Joe Santoro: Enjoy it while it lasts, Wolf Pack fans

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong celebrates with fans after a 55-28 win against New Mexico State in Reno on Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes)

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong celebrates with fans after a 55-28 win against New Mexico State in Reno on Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes)

The Nevada Wolf Pack has yet to win the Mountain West this season. The Pack hasn’t even clinched the West Division or qualified for a bowl game. So, yes, we are getting ahead of ourselves. But those things seem to be mere formalities right now and will no doubt come at the proper time.
Our Wolf Pack thoughts have already turned to 2022 and beyond. Will this be a one-and-done dream season for the Pack, much like in 2010? Will quarterback Carson Strong and head coach Jay Norvell leave town after this season? These are the questions that will be on most everyone’s mind after this season. Even Norvell has warned us already this fall that this team “won’t be here forever.” So enjoy the next two-plus months, Pack fans. Relish in the victories and championships. Nevada history tells us it won’t last forever or even very long.
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Norvell, though, if he really loves Nevada, cares about its history and wants to become a legend in this part of the state, will stay with the Pack for the rest of his career. Yes, he’s pushing 60 but he looks 35 and could coach another two decades if the Pack finds the money to pay him.
Norvell could win countless conference titles and another 20 or so bowl games at Nevada. He could, dare we say it, become the unquestioned best football coach in Nevada history. Chris Ault’s 233 career victories will likely always be the Pack standard. But less than half of those (95) came at the Division I-A level. Ault was also just 2-8 in bowl games. Norvell has already won two bowl games.
Norvell has a long way to go to even be in the conversation with Ault as the best Pack coach in history. He likely needs to stay here at least another 10 years for that conversation to begin. But he’s started something special here and he should stick around to see it bloom and blossom for a long time.
Does Nevada mean that much to him to stay and turn down the offers he will likely get after this season? It should. He can become a legend here. That won’t happen at a Power five school.
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How about Norvell to the Las Vegas Raiders? Why not? He has Raider blood in his veins already, having coached in Oakland in 2002 and 2003. He rarely goes more than three press conferences in a row without mentioning that he once worked for Al Davis and with Fred Biletnikoff. Norvell was the Raiders’ tight end coach in 2002 when the team went to the Super Bowl to face Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Bucs. One of Gruden’s assistants that year was Rich Bisaccia, who is now the Raiders’ interim coach.
Norvell obviously loves his players and they seem to love him. But he also tends to remind everyone in subtle and not-so-subtle hints how those players don’t do what they are asked to do on a consistent basis when the Pack loses. Coaches win games in college and players lose them. Just ask any college head coach. Norvell might be growing tired of basing his career on the focus and concentration of teenagers as he heads into his 60s. The UNLV Rebels tried for the better part of the 1980s and 90s to lure Ault away from the Pack. The Raiders should do the same with Norvell.
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Will Carson Strong still be the Pack quarterback this time next year? Social media already has him in the NFL next year as a first-round pick this spring. If you are a sure-fire first-round pick you make yourself eligible for the NFL draft, no matter how many name, image and likeness deals you can get from the Reno Tahoe Auto Group, the Grand Sierra Resort or the Reno Aces.
The NFL has not fallen in love with a Pack quarterback this much since Colin Kaepernick in 2011. But even Kaepernick had to play out his senior season in 2010 and win 13-of-14 games first before anyone in the NFL took him seriously.
Strong leaving the Pack after this season won’t signal the downfall of the Pack program. Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme will always be able to find a guy to flip 7-yard passes to wide open wide receivers and put up fancy passing numbers. Heck, they even did it with Kaymen Cureton and Malik Henry. But the loss of Strong will be a speed bump the Pack must carefully cross. It might also be enough reason for Norvell to seriously think of leaving town.
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The Pack understandably looked bored last week in a 55-28 win over New Mexico State. They only paid attention for about two quarters (the second and third) and still won by four touchdowns. That’s the beauty of playing teams like Idaho State (a 49-10 Pack win last month) and New Mexico State.
Hawaii, though, will likely take a longer stretch of concentration this Saturday night at Mackay Stadium. And if that concentration wanders just a bit, Norvell needs only remind them of the past two seasons, a 24-21 loss at Honolulu last year and an embarrassing 54-3 loss to Hawaii in 2019 at Mackay Stadium.
Hawaii needs to pay a price for coming to Mackay and embarrassing the Pack in front of its own fans in 2019. That price should be paid this Saturday. That is all the motivation this Pack roster, many of which were responsible for those last two losses, should need on Saturday.
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Hawaii simply cannot defend the forward pass. Strong might jump to the NFL this Monday after torching the Rainbow Warriors for five or six touchdowns and 500 or 600 yards.
Hawaii has allowed the most passing yards (1,753) in the Mountain West this season. They’ve given up 12 touchdown passes. Portland State’s Davis Alexander threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns against Hawaii. Fresno State’s Jake Haener went for 388 and three. Oregon State’s Chance Nolan had 302 yards and two scores and even New Mexico State’s Jonah Johnson had 280 yards and a score. (Johnson, by the way, had 425 and three scores against the Pack last week. But we’ll act like that never happened just like the Pack did).
Strong, who played in that 54-3 disaster two years ago and lost his starting job because of it, should be allowed to have a little fun on Saturday.
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Strong has faced Hawaii twice in his career and the Pack lost both games. He is 27-of-39 for 214 yards and three touchdowns against the Rainbow Warriors, playing in a game and a half. Norvell benched him at halftime in 2018 and took his starting job away from him for the next two games. Last year it was Hawaii that showed the world how to bottle up Pack receiver Romeo Doubs, holding him to just one catch. Doubs has scored just one touchdown in his last eight games and it all started against Hawaii last year.
It must be noted that Kaepernick never threw the ball all that well against Hawaii either and lost three-of-four games. Kaepernick was just 49-of-95 against Hawaii for 650 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions in those four games. He was intercepted twice and fumbled the ball away once in the memorable 27-21 loss in 2010 at Honolulu and also rushed for just 30 yards. That game, by the way, was played on Oct. 16. This Saturday’s game will be on Oct. 16.

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