Joe Santoro: Nevada could surprise Iowa

Wolf Pack quarterback Nate Cox takes off on a run in the first half against Incarnate Word on Sept. 10, 2022 in Reno.

Wolf Pack quarterback Nate Cox takes off on a run in the first half against Incarnate Word on Sept. 10, 2022 in Reno.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

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The Nevada Wolf Pack football team has a chance to do something fairly remarkable on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. No, they are not going to announce a move to the Pac-12. They are not going to steal coach Nick Saban away from Alabama or Chris Ault from retirement. And the Pack isn’t even going to add Colin Kaepernick as its new offensive coordinator. Nothing crazy like that. We’re talking actual reality here, not silver and blue fantasy.
What we are suggesting could very well happen. Yes, in the real world. There is, in fact, a reasonable, legitimate, honest-to-goodness chance for it to take place. Are you sitting down?
The Wolf Pack can go on the road and beat the Iowa Hawkeyes, a Power Five team, on Saturday, the very next week after losing to a Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) team (Incarnate Word) at home. That is just crazy talk, right? Well, not at all. It could happen.
Have you paid attention to the Iowa Hawkeyes this season? Not all Power Five schools are created equal. Iowa is the worst offensive team in the nation, averaging just seven points and 158 yards a game. The Hawkeyes couldn’t find the end zone in the morning even if they woke up on the opposing team’s 1-yard line. Two touchdowns could beat the Hawkeyes on Saturday. Heck, the Pack defense might score 14 by itself.
The entire output of the Iowa offense this year in two games consists of one touchdown, one extra point and one field goal. The defense has supplied two safeties and if they didn’t do that in the opener against South Dakota State the Hawkeyes would be 0-2 right now instead of 1-1. Make no mistake, the loss to Incarnate Word wasn’t exactly the momentum-builder the Pack wanted headed to Iowa. The last time the Pack lost to an FCS team, after all, was in 2017 to Idaho State. The very next week they went on the road to play Washington State and lost, 45-7. But don’t worry. Iowa might not score 45 points all season.
Nobody is denying the Wolf Pack season took a swift kick in the, well, you know where last week against Incarnate Word. The season now looks like one long road to frustration, pain, boredom and a whole lot of empty seats at Mackay Stadium. But that could all change by late Saturday night. The season could have meaning, promise and hope by Sunday morning. All it might take is a touchdown, an extra point and a field goal or two from Brandon Talton. Better get a couple safeties, too, just to make sure.
The loss to Incarnate Word, though, is disturbing. We understand that the Cardinals might have had the best offensive player (quarterback Lindsey Scott) that the Pack will face all season long. But he was throwing to Division I-AA wide receivers, handing off to I-AA running backs and playing behind a I-AA offensive line. He was also playing for a program that didn’t even have the sport of football when Colin Kaepernick was a redshirt sophomore at Nevada in 2008.
A Football Bowl Subdivision team should never lose to an FCS school anywhere, let alone at home. A FBS team should not allow an FCS team to score 35 unanswered points in a row. A FBS team should not give up 55 points and lose by 14 at home to an FCS team.
The Pack was 2-0. Its defense was playing takeaway with the ball. And then they go out and give up 55 and lose by two touchdowns to a Division I-AA team that plays in glorified high school stadiums? The last time the Pack gave up 55 points to a Division I-AA team was, well, never. And that includes 1979 through 1991 when the Pack was in I-AA itself.
The Incarnate Word (the school sounds like the title of a pamphlet somebody might hand to you in an airport) disaster suggests a bigger-picture worry and concern about the Pack football program. The school is now in its 31st season in FBS and really is still an FCS sheep in FBS wolf’s clothing. Make no mistake, the Wolf Pack has had a collection of wonderful athletes since moving to FBS in 1992. But they had great athletes as an FCS school, too. It has had many great games since 1992, beaten quite a few respectable and capable opponents and has even had a couple of highly successful seasons as a so-called member of the FBS. But, relatively speaking, the Pack is still an FCS school at heart, playing in an FCS stadium with FCS funding and support.
And its talent level is really not all that much greater than the most talented teams in the FCS now. We saw that on Saturday. The Pack’s move to FBS three decades ago was really about nothing more than a way to make money, so the athletic program could survive and the athletic director and some of its coaches could become millionaires. Nevada still cannot bring attractive teams to Mackay Stadium for the most part, still cannot seriously contend for a national title or even a high-profile bowl game. And it still cannot whip every FCS team, even on its own home turf.
The Mountain West also has never truly grown up into a strong, vital, competitive Division I-A conference. The 23-year-old conference, which really is just the old Western Athletic Conference and Big West Conference with gray hair, has had some very good teams that could compete with very good teams from other FBS conferences. But, on the whole, the Mountain West is still an ignored conference that plays in obscurity late at night out West. It is basically late-night programming for the countless networks on television and the internet, just so they don’t have to televise poker championships, fishing tournaments and college volleyball.
This season has shown that the Mountain West is still figuring out a way to pull up its big-boy pants. Nevada lost to Incarnate Word, Utah State lost to Weber State and Colorado State lost to Middle Tennessee last weekend. Western Kentucky obliterated Hawaii. The Mountain West is also 0-10 against Power Five schools. Some of the losses were close, like UNLV to Cal, San Jose State to Auburn and Fresno State to Oregon State. But they were still losses. The Wolf Pack can change all that on Saturday in Iowa City.
The Wolf Pack, especially if it loses to Iowa, is now in jeopardy of not qualifying for a bowl game. A loss to Iowa will mean that the Pack will have to go no worse than 4-4 in the Mountain West this season. The bowl game hopes might go down to the final regular-season game at UNLV. But that’s only if a few positive things go the Pack’s way before then. The UNLV game’s only true prize, though, might be the Fremont Cannon.
After Iowa, the only game on the Pack schedule that looks like a sure victory is at Hawaii in Week 6. Hawaii, coached by former Pack assistant Timmy Chang, is a truly awful football team and will likely go winless this year. They would likely lose to the best high school teams on the island.
The rest of the games, however, look like a challenge for the Pack. No opponent is great and overpowering. We are still looking at a watered-down version of the Mountain West this year. So four league victories is possible for the Pack. But this inexperienced Pack coaching staff can’t allow what happened on Saturday to ever happen again. This season, don’t forget, is not only about the roster maturing and growing. The coaching staff has to do the same.
Now we know why the San Francisco 49ers kept Jimmy Garoppolo as the backup quarterback. Starter Trey Lance has all of the potential in the world. He can run, throw and run some more. He has the size and speed to play almost any position on the field. But he doesn’t seem ready to lead a team to, for example, a championship just yet.
Lance just hasn’t played enough football. He only played one full season in college (at North Dakota State) and that was three years ago. He’s only played in seven NFL games. He led the 49ers to just 10 points against the Chicago Bears this past Sunday, none in the second half. If it was 1985, 10 points would be quite an accomplishment against the Bears defense. But Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Wilber Marshall and William Perry weren’t playing for the Bears.
We also saw that Joe Montana and Steve Young, as well as Jeff Garcia and Colin Kaepernick, were not playing quarterback for the 49ers. But we might see Garoppolo before too long if Lance doesn’t start flashing some of that potential. Trading Garoppolo right now might be a huge mistake for the 49ers, no matter how much faith and patience there is in Lance. If the Dallas Cowboys come calling and offer the Southfork Ranch and a dozen Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, the 49ers should still say no. The 49ers, we saw on Sunday, might need Garoppolo to save this season. Garoppolo, of course, is also not Montana or Young. But he would help the 49ers beat the teams they should beat — you know, like the Bears.
The only good news for Wolf Pack fans last weekend was that Jay Norvell’s Colorado State Rams also are struggling so far this season. The Rams were destroyed 51-7 at Michigan in Week 1, which isn’t a cause for alarm.
But then they went out and lost 34-19 this past Saturday in Norvell’s first home game. Just 27,641 showed up at Canvas Stadium, which shows that Rams fans are still warming up to the Norvell era (much like Pack fans to the Ken Wilson era). The only ray of sunshine for Norvell this season has been quarterback Clay Millen and wide receiver Tory Horton, a pair of Pack refugees Norvell loaded up on his moving van when he left Reno. Millen is 36-of-50 for 393 yards and four touchdowns so far in two games and much of that has been to Horton (15 catches, 255 yards, four touchdowns). So, yes, the Rams are basically conducting a 2021 Wolf Pack practice during games this year more than mastering the Air Raid. But that will happen eventually, like it did at Nevada.
Whether or not Millen is another Carson Strong remains to be seen. But he’ll start to shred Mountain West defenses just the same before too long. The hope at Nevada is that he doesn’t start doing that until after Oct. 7, when Norvell and the Rams come to Mackay Stadium.


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