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Joe Santoro: Is pass-happy Nevada Wolf Pack ready to run?

Nevada offensive lineman Aaron Frost (65) tries to keep Hawaii defensive lineman Zach Ritner (97) from pulling down Nevada running back Toa Taua (35) on Nov. 28 in Honolulu. (Photo: Marco Garcia/AP, file)

Nevada offensive lineman Aaron Frost (65) tries to keep Hawaii defensive lineman Zach Ritner (97) from pulling down Nevada running back Toa Taua (35) on Nov. 28 in Honolulu. (Photo: Marco Garcia/AP, file)

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This is the year wide receiver whisperer head coach Jay Norvell, pass-happy offensive coordinator Matt Mumme and the Nevada Wolf Pack’s Air Raid offense has been waiting for.
The NFL is already sniffing around Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong. The Pack has one of the best collections of wide receivers on the west coast. The skies above Mackay Stadium and wherever the Pack is playing this season should be filled with footballs. Excited, Pack fans? Of course you are. But you should also be a bit nervous.
Will Norvell and Mumme be able to control themselves or will they turn into Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas and end up face down in some alley after overdosing on all of the tantalizing passing game possibilities this year? Will all the flying footballs add up to the Wolf Pack’s first Mountain West division title and league championship?
The Air Raid, after all, has had a tendency to make the Wolf Pack look like a bunch of frightened Cold War third graders hiding under their desks and covering their heads in big games during the Norvell-Mumme era. Well, it’s time the Wolf Pack matures as a football program, offense and coaching staff.
Yes, of course, the Pack could throw on every down and win the vast majority of its games this year. It, after all, is the Mountain West. Not the SEC. But Norvell keeps insisting the Pack has loftier goals than simply being the best team in the Mountain West. He wants to be ranked. He wants to go to a New Year’s Day bowl game. He wants his Power Five and NFL friends to notice what he’s doing in Nevada. You only get those things by playing big-boy, grown-man football. It’s time to run the football more.
We knew what we were getting into when Norvell took over the program and hired Mumme. The Norvell-Mumme Air Raid has been in town four years and has thrown the ball more often than it has run it in all four seasons. Former coach Chris Ault, by comparison, ran the ball more often than he threw it in all eight seasons from 2005-12 with his Pistol offense. The next time Ault shows up at a Pack football practice Norvell should ask him for a few pistol running plays instead of simply listening to Ault tell stories of how UNLV never beat his Pistol offense from 2005-12.
If Norvell and Mumme had Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo then, yes, they would run the ball more often. Maybe. It doesn’t take an offensive genius, after all, to say, “Hey, Colin, go run to the end zone.”
And Ault, don’t forget, had his version of an Air Raid era himself. In 1994 and 1995, with quarterback Mike Maxwell, Ault threw it 972 times and ran it 846 times combined. Those are Norvell-Mumme numbers. The Pack had the best passing offense in the nation in 1995 and the second best in 1994. And they won nine games each year. Ault’s secret to his success during his career was his ability to adjust from era to era. He was always ahead of the curve, at least on offense. It’s time Norvell and Mumme do the same.
It’s not like the Pack can’t run the ball. With Toa Taua and Devonte Lee, the Pack just might have the best one-two punch on the ground in the Mountain West. And the offensive line is finally maturing.
There is no Kaepernick explosiveness in the backfield but Taua and Lee are grown men. And they are hungry. Lee, at 235 pounds and Taua, at 210, are powerful SUVs running through Toyotas and Subarus. The offensive line, for the first time in the Norvell-Mumme era, is also ready to take on a more run-heavy work load.
Taua last year averaged 5.9 yards a carry and Lee averaged 5.2. In 2019 Taua was at 4.1 a carry and Lee was at 4.6. The year before it was 4.9 (Taua) and 4.3 (Lee). But the Pack has finished 10th (2017), ninth (2018). 11th (2019) and 11th (2020) in the Mountain West in average rushing yards a game. All they need is more carries.
There are plenty of plays to go around, especially in the defenseless Mountain West, to keep the quarterback, wide receivers and running backs happy. So nobody is suggesting the Pack should turn one of the best quarterbacks in the nation into an afterthought.
Strong, after all, did average 8.0 yards for every attempt last year, and that even includes his 106 incompletions. And we understand that 27 of the Pack’s 34 touchdowns last year came through the air. Strong will be even better this year, especially if defenses aren’t sure he is throwing on almost every down. All we’re saying is don’t forget to feed the running backs and let the offensive line have some fun. They’ve earned it. Everyone will benefit.
So far five of the six Wolf Pack football home games this season are scheduled for 6 p.m. or later. Most or all will end up at 7 p.m. or later. The only one that hasn’t been scheduled right now is the San Jose State game and it will likely join the Pack’s Midnight Madness schedule at some point.
Even the Idaho State and New Mexico State games, which the Pack should win by a combined 80-plus points, are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. kickoffs. Any game, after all, will do when the networks need to fill a late-night time slot.
But does anybody, other than desperate network programmers, enjoy these night games? All the games will be on national television, where the view, refrigerator, ticket prices and parking lot is a whole lot more convenient and more affordable than at the stadium. Do the coaches and players like sitting around all day waiting for the kickoff? Do the fans?
All we’ve heard so far is how the universities are excited about allowing fans back in the stands. The athletic directors need your ticket money. There are only so many sports information directors they can lay off. But if they were truly excited to welcome fans back in the stands we’d see more afternoon kickoffs. Or at least one.
The best story in these flawed NBA playoffs that nobody is talking about is the coaches.
Nate McMillan of the Atlanta Hawks is an interim coach and is winning with a 6-foot, 180-pound Trae Young taking all the big shots. Tyronn Lue has gotten the Los Angeles Clippers to the Western Finals without its best player (Kawhi Leonard). Mike Budenholzer could get fired after the season but he’s dragged the Milwaukee Bucks to the Eastern Finals with a superstar (Giannis Antetokounmpo) who can’t shoot. Monty Williams’ Phoenix Suns are winning with a point guard (Chris Paul) who is too old and a pair of stars (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton) who are too young. Coaching is definitely making a comeback in the NBA.


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