Santoro: Pack’s path to a bowl starts now

Nevada’s defense lines up against Kansas on Sept. 16, 2023 at Mackay Stadium.

Nevada’s defense lines up against Kansas on Sept. 16, 2023 at Mackay Stadium.
Nevada Athletics

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If the Nevada Wolf Pack wants to go to a bowl game this season it likely has to beat the Texas State Bobcats this Saturday in San Marcos, Texas.

Yes, Pack fans, that’s what an 0-3 start that includes a loss to a FCS Division I-AA team (Idaho) can do to your season so soon. It backs you up to the wall, turns out the lights, locks the door, stuffs raw meat in your pockets and sends rabid dogs your way. It also makes what should have been a meaningless non-conference tuneup for the Mountain West season in the middle of September into one of the most important games of the season.

A loss to the Bobcats means the Wolf Pack would have to go 6-2 in its Mountain West season to qualify for a bowl game invitation. Nothing is impossible in the everybody-gets-a-trophy-and-an-orange-slice-and-juice-box Mountain West. But keep in mind that the Wolf Pack has won six Mountain West games in one season just once in 11 seasons. And that was in the pandemic-stained 2020 season when half the teams in the league basically punted on the season for medical reasons.

The Pack was 0-8 in the Mountain West last year. It has lost 10 of its last 11 Mountain West games. A loss to Texas State would leave the Wolf Pack at 0-4 this season and give them a 14-game losing streak. Is that the type of team that could win six-of-eight league games?


The good news for the Wolf Pack is that this might be the softest Mountain West schedule the Pack has been given since it joined the league in 2012. The Wolf Pack doesn’t have to play Boise State, Air Force and San Jose State, three of the most competent teams in a league that never has more than four teams playing well at any one time. The Pack even gets its toughest league game (at Fresno State on Sept. 30) out of the way early. After that its one incompetent, mediocre, flawed football team after another.

Can the Pack win six of its last seven league games and get to a bowl game? Of course not. This is a program that can’t win six-of-seven plays right now, let alone six-of-seven games. But it’s not impossible. This is, remember, the always-forgiving Mountain West. The final seven teams on the Pack schedule right now have a combined record of 9-13. All of them can be beaten on a given Friday or Saturday. Four (UNLV, New Mexico, Hawaii and Wyoming) of the final seven will have to come to Mackay Stadium. If the Pack can’t beat UNLV, New Mexico and Hawaii at home, well, the Pack should party like its 1906 all over again and turn the football team into a rugby team.

Nothing we’ve seen over the last two years, of course, suggests the Pack can win six league games this year, let alone six in a span of seven games. But when coach Ken Wilson tells you in the next week or so that “we still have all our goals in front of us,” what he is really telling you is that he will snap his fingers, clap his hands, pull a rabbit out of his hat and magically transform the Pack from one of the worst teams in the league to one of the best. Go ahead and believe him. Nothing he has ever told you has proven true in the past, of course, but maybe this will be the first. It could happen. It’s the Mountain West, after all, where the world is full of rainbows, sunshine and candy canes for those who believe.


The Wolf Pack has not won a game in 385 days (on Saturday), since a 38-14 win over these same Texas State Bobcats at Mackay Stadium on Sept. 3, 2022. The Pack has gone 0-13 since. When is the last time two consecutive Wolf Pack wins came against the same team? It has happened six times in Pack history.

The first time was Fresno State, in the final game of 1923 and the first game of 1924. The second time was Pacific in the fifth game of 1929 and the fourth game of 1930 (the Pack was 0-2-4 in between). The third time was Chico State in the second game of 1952 and first game of 1953 (just 0-2 in between). The fourth time was Cal State Hayward in the seventh game of 1975 and first game of 1976 (0-4 in between). The fifth time was Idaho State in the 11th game of 1978 and first game of 1979 (just 0-1 in between). The last time it happened was Northern Arizona in the 11th and final game of 1989 and the first game of 1990.

Two wins over the same Texas State team with 13 losses and nearly 400 days in between the victories makes this one of the most unique opportunities in Pack history. Painful, yes. But unique just the same.


The Wolf Pack will win a game this season. The Pack has played 65 seasons that included 10 games or more (this one, barring a pandemic, will be at least 12) and has won at least one game in all of them. Even the 1964 team went 1-9, beating Chico State in the final game of the year. The 1950 team also went 1-9, beating Montana in the final home game. So feel confident that you will be able to throw a parade down Virginia Street at least once this year.

Going into the season yours truly thought this team could win six games this year. Yes, one of those wins was supposed to be against Idaho. So we’re now down to five. Stop laughing. I thought last year’s team could also win six games and it fell four short despite a 2-0 start. I am the world’s biggest Pack homer, right? Can this team win six of its last nine games and make an old sports writer look like he isn’t drinking Wolf Pack Kool Aid?

Two of the wins will likely be at home against Hawaii and New Mexico, two truly awful teams that would struggle to finish .500 in the FCS Big Sky Conference. The other four wins could come against the likes of UNLV and Wyoming at home as well as San Diego State, Colorado State and Utah State on the road. (Notice we’re not suggesting Fresno State on the road as a possible Pack win).

Wyoming and San Diego State, like the Wolf Pack, struggle to score points. Colorado State looked awfully explosive against Colorado last weekend but the Rams stop nobody and Jay Norvell’s Air Raid usually finds a way to gag on its own playbook. UNLV, Hawaii and New Mexico at home and Utah State on the road look like reasonable Pack wins, you know, if Wilson snaps his fingers, claps his hands and pulls four rabbits out of his hat.


Jay Norvell might have finally made a quarterback change that actually works. Remember the Malik Henry, Kaymen Cureton, Cristian Solano disasters at Nevada before Norvell came to his senses and figured out Ty Gangi and Carson Strong were his only legitimate quarterbacks on the roster?

Norvell, now 3-11 as Colorado State’s head coach, switched from Clay Millen to Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi (a couple of former Pack quarterbacks) last week and it paid off in a huge way. Fowler-Nicolosi, whose only other start came in a 17-14 win over the Pack last year, was 34-of-47 for 367 yards and three touchdowns in a 43-35 double-overtime loss to Colorado. It was a good old-fashioned Air Raid shootout, the kind Norvell lives for.

Millen, of course, might feel lied to and cheated right now, the way Pack fans felt after Norvell left in the middle of the night after the 2021 season. Norvell, after all, has to be Norvell. Millen, after all, was groomed as the next great Air Raid quarterback at Nevada after watching Carson Strong 2021 and as Colorado State’s starter last year (10 games). And now he’s back on the bench after completing 184-of-258 (71 percent) for 2,020 yards and 10 touchdowns at Colorado State in just 11 games the last two seasons. Maybe he should jump back in the transfer portal and come back to Nevada.

But Millen shouldn’t worry too much. Norvell always has an itchy trigger finger when it comes to quarterbacks. He loves them only as long as they are getting the ball to his cherished wide receivers. Once they hit a few speed bumps, Norvell will quickly change quarterbacks once again faster than you can say Clay Millen.


If Deion Sanders and Colorado beat Oregon on Saturday, without injured star wide receiver Travis Hunter, the college football world will simply explode. Sanders, a transfer portal genius, has transformed Colorado from one of the worst teams in the nation last year to one of the most exciting, explosive and successful (3-0) this year.

How did he do it so quickly? Well, he’s Deion. He’s the pied piper of college football coaches. He simply opens his mouth and talented players simply flock to him. Deion also brought with him to Colorado his two talented sons. Shedeur Sanders is, arguably, the best quarterback in the nation. So, yes, Colorado fans aren’t upset Brendon Lewis left Colorado after last season to come to Nevada. Safety Shilo Sanders is also a future NFL draft pick.

Sanders, like Norvell when he left Nevada, picked Jackson State’s FCS roster clean of talent (10 players) when he left for Colorado. That’s what coaches can now do in the transfer portal age. They can now rebuild their new roster almost overnight.

Wilson, of course, didn’t do it as quickly at Nevada when he left Oregon. The Pack has had roughly 21 months of nights under Wilson and the roster is still a shell of what it was under Norvell. Sanders, in three games, has more victories (three) than Wilson has (two) in 15 games.


How long will Deion stay at Colorado? Well, he’ll likely never leave until his sons leave. They might both leave after this year. A loss to Oregon will quiet the Deion hysteria a bit this week as will another loss to USC the following week.

If Deion beats both Oregon and USC, well, he’ll likely become NFL commissioner by Christmas and the NCAA will demand that the Heisman Trophy be renamed the Deion Trophy. The trophy’s sculpture will be Deion high-stepping into the end zone with his hands up near his head. There has never been a showman like Deion. He’s ultra confident and can back it up. He’s always backed it up.

Some NFL team is already dreaming of the day it can name Deion as their head coach. There is no transfer portal in the NFL but there are free agents. It will be easier for Deion to build a roster in the NFL. All it takes is money. And Deion always has had money. It will be surprising if Deion coaches more than two or three years at Colorado. College football is not big enough for Deion. Nothing is big enough for Deion.


Full disclosure, I’ve known Deion since he was a freshman at North Fort Myers High School in Florida. I’ve been a Deion fan now for roughly 40 years. As a sophomore Deion got off his high school team bus to yell at me for not interviewing him after a spring football game (yes, football is serious business in Florida). He was polite but firm and, yes, I had to agree with him so I interviewed him. I covered him in high school and also once he went to Florida State. I also covered him in the NFL as a San Francisco 49ers reporter when he was with the Atlanta Falcons, 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.

He’s always been the same way. This is not an act. Deion might be a lot of things. But he is not a fraud. This is simply Deion, always has been. He’s not arrogant, cocky or selfish. He just states facts. He’s also not a bully, mean, spiteful or dishonorable. He’s just extremely confident, motivated, determined, knows what he wants and knows how to get it. He simply lives and breathes success.

When Colorado fails to interest him he will move on to the next success. So, if he wants to do interviews while wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses, well, if you don’t like it then go out and beat him.


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