Santoro: Wolf Pack’s not-so-secret weapon is Matt Lubick

Oregon receivers coordinator Matt Lubick talks with reporters during media day for the CFP championship game in 2015. Lubick will be in charge of the Nevada offense this season.

Oregon receivers coordinator Matt Lubick talks with reporters during media day for the CFP championship game in 2015. Lubick will be in charge of the Nevada offense this season.
Tony Gutierrez | AP

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Sports Fodder:

The biggest reason for hope with the Nevada Wolf Pack football team this fall is not new head coach Jeff Choate. The Pack has had defensive coaches and special teams coaches trying to masquerade as head coaches before. See, in recent years, Ken Wilson, Brian Polian and Chris Tormey.

The reason for hope is also not quarterback Chubba Purdy. The Pack has had Power Five quarterback transfers in recent years who showed us all why that Power Five school didn't want them anymore. See Brendon Lewis, Shane Illingworth, Malik Henry and David Cornwell.

The reason for hope is also not a revamped roster. The Pack has revamped its roster countless times before with little success.

All of those things (Choate, Purdy, a giant influx of new talent) might all play a significant role in any success the Pack has this fall in turning around a program that went 2-10 in each of the last two seasons. But if you are looking for the one reason why this Pack program could head back in the right direction starting Aug. 24 when SMU comes to Mackay Stadium, look no further than offensive coordinator Matt Lubick.

Lubick might turn out to be the best assistant coach hire in the Mountain West this offseason. Choate, it seems, has hired numerous quality coaches since he took over the program in early December. Yes, the vast majority of them are all his buddies from various points along his coaching journey. But all of them, at least on paper, have earned their current title at Nevada and are much more than the first guy Choate found on his speed dial.

The Wolf Pack is extremely fortunate to have Lubick, a guy whose resume suggests he also would be right at home in Choate's job. The 52-year-old Lubick, maybe more than any other assistant Choate hired, could have the most impact on this Pack roster and season.

Lubick, the son of legendary Colorado State head coach Sonny Lubick, has been an offensive coordinator at Nebraska, Washington and Oregon. He's been an assistant, primarily coaching wide receivers and defensive backs, at San Jose State, Oregon State, Colorado State, Arizona State and Duke. The last two seasons he was a senior analyst at Kansas.

He now steps into likely his most challenging and difficult on-field job of his career at Nevada. He has to revitalize arguably the worst offensive team in the nation among the 130 Division FBS programs, an offense that was last in the Mountain West in practically every meaningful category (points, touchdowns, passing yards, passing touchdowns, first downs and third-down percentage). The Pack was also among the 20 worst teams in the nation in sacks allowed, tackles for loss allowed, and turnovers lost.

Why would any coach, let alone one with nearly 30 years of experience, much of it in Power 5 conferences, want the job of cleaning up that systemic mess? Well, that brings us to what is Lubick's greatest, most challenging and difficult off-field job of his life. Lubick was diagnosed with leukemia last fall.

That, probably more than anything, along with his long-time friendship with Choate (they were teammates at Western Montana in the early 1990s) is why Lubick is at Nevada now. He should be guiding a Power 5 offense right now. He could be running his own program as a head coach. But reality has led him to Nevada with the job of building a legitimate offense from the ground up.

Lubick, who ran a marathon while hooked up to an IV machine only a few weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia, is certainly an inspiration. If you can't play hard for someone like Lubick, well, you might need to move on from football. If Lubick attacks the challenge of bringing the Pack offense back to life half as vigorously as he has attacked leukemia, you can be sure the Pack will be back to respectability this fall.

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Lubick helped revitalize Kansas' offense the last two years from almost 700 miles away while living in Colorado. He tirelessly watched film at home in Colorado and spent countless hours on Zoom advising the Kansas coaches. He even continued his film study and advisor role at Kansas after undergoing chemotherapy treatments last fall.

If anyone can tackle the problem that is the Wolf Pack offense, it is Lubick. And, yes, it is a clear problem that has left the program in tatters, losers of 21 of their last 25 games since head coach Jay Norvell abandoned the Pack after the final regular season game in 2021.

It is, in a way, fitting that Lubick has been given the keys to the Pack offense finally, after Norvell basically took the Pack offense (most of the offensive coaches and many key players on the offense) with him to Colorado State. It was Colorado State, after all, where Lubick's father Sonny became a college coaching legend from 1993-2007. The field on which Norvell now coaches his home games is named Sonny Lubick Field.

Matt Lubick could very well be Colorado State's head coach right now and not Norvell. Lubick did interview and was a top candidate for the Montana State head coaching job after the 2020 season when Choate left for Texas. Sonny Lubick, after all, had coached at Montana State for more than a decade.

Everything, it seems, is all connected when it comes to college football coaching hires and where they end up coaching. Hardly anything happens by accident unless, of course, you consider Norvell at Colorado State. But Colorado State has rarely gotten its head coaching position right since Sonny left the job, much like Nevada since Chris Ault left

Lubick at Nevada, helping the program recover and finally move on from Norvell, makes perfect sense. It's about time Colorado State gave the Pack something back after pilfering Norvell and players in the middle of the night. It is also more than fitting, after all, that a guy named Lubick will help the Pack beat Norvell and Colorado State this Nov. 2 at Mackay Stadium.

Even Sonny, who began his coaching career at Beatty High School in Nevada more than six decades ago, might get a kick out of that.

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Norvell's Colorado State Rams, though, might have the best quarterback in the Mountain West this season. Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi, who committed to Nevada and Norvell in the summer of 2021 before defecting to Colorado State with Norvell in December 2021, was the best quarterback in the conference last year, averaging 288.3 yards a game.

Fowler-Nicolosi still has wide receiver Tory Horton with the Rams, another ex-Pack player. Horton, who had ideas of jumping to the NFL last spring, has caught 167 passes (mainly from Fowler-Nicolosi) for 2,267 yards and 16 touchdowns the last two years, is also the top returning wide receiver in the Mountain West.

Norvell said recently that Fowler-Nicolosi turned down a NIL offer of $600,000 from another school after the 2023 season to remain at Colorado State.

"I was raised that loyalty was the most important thing," Fowler-Nicolosi said recently.

Stop laughing, Wolf Pack fans.

Loyalty, in this day and age of college football is not between a player and his school. It is between a player and the coaches that believe in him and will play him. For Fowler-Nicolosi, that loyalty has always been between him and Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme. Fowler-Nicolosi (and Norvell and Mumme) never had any loyalty to Northern Nevada. For all we know, when Fowler-Nicolosi committed to the Wolf Pack he might have thought he was going to play college football in Las Vegas.

All that matters now for the Wolf Pack is that Lubick finds a quarterback who will be able to compete with Norvell, Mumme and Fowler-Nicolosi this Nov. 2 on Chris Ault Field. You remember Ault, don't you? He's the guy who lost to Sonny Lubick 42-21 at Fort Collins, Colo., in 2005 and beat him 28-10 in Reno in 2006 before their names were spray-painted on their respective fields.

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Wolf Pack quarterback Brendon Lewis is one of six quarterbacks among the Top 10 in passing yards in the Mountain West last season who are returning for 2024.

The other four either took more NIL money elsewhere (UNLV's Jayden Maiava is now at USC while Boise State's Taylen Green is at Arkansas) or saw their eligibility (Wyoming's Andrew Peasley and San Jose State's Chevan Cordeiro) finally run out (a difficult thing in the COVID-19 era).

Lewis certainly wasn't spectacular in 2023 and it would make perfect sense for Matt Lubick and Choate to move on with their own quarterback (namely Chubba Purdy) this season. The Pack offense the last two seasons under head coach Ken Wilson and offensive coordinator Derek Sage, after all, produced just 13 passing touchdowns and 20 interceptions combined with starting quarterbacks Lewis, A.J. Bianco (also still on the roster), Shane Illingworth and Nate Cox (the guy Norvell left at Nevada after the 2021 season).

But Lewis, who also ran for 495 yards and four touchdowns last year, is experienced, tough and competitive and won't just step aside for Purdy. He's the type of quarterback Choate had at Montana State.

But this isn't the Big Sky Conference. Quarterbacks like Lewis, limited through the air who rely on their feet too much, tend to struggle far too often in the FBS.

Norvell, Colorado State and other Mountain West schools will try to shred the Pack with NFL-type offenses this season. You remember that type of offense don't you, Pack fans? It's the one that averages 30-plus points and 450 or so yards each game. Yeah, that one. The one that gives you a fighting chance to win each and every game.

That's Lubick's task this season, one that he is more than capable of handling.

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UNLV, it seems, has joined Boise State as the face of Mountain West football.

The Rebels went 9-5 last season, losing to Boise State in the conference title game. They also lost to Lubick and Kansas, 49-36, in the Guaranteed Rate bowl game in Phoenix the day after Christmas.

UNLV this year will have 11 of its 12 regular season games on national TV (that used to mean CBS, ABC and NBC, but now means ESPN, FS1, CBS Sports Network). Even more meaningful is that UNLV has been thrown into the deep end of the Mountain West's Friday night national TV rotation that was normally dominated by Boise State.

The Rebels will play a school-record five Friday night games this year, against Kansas (Sept. 13), Syracuse (Oct. 4), Utah State (Oct. 11), Boise State (Oct. 25) and San Jose State (Nov. 22). Last year, for example, the Rebels played just one Friday night game (against Wyoming on Nov. 10), three in 2022, four in 2021, two in 2020, one in both 2019 and 2018, two in 2017, one in 2016 and 2015, two in 2014 and none in 2013.

UNLV plays more Friday games this year than Boise State (three).      

•••

The Wolf Pack football season is just two months away (Aug. 24 against SMU).

The last time SMU came to Mackay Stadium was Sept. 27, 2003, a defensive-oriented 12-9 Wolf Pack victory in just the second night game at the new Mackay Stadium, which debuted in 1966. Wolf Pack linebacker Logan Carter had the game of his life, returning an interception 40 yards for a touchdown and blocking an SMU extra point with 2:24 to play. The Pack defense also had six sacks and two interceptions.

Pack quarterback Andy Heiser was 11-of-25 for 96 yards and two interceptions. A 28-yard field goal by Damon Fine with 73 seconds to play produced the game-winning points.

So, you know, who needs offense anyway?

The Wolf Pack is 3-3 in its all-time series with SMU, with all of the games being played from 2000 to 2009. Head coach Chris Tormey was 3-1 against SMU while Chris Ault was 0-2.

So, you know, maybe the Wolf Pack should consider changing the name on the field from Chris Ault Field to Chris Tormey Field for the Aug. 24 meeting. Just a suggestion.

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