m really excited about what we can do.”

Don’t forget that the Air Prayer/Raid/Pistol offense worked just fine a year ago with senior quarterback Ty Gangi that averaged 431 yards and 31 points a game and scored 52 touchdowns.

What happened in 2019? Well, a senior quarterback was replaced by a freshman quarterback. And everyone, from Strong to his coaches, struggled with that transition at times. The year of transition is now over.

When Norvell was hired at Nevada he told everyone, “We need speed on offense. We need offensive playmakers that can stretch the field. We’d like to put as many offensive players on the field that can score in one play as possible. That’s our goal, getting guys who can take the ball the length of the field. The wide receiver position is one where you can change the game in one play.”

That’s where wide receivers Elijah Cooks and Romeo Doubs come in. Cooks and Doubs are now big-time, experienced Air Raid wide receivers that know how to find the end zone. The dynamic duo has combined to catch 185 passes for 2,485 yards and 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons. They might do that in 2020 alone.

It’s important to remember that the Air Raid is about more than just the quarterback. It’s about the timing between the offensive line, quarterback and wide receivers. All those things have yet to come together at the same time save for brief flashes at Nevada. If it happens in 2020, look out. Norvell might even have the courage to start calling it the Air Raid again. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that he laid out the philosophy of the Air Raid back in January 2017.

“It’s a very focused system,” he said. “It gives players opportunities to rep concepts over and over and get good at them very quickly.”

We are now heading into Year Four of the Nevada Air Prayer/Raid/Pistol. Let’s hope that is quick enough.


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