Mackay Stadium was a haunted house on Saturday
For the Nevada Appeal
Blame it on Halloween weekend.
Blame it on a lifeless, chilly vacuum of an atmosphere at Mackay Stadium that more closely resembled Meadowood Mall on Christmas morning than a festive college football game.
Blame it on having two excruciating, boring, humdrum weeks (thank you, bye week!) to overthink a game.
Blame it on anything you want. It was just a creepy Jack O’ Lantern evening of wild, weird stuff last Saturday at Mackay Stadium which, for one night at least, was Zomboo’s House of Horror Movies.
Weird, though, doesn’t really even begin to describe what went on during the Pack’s 56-42 victory over Utah State. The contest had sort of an unnatural, otherworldly, eerie, bizarre feel to it. And it kept getting more strange and peculiar as the night progressed.
It started with senior running back Vai Taua in uniform and pads on the bench. And that’s where he stayed the whole night. We came to the stadium expecting to see the Beatles and we got the Rutles.
“He could have played and he could have played well,” said Pack coach Chris Ault of Taua, who has been nursing an ankle injury.
Why throw away an entire game for one of the best running backs in school history during his senior year when he could have played? Why give Pack fans Lampford Mark, Nick Hale, Mike Ball and Courtney Randall when Taua was on the sidelines ready and, we’ll assume, willing to play? Isn’t that sort of like allowing Ringo Starr sing “Let It Be” while Paul McCartney stands just off stage drinking a diet soda?
The message that Ault sent Saturday night, though, was that this game was nothing more than a glorified Silver and Blue scrimmage. There were only 11,558 fans in the stands, don’t forget. All that was missing was the tent sale of old Wolf Pack sweat socks, the free lunch provided by the good folks at Bully’s and the Easter Egg hunt for the kids.
The scrimmage feel to Saturday’s weirdness, though, really kicked in during the Pack’s second possession of the night.
The Rutles did a great job of getting the Pack into the end zone on the first possession for a 7-0 lead. OK, fine. It was the Utah State defense we’re talking about here. It’s OK if Ringo sings a few songs. Half the Western Athletic Conference schedule, after all, is really nothing more than a controlled scrimmage anyway.
We get it.
And now quarterback Colin Kaepernick was about to make it 14-0, moving the Pack from his own 30 down to the Utah State 29 faster than you can say Nick Hale. The next thing we saw, though, was Kaepernick going to the sideline to talk to his head coach. And, before we even knew what was going on, Tyler Lantrip was under center.
Yes, the same Tyler Lantrip who had played in just 11 of 33 games over the past two-plus seasons and thrown 16 meaningless, get-this-game-over-with passes as Kaepernick’s chauffeur.
Yes, that Tyler Lantrip.
But there was Lantrip, on the field in a 7-0 game, a WAC game, in the first quarter, no less. Where was Kaepernick? Was he hurt? Well, other than his feelings, no. The ESPNU cameras, as Lantrip was leading the Pack into the end zone, were showing Ault “coaching” his star quarterback using language that no trick-or-treater should ever hear on prime time television.
Ault didn’t even bench Kaepernick two weeks ago in Hawaii when he was seemingly giving the ball away every other play. Now is the time you pick to send a message to your Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, the guy who gave your Pistol offense life?
You bench him now? In front of the home crowd, the 11,558 brave and loyal silver and blue souls who ventured out into the cold night to watch your football team when most everyone else in northern Nevada stayed home? This is how you reward their loyalty?
With Tyler Lantrip and the rest of the cast of the Rutles?
Well, like most everything Ault tried on this strange Saturday night, it worked well enough. It was as if Ault kept handing out apples and fresh fruit to the kids on Halloween and none of them egged his house or tossed a roll of Charmin up into his trees. He could do no wrong. We never did find Rod Serling standing off in a dark corner of Mackay Stadium smoking a cigarette and talking into the ESPNU cameras but we’re positive he was there.
Lantrip played 11 plays as Kaepernick studied the Utah State defense (Isn’t that like studying a ShamWow infomercial for deeper meaning?) and led the Pack to two touchdowns. He scored on a comical 13-yard run on a busted play as he turned the opposite direction from one of the Rutles on an apparent handoff. Was that Kaepernick wearing his Tyler Lantrip costume weaving his way into the end zone? No, it was really Tyler “Crazy Legs” Lantrip!
Ault then had the audacity to keep Lantrip in the game on the next drive and Lantrip had the audacity to lead his teammates on a 9-play, 49-yard touchdown drive.
When Kaepernick left the game it was 7-0. When he came back in the middle of the second quarter it was 21-0. Maybe fresh fruit is good for you, after all. Hey, WAC football is only two letters short of wacky, you know.
Well, that was fun. Some of the names were changed in the first half to protect the innocent. But the result was what we expected. The Pack led 35-0 at halftime as Utah State’s offense couldn’t get out of its own way and its defense, well, let’s just say it didn’t need studying any longer.
The game was over.
Ault, the Hall of Famer that he is, proved his point. You don’t need a Heisman Trophy quarterback and a star running back to run the Pistol. If that Heisman Trophy QB isn’t listening to you, you pull him in front of the home crowd and send a message. If the star running back keeps limping and complaining about his ankle, you let him watch a game. Nevada backs, don’t forget, don’t get ankle injuries.
That was just Ault wearing his 1976 Chris Ault costume, the Little General proving he’s not so little after all. It’s about the system, baby, not the superstars.
OK, fine. We get it. Now we’re going to restore the sanity in the second half, right?
The weirdness, though, got even more weird.
The few Pack fans that actually stayed for the second half witnessed some wild, weird stuff that was every bit as frightening as any makeshift haunted house you night have ventured into in the neighbor’s garage this weekend.
We saw Nick Hale (yes, Nick Hale!) catch a 20-yard TD pass and carry the ball four times. Make that Nick Hale-elujah! Was that Vai Taua wearing a Nick Hale costume? No, it was really Nick Hale!
We saw the very same Pack defense that wouldn’t allow Utah State to sniff the end zone in the first half, suddenly vanish in the second half. Utah State, a team that had scored a grand total of 37 points in its three WAC games this year, scored 42 in the second half against the Pack. The Pack defense obviously was wearing its 2008 and 2009 costumes.
The second half was like one of those never-ending, black and white Zomboo movies that go on and on and on after all of the jokes and skits (and sixth replay of the local news) were over. It started off as fun and delightfully strange but as the night dragged on you knew you would have just been better off simply dozing off on the couch.
You would think that a second half that featured nine touchdowns and 63 points would be edge-of-the-seat excitement. Instead, it felt as tedious as answering the door every six minutes to hand out candy. And by the end of the night it was as if the trick-or-treaters weren’t even bothering to wear costumes.
Costume-less trick-or-treaters, though, were fitting since the Pack defense (and special teams) were like the neighbors who just gave up on Halloween night. They merely put a bowl of candy on the front porch, inserted a little note that read “Take two and Happy Halloween!” and simply went out to a movie.
And Utah State kept taking and taking. They scored even when they didn’t even think of scoring, like on a surreal 92-yard kickoff return in the final minute. And, by the end of the night, like all self-respecting ghouls and goblins who walk up to a porch only to find a bowl with two sticky Snickers bar wrappers, a ripped up note and no candy, Utah State almost trashed the Pack house.
The Pack, after the game, didn’t know whether to smile or cry.
“It was quiet,” said cornerback Doyle Miller, describing the atmosphere in the locker room.
Here was a game in which the Pack scored a season-high 56 points, a game that they never really were in jeopardy of losing despite all of the strange goings on, a game that kept alive hopes of a WAC title and a Top 25 ranking, and the Pack wanted to throw it back in the lake as if it was an old sneaker dangling off their hook.
It should have been a time to smile. The Pack, though, seemed to feel ashamed of what just happened, like they were the creepy 26-year-old down the block who walks around on Halloween night with a pillowcase and a flashlight.
There simply shouldn’t have been so much drama. It should have been one of those easy, breezy WAC wins. Instead, we almost got Nightmare on Ault Street.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Ault said.
Just stop scaring us like that.