Joe Santoro: Pack fans left rooting for UNLV

UNLV offensive lineman Amani Trigg-Wright celebrates after UNLV beat Hawaii on Nov. 13, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

UNLV offensive lineman Amani Trigg-Wright celebrates after UNLV beat Hawaii on Nov. 13, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

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It is time for Nevada Wolf Pack fans to put on a red sweater or shirt and, for one weekend, become UNLV Rebels fans. That thud you just heard was Chris Ault’s 75-year-old fist slamming into the nearest wall.
Yeah, well, you can thank coach Jay Norvell and his Wolf Pack for putting you in the distasteful position of having to root for the Rebels as the holiday season approaches. The Wolf Pack, 23-21 losers at San Diego State last Saturday, now needs the Rebels to beat San Diego State this Friday night in Las Vegas.
San Diego State (9-1, 5-1) has a one-game lead over the Pack (7-3, 4-2) and a half-game lead over Fresno State (8-3, 5-2) in the West Division of the Mountain West. It must lose its last two games, Friday in Las Vegas and next Friday at home against Boise State, for the Pack to have a chance at a division title.
So, Pack fans, get ready to cheer for both UNLV and Boise State over the next 10 days or so and try not to choke on your turkey next Thursday thinking about it.
Is it time for the Wolf Pack to at least modify its Air Raid offense? The Pack handed the ball off a mere 10 times to its top two backs against San Diego State. Norvell defended that one dimensional playbook this week by saying the goal of the offense is to control the ball and score points and throwing the ball is the best way to do those things this season.
Well, the Pack did neither at San Diego State and lost its most important game of the year. But that’s what the Air Raid does to its devoted coaches. It’s a pass-happy drug that devours its coaches’ mindset, making them predictable, one dimensional and philosophically defensive.
Chris Ault’s greatest strength as a coach was his ability to adapt and change. Air Raid coaches just dream up new ways to flip 7-yard passes and defend their playbook. The Air Raid scheme, they will remind you, is never the problem, just like that seventh slice of pizza is not the problem for the guy who can’t muster enough strength to get off his couch. The couch, after all, is just too low to the ground. The Air Raid, as we found out yet again this season, is that seventh slice of pizza that keeps you pinned to that couch. It puts up fancy numbers and breaks records but just doesn’t win championships on a consistent basis. Yes, it has just as many empty calories as the piece of pizza.
Nobody is suggesting Norvell or offensive coordinator Matt Mumme should totally abandon their precious Air Raid. The Air Raid is fun to watch. It’s fun to play for a quarterback or receiver, the only two positions Norvell and Mumme care about. The Air Raid puts up points and touchdowns in bunches, especially against mediocre-to-bad teams which, after all, is three-fourths of the Mountain West. So stand up and shout, “Long live the Air Raid.” It’s not going anywhere.
But it’s time the Air Raid becomes a little more flexible. Even Ault tweaked his Pistol every year. The problem with hardly ever running the ball is that when the time comes to run the ball, whether you admit it or not, is you discover you’ve forgotten how to run the ball. Your offensive line becomes a pass-happy pin cushion that is always on its heels instead of an aggressive, ferocious run-blocking machine that punishes defensive lines and linebackers. But the Pack coaches obviously don’t really care about all that.
This season is the one Mumme has waited for since he was plucked from the Division III coaching ranks by Norvell. He has operated this year’s Pack offense like every play is a tribute to his dad Hal, the so-called father of the Air Raid. Like a true Mumme team, the Pack has scored plenty of points and will likely set plenty of records. But it won’t win a championship unless, of course, you think a Potato Bowl or a Hawaii Bowl is a championship.
The question now is whether or not Carson Strong is simply the new Tim Couch, the forgettable Kentucky quarterback that Hal somehow turned into the No. 1 pick of the 1999 NFL draft. That’s what the NFL will try to figure out in the coming months.
The Pack, we saw this year, shouldn’t be afraid of giving the Air Raid some new wrinkles. Isn’t it OK to play physical, tough, punch-to-the-gut football instead of turning every game into a game of darts in an English pub?
The Pack averaged 18 carries and 28 yards a game rushing against Fresno State and San Diego State, the two teams that will likely finish ahead of them in the West Division barring the miracles mentioned above. And the Pack lost. Strong put up fancy numbers in both games. And the Pack lost. That’s because predictable and one dimensional play-calling turned this potentially program-changing Pack season into yet another what-the-heck-happened season void of another title.
So why not tweak it a little? Maybe Norvell should use Ault as something more than his “this-is-how-we-beat-UNLV” speech maker every year. Think Ault could improve the Air Raid? You bet he could. Who knows? Maybe an effective running game, or at least the threat of one, will even make that beloved Air Raid passing game more explosive.
Last season, while winning seven-of-nine games, the Pack ran the ball an average of 28 times and 122 yards a game. This year that is down to 24 and 64, an embarrassing set of statistics that would make Ault devise a new offense. He invented the Pistol to beef up his run game, after all, after a 2004 season in which the Pack ran the ball for four yards a carry, 1,849 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground. Those numbers would give a Mumme nightmares.
Those 24 average carries on the ground this year, by the way, are inflated by an offensive line that is allowing 2.7 sacks a game this year compared to 2.2 a year ago. That’s because opposing defenses know the Pack isn’t going to run the ball anymore.
But, alas, it is almost impossible to embarrass an Air Raid coach with run-game numbers. It is like telling a physics professor about who is the latest NBA star to date a Kardashian. But we’ll keep trying. Win a championship and we’ll stop.
All Norvell will really tell you about the losses to Fresno State and San Diego State is that he is extremely proud of his team and that they lost both games by just two points each. The Pack, Norvell will tell you, played hard in both games and never quit.
So, relax, Pack fans and media. There is no cause for alarm in the Wolf Pack world. This isn’t UNLV, where they are thinking of staging a parade down Las Vegas Boulevard after winning two games in a row. All of that is true. Norvell and Mumme can coach here for the rest of their careers if they want to, or as long as Doug Knuth is athletic director. The Pack, as long as Norvell and Mumme are here, will beat the majority of Mountain West teams on a consistent basis by flooding the air with footballs. They might even win a championship in the future. Just keep reminding yourself of those things as you find yourself rooting for UNLV and Boise State.
A couple weeks back Norvell reminded us that the Wolf Pack had loftier goals this year than simply going to a bowl game. All of those loftier goals, mind you, were quickly forgotten by the time the Pack got back home from Southern California on Sunday.
But you remember those goals, don’t you? A division title and a spot in the Mountain West title game. A Mountain West championship. A spot in the Top 25 national rankings. An appearance in an important bowl game and not just one of those empty parting-gift trophies the Mountain West disguises as bowl games. This, thanks to a pandemic that extended everyone’s playing career one season, was the deepest Pack team in history. It had one of the best quarterbacks and group of receivers in school history. It had more experience than some Pack coaching staffs of the past. This was the season Norvell had circled on his calendar since he got to town in December 2016, when he vowed to make the Pack the best team in the Mountain West.
The truth is this Pack team likely was the best in the Mountain West this year so Norvell did, in fact, make good on his promise. Well, in an empty calorie Air Raid sort of way.


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