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Joe Santoro: Can Norvell lead Pack to a Mountain West title?

Nevada head coach Jay Norvell watches his team take on California on Sept. 4, 2021, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

Nevada head coach Jay Norvell watches his team take on California on Sept. 4, 2021, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

The 2021 Nevada Wolf Pack football team, no doubt, will accomplish some special things. It beat Boise State, California and UNLV and might end up winning nine games. Carson Strong will turn in one of the greatest seasons ever by a Pack quarterback. Wide receiver Romeo Doubs left us breathless each time he touched the ball and tight end Cole Turner left us stunned and amazed. The defense, it seems, scored more points in some games than some Wolf Pack offenses of the past.
Then why has this season left us with an empty, what-might-have-been feeling? That’s because, given the expectations and potential this team had going into the year, this season is arguably the most disappointing since the school moved to Division I-A in 1992. No West Division title. No Mountain West title. A third-place finish in the division.
The season peaked with the win at Boise State in Week 4. The Pack played its worst football in its most important games of the year. The only prize this season will be a meaningless bowl game. You know, like most Pack football seasons.
This wasn’t supposed to be just like most Pack seasons. It was supposed to be special, with a Mountain West title, 10-plus wins, a meaningful bowl game and a Top 25 ranking. None of those things happened.
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Can this coaching staff, led by head coach Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, ever win a Mountain West title? Of course they can. It’s the Mountain West. Even San Jose State won the Mountain West last year.
We thought it would happen this year for the Pack. It should have happened this year and last year, too. The Pack, after all, had the most talent and the deepest and most experienced roster in the conference the past two seasons.
But some coaches win big games by two points and some lose by two points. We were reminded yet again this year which type of coach Norvell is right now. He’s not an awful coach. He’s solid, dependable, respectable. And that’s the type of program he builds.
But he’s also not a great coach. If he was great the Pack would be going to the Mountain West title game next week because, well, they had the greatest collection of players. All of this, of course, might change next year, especially if Strong and the receivers all come back. But it might not. This season, after all, might have been Norvell’s best opportunity to ever win a title at Nevada. And they lost by two points. Three times.
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Was it Norvell and Mumme’s fault this team didn’t even win the West Division? Well, it sure wasn’t the players’ fault. The Pack blame game has to start with the coaches. The Pack, after a week of preparation under Norvell and Mumme and running the plays they called, found itself down 28-16 against Fresno State and 24-10 against Air Force in the fourth quarter. It was down 17-7 in the third quarter against San Diego State.
Yes, the Pack rallied in each game because, after all, they had the best players on the field in all those games. But they still lost because of horrendous starts. The coaches of those three opponents (Fresno State, San Diego State and Air Force) made sure their outmanned teams were ready for the mighty Pack and the Pack, well, seemed unprepared and unfocused to start each game. The Pack didn’t look anything like itself in building those deficits against Fresno State, San Diego State and Air Force. That’s what getting out-coached looks like.
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Let’s not forget that Norvell and Mumme were also out-coached last year in the biggest game of the year, a 30-20 loss to San Jose State as well as in a loss to Hawaii earlier in the year. There were the inexcusable losses to UNLV in 2018 and 2019 and the embarrassment against Hawaii in 2019 at home and Idaho State in 2017 at home.
So this coaching staff getting outcoached is nothing new. But it shouldn’t have happened this year. Not with this team. The Pack has been the most talented and explosive team in the Mountain West for the past two years and has zero championships to show for it.
College football is all about coaching. The coaches control everything. They find the players, they develop the players, they run off the players they don’t like. It’s their job to put the players in position to succeed. Don’t blame the players for the 2021 disappointment.
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Norvell, without a doubt, has proven his ability to build a program and Mumme has proven he can develop a quarterback. And that, after all, is why they are in Nevada in the first place. But it’s too bad they can’t hire someone else to call the plays.
As this season progressed Norvell and Mumme, it seemed, became obsessed with the Air Raid offense. They abandoned the running game almost completely unless, of course, you consider Strong running for his life a running game. The offensive line struggled all year trying to protect Strong and it almost completely melted down against Air Force. The Air Raid Wolf Pack became a caricature of itself, a pass-happy, throw-until-your-arm-falls-off cartoon character.
Norvell, though, has never been a great play caller. Yes, he’s had some pretty impressive jobs calling plays in his career (Nebraska, UCLA and Oklahoma). But none of those jobs end all that well and, we remind you, he was a wide receivers coach when the Pack hired him. Mumme was a Division III head coach when the Pack hired him. A Division III head coach on the way to getting fired. He, too, shouldn’t be calling plays. “Romeo go deep” and “Just throw it up high to Cole in the end zone,” after all, can only work so often.
But the Pack under Norvell and Mumme just changes quarterbacks, sometimes even when they shouldn’t (see 2017 and 2019). They never change the plays or their one-dimensional mindset. And they are still looking for a championship.
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There was some fear that Norvell would win a Mountain West title this year and then jump ship for the first Power Five head coaching offer that comes his way. But that doesn’t look like it will happen now, given the Pack’s disappointing finish. It might never happen. Norvell, make no mistake, is not a hot, young coach with unlimited potential and a million new ideas.
He will be 59 years old next year, has not won a league title in five years at Nevada and the Mountain West is likely his head coaching ceiling. His window of opportunity for getting a Power Five head coaching job might have opened and closed this year, somewhere between Doubs catching that 2-point conversion pass at the end of the Fresno State game out of the back of the end zone and not making the catch on that very same play at the end of the Air Force game.
Yes, of course, there is always the chance that Strong and his pass-catching friends all come back next year and the Wolf Pack finally wins that elusive title. Anything is possible in college football these days. Even Nick Rolovich, after all, got a Power Five offer. There are a lot of head coaches at Power Five schools whose ceiling is really at the mid-major level.
The reality is that Norvell will likely sign another contract extension at Nevada in a year or two and stay here quite a while. And that isn’t all bad. He’s a solid coach and knows how to build a competitive and, yes, interesting program. He might, after all, even win a title or two somewhere down the road. Anything can happen in college football.
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What is the chance that Strong will come back for the 2022 season? If you are Strong, who already has one bad knee, would you risk losing millions of dollars by coming back for another Mountain West season and play behind that offensive line? Strong nearly didn’t survive this season, playing behind an offensive line that clearly regressed this season. He proved all he needs to prove to the NFL this season and he will never be more attractive to the pro game than he is right now.
It shouldn’t shock you if Strong decides to sit out this year’s bowl game to make sure he is healthy for all his workouts in front of NFL scouts this spring. He needs to think of his future. Potato Bowl games are just not that important. The health of his knees, after all, is all that can keep him from getting picked early in the April NFL draft. 

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