Santoro: Wins should be coming for loyal Pack fans

Pack running back Sean Dollars carried 19 times against UNLV on Saturday.

Pack running back Sean Dollars carried 19 times against UNLV on Saturday.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

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Sports Fodder:

Nevada Wolf Pack football fans have not abandoned their struggling football team. If you are looking for something positive in a sea of 16 consecutive losses, then look no further than the fan base. The support Northern Nevada gave its college football team on Saturday was impressive considering the team has not won a game in over 13 months. A crowd of 24,578 showed up at Mackay Stadium to see the winless Wolf Pack (now 0-6) take on the UNLV Rebels. That’s more people than 2019 (16,683), 2017 (17,359), 2009 (24,078), 2005 (23,457), 2001 (24,238), 1999 (23,490), 1991 (24,123) and every year before that (because the stadium was smaller) to show up at Mackay to see the Fremont Cannon game. We are well aware that many of those 24,578 fans on Saturday were disguised as UNLV fans or empty seats. But you still love the Wolf Pack, don’t you? Not even a 15-game losing streak heading into Saturday, a red Fremont Cannon and a bunch of cocky UNLV Rebel football players could keep you away. Take a bow, Pack fans. You, right now, are the best part of this sad era of Pack football. We admire your courage and loyalty. You are not only still wearing your Wolf Pack shirts and hats out in public (a brave act, to be sure), you are still buying tickets and going to the stadium.

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The loyalty and bravery shown by Pack fans last weekend might be rewarded sooner than you might think. The good news is that we might have already witnessed the lowest point of this dreadful losing streak. Yes, of course, the losing streak can still grow. But whether the losing streak reaches 17 this Saturday at San Diego State or not and continues to grow, well, that doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s just a number. What matters is that Saturday’s 45-27 loss to UNLV at home is about as low at it can get. The Pack can’t lose to UNLV at Mackay Stadium until at least 2025. Imagine that. What we saw on Saturday can’t possibly happen for another two years. Yes, of course, the losing streak might be in the 30s or 40s by then, but at least we won’t have to watch UNLV strut off the Mackay turf with a red cannon in the meantime. It’s all blue skies and happy thoughts from here on out, Pack fans. 

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The victories are coming. The first one might even come this Saturday in San Diego against a truly mediocre Aztec team that is just 3-4 and has its own share of problems. After that the Pack will host New Mexico (2-4) and Hawaii (2-5) at Mackay Stadium. Two or three victories over the next three weeks is not impossible. It won’t even take an amazing effort by the Pack. Beating a mediocre team and two truly awful teams is the beauty of playing in the Mountain West. You just have to keep paying attention and the wins will come. The losing streak will likely come to an end sometime during the next three weeks. Then again, if the Pack can’t beat Hawaii or New Mexico at home, well, we might be looking at a 22-game losing streak heading into 2024. But we won’t think about that for now.

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A losing streak doesn’t truly start to reach embarrassing levels in college football until it hits 20 or more. That’s when the national media, boosters and even lazy, clueless athletic directors start to take notice. This little 16-game slide the Pack is stuck in is just an unlucky 13-month stretch. It can happen to anyone. Northwestern, after all, lost 34 in a row from 1979-82. Kansas State lost 28 in a row in the 1940s. Future Mountain West members Colorado State (26 in a row from 1960-63) and New Mexico (20 straight from 1967-69) each have reached 20. Prairie View A&M once lost 80 in a row from 1991-97. Now that’s a bad decade. Columbia lost 44 in a row from 1983-88. Even Florida State lost 20 straight from 1972-74. So, the Pack isn’t breaking new ground just yet. It’s simply breaking new Wolf Pack ground. Nobody cares about Wolf Pack ground except the 24,000-plus that showed up at Mackay. Right now, this 16-game nightmare is simply our little secret. If the streak hits 22 by season’s end, though, it will become a national embarrassment.

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At what point will the Wolf Pack move on from head coach Ken Wilson if the losing continues? What if Wilson takes a 22-game losing streak into the 2024 season? Is that enough of a red flag that maybe, just maybe, he’s not the answer? Do Wolf Pack fans care enough about the program to demand a coach gets fired or have they just accepted the fact that their football team has now turned into Northwestern and Columbia in the 1980s? Maybe the 24,578 we saw on Saturday at Mackay was just Pack fans’ way of saying good-bye to Wilson. We’d like to think it was still a public showing of support, a sign that the community hasn’t given up on the program. That support, though, will likely vanish if the Pack shows it can’t even beat New Mexico or Hawaii at home.

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One of the biggest mysteries so far during Wilson’s 18-game head coaching career at Nevada is why he didn’t bring back the Pistol offense. What an honor that would have been for his mentor Chris Ault. The only thing left of Ault’s time at Nevada is his name on the field and Wilson on the sideline. The Pistol scoring touchdowns once again at Mackay would have been perfect. Think of it. Wilson would have had Ault just a phone call away when he needed help with the Pistol. Wilson also brought Jim Mastro with him to Reno last year, the guy who helped Ault invent the Pistol. Mastro, arguably the best coach now working for the program, is the Pack’s Director of Football Administration and Operations. He would better serve the program as offensive coordinator in charge of bringing the Pistol back where it belongs. The Pistol works at Nevada. We saw it. There’s no denying it. It made stars out of running backs like Vai Taua, Luke Lippincott, Robert Hubbard, B.J. Mitchell, Stefphon Jefferson and Lampford Mark. It turned mediocre offensive linemen into all-conference players and good offensive linemen into NFL players. It’s perfect for a mid-major program that can’t recruit against Power Five programs. You just have to find hard-working players who can read and obey a playbook. The Pack even has a fleet-footed, strong-armed quarterback right now (Brendon Lewis) who would be perfect for the Pistol. We understood why Brian Polian abandoned the Pistol a few years after taking over for Ault. And we had no problem with Jay Norvell hiring Matt Mumme and going with the pass-happy Air Raid. But Wilson is a defensive coach. He has no offense of his own. He wouldn’t have had a coaching career if not for Ault. The Pistol playbook, which Ault and Mastro perfected, was waiting for him in Reno. He needs to pick it up, dust it off and read it. Wilson talked about restoring Pack pride and traditions when he got the job in December 2021. The Pistol would have been the perfect way to do just that.

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Wilson is not the only head coach on the hot seat in the Mountain West. New Mexico’s Danny Gonzales is now 9-28 and in his fourth season and Hawaii’s Timmy Chang is 5-15 and in his second year. Wilson is No. 2 and Gonzales is No. 3 on coacheshotseat.com’s list of the coaches currently sitting on the hottest seats in the nation. No. 1 is Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, who actually coaches a team for an athletic department trying to win football games. Gonzales, Chang and Wilson aren’t the only Mountain West coaches starting to feel the heat. San Diego State’s Brady Hoke is now just 10-10 over the last two seasons. Boise State, under Andy Avalos, has now lost four or more games for three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1996-98 when Tim Mason, Houston Nutt and Dirk Koetter took turns losing. Those were the first three years for Boise State in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Before Avalos took over in 2021, the Broncos had lost as many as four games just three times in their previous 19 (2002-20) seasons.

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