Joe Santoro: 20 reasons to be excited about 2021 Nevada Wolf Pack
Twenty things to be excited about for the Nevada Wolf Pack football team as we say good riddance to 2020:
20. There will be fans in the stands in 2021. Keep your fingers crossed and nose and mouth covered. The Wolf Pack averaged 150 fans for each of its four home games in 2020, which is only slightly smaller than the typical crowd in coach Jay Norvell’s first three seasons. But the lack of energy, emotion and adrenaline rush at Pack home games sapped the life out of the season.
19. The Wolf Pack picked the right year to have success. There have been some seasons in Wolf Pack history when most everyone wanted half the seniors to disappear by Nevada Day. That wasn’t the case this year, especially for productive seniors like Lawson Hall, Sam Hammond, Jermaine Ledbetter, Tyler Orsini and others. All of the 2020 seniors could decide to return in 2021 because the NCAA has decided that everybody, whether you were good or bad, gets a little sump’n out of a pandemic season.
18. Pack likely won’t lose at home once again in 2021. The Wolf Pack swept its four home games in 2020 and has not lost at Mackay since soiling the carpet in the 2019 season finale against UNLV. Next year the home games are against Idaho State, New Mexico State, Hawaii, San Jose State, Air Force and UNLV. If it was 1921 instead of 2021 the Pack head coach would skip those games and leave his assistant in charge, get on a train and go scout the next week’s opponent at Cal, Santa Clara or Stanford. The Pack will likely be favored by one-three touchdowns in each home game in 2021, with or without fans in the stands.
17. The 2021 schedule has meaning. Going 7-2 in 2020 was nice. But it had little significance because the schedule might have been the easiest since Chris Ault’s first two teams in 1976 and 1977 whipped the likes of Willamette, Montana Tech, Simon Fraser, Westminster and Western Montana. That won’t be the case in 2021. If the Pack plays its scheduled road games in 2021 against California, Kansas State, Fresno State, Boise State, San Diego State and Colorado State, and wins at least half of them, it could be one of the most meaningful seasons in school history.
16. The defense should continue to improve. Yes, you’ve heard this one before. This time, though, it might actually happen. The Wolf Pack defense showed marked improvement in 2020 until, of course, it played teams with actual skill on offense. But that was the Pack’s first year under defensive coordinator Brian Ward. Ward had to implement his new defense in a ridiculously trying year with makeshift practices because of the pandemic. Give Ward a normal spring football session as well as a summer camp and we should see a tremendous jump forward by the defense, especially since the roster will likely be filled with seniors.
15. Winning usually breeds more winning at Nevada. The 2020 season was just the 17th in school history that ended five or more games over .500. Great seasons usually happen in bunches at Nevada. The 1994-96 Pack all finished five or more games over .500 as did the 1946-48 and 1976-78 teams. There were back-to-back seasons of five or more games over .500 in 1990 and 1991 and 1985 and 1986. There have been just three stand-alone seasons that ended five or more games above .500, in 2010, 2005 and 1919. But all three of those years were also followed by winning seasons. This year, simply because the seniors don’t have to go get a real job if they don’t want to, more success is all but guaranteed in 2021.
14. Stability at the top. Norvell in 2021 will be just the sixth coach in history to coach five or more seasons at Nevada. The first five were Ray Courtright, Jim Aiken, Dick Trachok, Jerry Scattini and Chris Ault. Three of the first five (all but Courtright, Trachok) turned in a winning season in Year Five and even Courtright (2-3-2) and Trachok (3-3) basically broke even. Coaches are always preaching stability and consistency as two of the basic building blocks to success. Well, here it is.
13. Norvell is building a solid foundation. Norvell has an impressive 22-13 record over the last three years. It is the Pack’s best three consecutive years since the 2009-11 teams were each a combined 28-12 and the 2010-12 teams were 27-13. Norvell might not have a Hall of Fame ceiling as a head coach (we’ll find out the answer to that over the next two years) but his floor is higher than anyone in Pack head coaching history with the exception of Ault. As soon as Norvell starts to sacrifice a little speed and skill in his recruiting classes for some toughness and grit, he will blossom as a head coach.
12. Carson Strong. The junior-to-be quarterback could have been reasons one through 20 on this list. He is that good. But we reserved the No. 12 spot here for the Pack’s brilliant No. 12. Strong passed for 2,858 yards and 27 touchdowns this past season in just nine games. He was intercepted just four times and he completed 70 percent of his passes. You could argue that it is the greatest passing season in Wolf Pack history, given the 27-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the 70 percent completion rate and the fact he compiled those numbers in just nine games. Enjoy the next two years.
11. Romeo Doubs, Cole Turner, Tory Horton, Elijah Cooks (if he returns), Melquan Stovall, Justin Lockhart, Jamaal Bell and any number of freshmen-to-be that Norvell deems fit to join this receiving corps. The Wolf Pack has had a number of talented and deep receiving units in school history. But this might be the most talented and deepest in school history. Norvell came to the Wolf Pack with the reputation of a wide receiver whisperer and, well, he has lived up to his billing.
10. Boise State has fallen back to the Pack. The Broncos won games this past season with special teams, luck and the glare of that silly blue carpet. Coach Bryan Harsin failed to control his program all season long in a pandemic year and had to coach most every game this season with a dozen or more players sitting out because of COVID. And then Harsin, a Boise native and Boise State graduate, immediately jumped ship after the season to become Auburn’s head coach. The Broncos’ confidence is shaken and the program is in a confusing state of limbo right now, maybe for the first time in more than two decades. The time is right for the Pack to seize control of the Mountain West. It’s only a matter of time, after all, before Boise State tests negative for a couple weeks in a row, comes to its senses, hires Kellen Moore as head coach and reels off a dozen or more 10-win seasons.
9. The Union is back. The Wolf Pack offensive line, first dubbed the Union in the 1980s, has struggled in recent years. There have been standout linemen up front, namely Austin Corbett and Joel Bitonio, in recent years but the Union as a whole has had leaks. But we saw the return of the Union in 2020. Guards Jermaine Ledbetter and Nate Brown, center Tyler Orsini and tackles Jacob Gardner and Aaron Frost started each one of the Pack’s nine games, a remarkable achievement especially in a pandemic season. They also kept Strong and running backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee healthy all season long. And they all can come back next year.
8. Pack proved it can win at Boise State. The only significance, albeit a small one, of the 38-27 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl victory over Tulane, was that it happened on Boise State’s blue rug. It was the first time the Pack left Spudville with a victory since 1997. Yes, of course, beating Tulane in Boise is not the same as beating Boise in Boise. But the only other time the Pack has won at Boise (other than this past year and 1997) was 1986, the first year the Broncos’ field turned blue. The Pack can paint it silver and blue in 2021 when it meets Boise in Boise for only the second time since 2013. Start filling the empty Gatorade cooler with French fries now.
7. The Mountain West is up for grabs. Half the teams in the Mountain West can’t send a text and binge watch their favorite show at the same time. That’s nothing new. What is new is that the Mountain West powerhouses are vulnerable. Boise State is no longer the Boise State that Pack fans came to hate and fear the past two decades. San Diego State’s bark has been worse than its bite in recent years. Fresno State hasn’t been the same since Derek Carr and Davante Adams left town. Utah State is a dumpster fire right now. Hawaii, Wyoming, Air Force and Colorado State are never consistent from year to year. Raise your right hand if you think San Jose’s 2020 season was a one-year pandemic fluke. UNLV and New Mexico are just in the conference to make sure everyone else qualifies for a bowl game. The Mountain West is ripe for the Pack’s taking.
6. Confidence. Wolf Pack players and coaches always talk a good game. But it is usually just clichés followed by hollow promises and excuses. But this year you could see the confidence burning through their eyes. OK, yes, maybe it was all the Zoom press conferences. But the confidence shone through brightly just the same. This team, more than any Pack team since 2010, knew it was good. It knew it was unstoppable on offense. And it told anyone who cared to listen. That feeling will be even more intense next year and the year after as long as Strong is firing from the Air Raid shotgun.
5. We could be looking at the best Pack offense in school history. Strong, Doubs, Turner and running backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee could be the best top five skill players on one Pack team. The Pack has had tremendous offenses and skill players down through the years but this group is as talented and experienced as any of them. What makes this group special is that its talent and experience seems to be the perfect combination and blend with its coaching staff. Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme have finally taken the goofy, silly and ludicrous out of their playbook and Strong, Doubs, Taua, Turner and friends can execute anything thrown their way. The flea flicker TD against Tulane was proof of that, just one year after a botched flea flicker cost them the same Potato Bowl game against Ohio. The sky’s the limit for this Pack offense. Next year we could see this team average 38-plus points a game.
4. Mackay will no longer be a mausoleum in 2021. Again, keep your fingers crossed. Boise State became great when opponents could never beat them at home. That home field advantage has lasted two decades now up in Boise. We’ve seen that sort of thing at Nevada in the past but it has never lasted, usually not even for an entire season. Pack fans come out for Pack teams that win almost every week and they come out to see big-name programs. And that’s it. When the Pack is merely good and not great and when the opponent is New Mexico, Utah State, a Big Sky team and Hawaii and not Boise State or Cal, well, the stands are half empty. Not even UNLV and cannon convinced Pack fans to show up in 2017 and 2019. Opponents aren’t afraid to come to Mackay. But that might all change in 2021. If 2020 proved anything, it proved how much we miss watching football up on North Virginia Street.
3. Basketball has been to two Sweet Sixteens and could have been to two or three more. Baseball went to four NCAA regionals from 1994-2000. Both baseball and basketball in the past have been ranked consistently and for long periods of time in the Top 25 nationally. Football, in 2010, has only briefly tasted that sort of national exposure in Division I-A. And it was gone before we could truly enjoy it. It’s time football pulls its weight at the University of Nevada. So go win at Cal and Kansas State in 2021. Get those Top 25 votes. Go pound Boise into its blue turf. Slap Hawaii and San Jose State around for what happened in 2020. Remind UNLV that it will always be a second class citizen in this state. And win the Mountain West. The window of opportunity is now officially open.
2. Motivation. 2020 was fun at times, even if we were reduced to watching it on our favorite device or You Tube highlights. The Pack got a little Top 25 attention and seemed on the verge of something special. But in the end it was just a good year and not great. There were a lot of empty calories. But it was another step of the process toward becoming great. The losses to Hawaii and San Jose State this year will prove to be a good thing for this program in the next couple years. Those losses will keep them lean, mean and hungry. Everyone, coaches included, had a hand in the two heartbreaking losses this year. Hopefully everyone learned their lesson.
1. The Fremont Cannon is blue. There was something good about 2020 after all.