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Joe Santoro: Is Pack 4-0 if Norvell, others stayed?

Then-Nevada coach Jay Norvell is interviewed at halftime of a game against New Mexico State on Oct. 9, 2021 at Mackay Stadium.

Then-Nevada coach Jay Norvell is interviewed at halftime of a game against New Mexico State on Oct. 9, 2021 at Mackay Stadium.
Photo by Thomas Ranson.

The Nevada Wolf Pack football team just might be 4-0 right now if Jay Norvell was still head coach. We are not implying that Norvell would be 4-0 with the Pack roster that new coach Ken Wilson has coached to a 2-2 record this year. Our 4-0 Wolf Pack fantasy with Norvell in charge is based on the likely assumption that the roster would look vastly different right now if Coach Grit were still in town.
Clay Millen would be the Pack quarterback right now. He would be throwing to Tory Horton, Melquan Stovall, Justus Ross-Simmons and also likely to Elijah Cooks, Charles Ross and Justin Lockhart. And they would be in the Air Raid offense under offensive coordinator Matt Mumme. Millen, Horton, Stovall and Ross-Simmons went with Norvell from Nevada to Colorado State. Cooks, Ross and Lockhart bolted for San Jose State when the Pack exodus took place. Horton has 20 catches for 300 yards and four scores right now, in just three games. Millen has thrown for 605 yards and five scores. Stick all of the above in Nevada where they belong, playing in the Air Raid and, yes, 4-0 would have been a definite possibility for the Pack right now.
The Wolf Pack offense right now is lost in some Iowa cornfield in the rain. The only thing that kept anyone awake last Saturday night watching the Pack offense in the 27-0 loss to Iowa was the crackle of lightning. Who is the Pack quarterback after four games? Shane Illingworth or Nate Cox or some hybrid named Shate Illingcox or Nane Coxworth? Take your pick. Neither one seems to make much difference.
Only one Pack receiver (Jamaal Bell, with 17) has more than eight catches. And he’s averaging a whopping 6.8 yards a catch. The Pack is averaging 3.2 yards per rush, converts 35 percent of its third downs, has two touchdown passes and has allowed 13 sacks. They all play with the confidence of a stray cat somehow trapped on the ice in an NHL game.
The Pack is averaging 26 points a game, which is impressive considering it never looks like they are actually trying to score. But those 26 points a game have primarily been accomplished on the strength of a defense that has forced 11 turnovers (think some guy being born on third base and thinking he just hit a triple). That, for the most part, is the Pack offense right now. The first four games failed to establish much of anything (consistency, production, explosiveness, hope, promise, a stable offensive line, a starting quarterback, etc.) on offense. There’s been some signs of life, to be sure. But the Pack offense is like your 92-year-old uncle. One minute he’s yelling for the television remote and the next 30 minutes he’s asleep in his chair.
None of the above suggests that the Wolf Pack will not beat Norvell’s Rams on Oct. 7 at Mackay Stadium. The opposite, in fact, is more likely to happen if the Pack indeed somehow finds some offense before then. Norvell’s Rams, like all Norvell teams, also have their glaring issues. The Rams’ defense can’t stop anybody and their offensive line can’t block anybody (an alarming 23 sacks in three games). Sound familiar, Pack fans?
Norvell and his Air Raid offense, though, will likely get a little bit better each week. Some weeks they might got a lot better. Throw enough garbage against the wall, after all, some will eventually stick. A lot of the Rams’ struggles this year, don’t forget, is because two of their three games have come at Michigan and Washington State. Iowa likely loses both of those games, too. There is no Power Five defense on Colorado State’s schedule the rest of the year.
You have to wonder if Norvell is regretting his hasty decision to leave Nevada last December for Colorado State simply for a fatter paycheck. Why didn’t he wait for a better opportunity and not run off on a lateral move in the middle of the night just because he was offered plusher carpeting in his office, a few more suites in the stadium and a better sound system in the weight room?
It’s doubtful Norvell regrets leaving Nevada. He never seemed happy here and, obviously, couldn’t wait to escape. But he might regret not being more patient and waiting for a true promotion. Two jobs have already opened up this year (Nebraska and Arizona State) that would fit that description. Those are two places, after all, he’s already coached. If Norvell was 4-0 right now and in Nevada you can bet he would have reached out to both by now. And one of the two might have already hired him or at least told him to hold tight until late November.
The Mountain West’s struggles against Power Five opponents continued this past weekend as Iowa whipped Nevada, Washington State pounded Colorado State, USC snapped Fresno State in two and Utah pummeled San Diego State. That brings the Mountain West’s record against Power Five schools to 1-14 this season, with Air Force’s win over a bad Colorado team a couple of weeks ago the only source of pride. The average score of those 15 massacres is 40-12. In 12 of the 15 games, the Mountain West team scored 17 or fewer points.
This is the reason why the Power Five schools aren’t all that supportive about allowing anyone else into their College Football Playoff party. Major League Baseball doesn’t allow the Triple-A champ into its playoffs, right? It’s time to give the Power Five schools their own division (or at least make it official) and give the rest of the FBS schools their own playoff.
The Wolf Pack’s 27-0 loss at Iowa was bad enough. But at least the Pack isn’t Fresno State right now. Fresno State, like Nevada, also went on the road to go pick up a big, fat paycheck from a Power Five school last weekend. The Bulldogs went to USC and were obliterated 45-17, just one point worse than Iowa buried the Pack.
But Fresno State paid a much steeper price. Bulldogs starting quarterback Jake Haener, arguably the Mountain West’s best offensive player, went down with a seriously sprained ankle. The Bulldogs also lost safety Evan Williams to a knee injury. Haener is expected to return eventually but Williams’ return is questionable. The Bulldogs are now in survival mode until Haener comes back. So, Pack fans, if you were looking for some good news out of last Saturday, this is it. The Pack quarterback, whether it is Shate Illingcox or Nane Coxworth, still has four good ankles.
The Wolf Pack football team can still accomplish all of its reasonable goals this year. Iowa didn’t destroy this Pack season at all. In fact, it might have been the wake-up call the Pack needed. Yes, a national championship is likely out of reach, but four more victories and a bowl game is still right there for the taking. Right now, those four victories appear most likely to come against Colorado State at home and Hawaii, San Jose State and UNLV on the road. The other four Mountain West games (Air Force away this Friday and San Diego State, Boise State and Fresno State at home) appear to be tougher tests right now but none of those teams is winning a national championship, either.
As we’ve said the last eight or nine months, this season is all about patience, understanding and keeping the faith. Remember that now, more than ever.


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