Nevada football coach Ken Wilson, shown during the team’s spring game in April 2022.
Photo by Steve Ranson.
Sports Fodder …Nevada Wolf Pack quarterbacks Shane Illingworth and Nate Cox, we assume, are better than what they showed in Saturday night’s 23-12 win at New Mexico State. Illingworth was 7-of-12 for 51 yards and Cox was 7-of-11 for 27 yards and also ran around six times for 37 yards. Neither one sniffed the end zone with a pass. Cox, by the way, became the first Wolf Pack quarterback to run for more yards in a game than he passed for (when attempting 10 or more passes) since Cody Fajardo did it three times in 2014. And, yes, we apologize to Cody Fajardo for using his name in same sentence as Nate Cox. It is almost impossible, after all, to gain just 27 yards through the air on seven completions. But Cox did it. But we’re not blaming Cox. Who was calling those Pack plays on Saturday night? Was it Brick Mitchell, whose 1934 Pack scored a mere 15 points all season long in nine games? Was it R.E. Courtright without Rabbit Bradshaw to save the day? The Pack offense looked scared on Saturday. The coaches need to show more confidence in Illingworth and Cox than they showed in Las Cruces. Illingworth, after all, is a guy who once passed for 265 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas and 315 yards against Missouri State. Cox has been waiting for this season since he became a college quarterback in 2017. But Cox and Illingworth were jockeys last Saturday night without a whip, or Indy car drivers trying to conserve gas. The Pack needs to trust them more than that.
You could argue that what we saw on Saturday was the worst passing performance by the Wolf Pack in a non-conference game against a non-Power Five school since the Pack jumped to Division I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) in 1992. The Wolf Pack completed just 14 passes for a mere 78 yards. There were 45 passing yards in the first half and 33 in the second half. Those 14 passes were for an average gain of 5.6 yards. Just two completions went for more than nine yards. No completion in the second half was longer than eight yards. Four completions went for zero yards or a loss. There were no passing touchdowns. There were just six passing first downs. Make no mistake, nobody is blaming Illingworth or Cox. They are better than this. They have to be.
New Pack head coach Ken Wilson, to be sure, knows nothing about offense. He is a career defensive coach. He has spent his entire career in obscurity, coaching defense under offensive-minded head coaches (Chris Ault, Jeff Tisdel, Mike Leach, Mario Cristobal). What we saw on Saturday puts the spotlight on the new Pack offensive coaches. Former coach Jay Norvell took his Air Raid offense and practically all of his offensive assistants (except running backs coach Vai Taua) with him to Colorado State. Wilson then went out and hired two friends (Derek Sage and Nate Costa) and put them in charge of the offense as coordinator and quarterbacks coach. It was not a promising debut for either one on Saturday. Let’s hope they used only about one-tenth of their playbook against New Mexico State. Why they would do that against a team that allowed an average of 40 points and 488 yards a game the year before is a bit concerning. Why not let the offense have fun, getting the team and the community excited to start the season? But the Pack offense was ultra-conservative, unimaginative and looking a little like a kindergartner on the first day of school.
It must be noted that the Wolf Pack basically beat New Mexico State mainly on the strength of players Norvell left behind. Brandon Talton kicked three field goals. Dom Peterson forced and recovered a fumble. Tyrese Mack, Jamaal Bell and Toa Taua combined for 10 of the 14 catches. Cox passed for half the 14 completions and Taua, Devonte Lee and Cox combined for the only two touchdowns and almost all of the 179 net rushing yards. On defense, all four of the Pack interceptions were by former Norvell players as were the only five players with three or more tackles. None of the Wilson recruits, many of whom were transfer portal players from other four-year schools or junior college transfers, stood out on the stat sheet.
Illingworth started and played through the first drive of the third quarter. Cox basically played three full drives. Illingworth led the Pack to a 17-2 halftime lead. When Cox was in the game (the final 27 minutes) the Pack was outscored 10-6. Why take Illingworth out? Is he the unquestioned starter? Is he still competing with Cox for playing time? Will the Pack play two quarterbacks all season long? If you never throw a pass longer than five yards, it really doesn’t matter. And it likely doesn’t matter the next two weeks against Texas State and Incarnate Word. But after that is Iowa, followed by eight Mountain West games. Norvell, don’t forget, was indecisive about his starting quarterback at the start of his first three seasons (2017-19) even though it was obvious Ty Gangi was his best option in both 2017 and 2018 and Carson Strong was his best choice in 2019. Wilson doesn’t need to make the same mistake.
It makes more football sense, for the long-term good of the program, for Illingworth to take over the position this year. And maybe that is why he got the start in Las Cruces. Illingworth is just a sophomore, and he brings a Big 12 pedigree with him from Oklahoma State. Cox is a sixth-year senior whose greatest success was in junior college. And that was three years ago. Any experience Cox gains this year will do the Pack no good next year and beyond. If Cox is the clear-cut better quarterback this year and gives the Pack offense its best chance of moving the ball and scoring points then, of course, he should play most of the snaps. But if there is little difference between Cox and Illingworth then Wilson needs to think about the long-term health of his program and start the quarterback with the Big 12 pedigree. And keep him in the game.
The Wolf Pack athletic department deserves a thank you for adding Kansas to the football home schedule in 2023. The non-conference home schedule the past three years, since Purdue came to Mackay Stadium to start the 2019 season, has been a slap in the face to all Pack fans. In 2021 we had to watch Idaho State and New Mexico State step onto Chris Ault Field. And this year we are about to sit through Texas State and Incarnate Word. There were no non-league home games in 2020 which, it turns out, was the only benefit of the pandemic. But Kansas coming to Mackay in 2023 will end the Mackay snooze-fest. The Jayhawks are the perfect opponent for the Pack. It is a school from a Power Five conference that the Wolf Pack can beat. It is also a Power Five school that doesn’t mind playing in front of less than 30,000 fans. It’s not easy getting attractive non-league opponents to come to Mackay. But it didn’t used to be a problem. We’ll consider the problem solved for now.
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