Joe Santoro: Get ready for a 2-year Nevada Wolf Pack football party
Don’t stop believing in this Nevada Wolf Pack football team.
Hold on to the feeling you had before last Friday night, before the Wolf Pack’s dream season melted like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz.
“We could have done it,” said head coach Jay Norvell of a possible Mountain West championship this year. “We should have done it, probably.”
Probably? The team with the best quarterback, best receivers, best offense, best momentum and best league record (5-0) just three weeks ago had Dom Peterson and his 285 pounds standing on a Mountain West championship’s neck. And then the Wolf Pack simply tossed it all away last Friday night in Las Vegas like it was wrapping paper on Christmas morning.
The Pack led 20-7 at halftime and then went to sleep for a long winter’s nap, losing to, of all teams, the San Jose State Spartans, 30-20.
Yes, some will win. Some will lose. Some, it seems, like the Wolf Pack nearly every year, were born to sing the blues.
“It hurts,” Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong said this week, reminding us all that what happens in Vegas can stay with you for a very long time. “It stings. Just thinking about it, it hurts. We blew it. I blew it. There’s no way around it. We had a chance to go to a championship game and we let it slip through our fingers.”
Yeah, well, welcome to the Wolf Pack’s world, young Carson. Life for the Silver and Blue, history reminds us most every year about this time, is not all 65-yard bombs to a wide open Romeo Doubs. Like last Friday night against the spunky Spartans, it usually is a 4-yard pass on 4th-and-five to Melquan Stovall.
“It’s hit everybody hard around here,” Pack head coach Jay Norvell said on Monday. “It’s devastating, to be honest with you.”
In the spirit of honesty, it’s important to remind everyone that it also isn’t anything new. In just the last 40 years (we don’t have enough space here to detail the last 120-plus years of Pack frustration), there have been enough unhappy endings to make a Pack fan stop believing in Santa Claus.
There were the heartbreaking Division I-AA playoff losses at home to Massachusetts, Georgia Southern and Youngstown State. The I-AA national championship loss 30 years ago this week still hits as hard as a Bernard Ellison forearm. There were the losses to UNLV, particularly in 1994, 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2019, that made everyone see red. All of the blowout losses and the near misses against Boise State are etched upon the Pack’s soul. There were the bowl game losses to Bowling Green, Toledo, Arizona and, well, this Wolf Pack holiday movie, it seems, never ends. It goes go on and on and on.
Well, it’s also time to stop it. Grab the remote, hit eject and throw that movie in the trash with last night’s stale pizza crusts. Last Friday night, we’re here to remind you, is not the end of anything for the Wolf Pack, except frustration, heartache and devastation.
It is the beginning of a Pack party. And you know what they say about a Wolf Pack party. A Wolf Pack party don’t stop until Carson Strong graduates.
So, dry your eyes, Pack fans. Get your Wolf Pack jerseys out of the garbage. Delete that e-mail to Chris Ault, begging him to come back one more time as head coach.
The next two years the Strong will indeed survive. And thrive.
“It’s flattering to hear people say we’re doing a good job,” said Norvell, who has been even more flattered by the fact his name has been linked to current head coaching openings in Vanderbilt and Arizona. “But I think we could do more. We have more in our program and more in this football team and we’ll keep pressing until we get it.”
Norvell, currently, will be paid to keep pressing the Pack through the 2024 season. He’s got strong-armed Carson for the next two seasons, the quarterback he always dreamed of to run his let’s-keep-the-wide-receivers-happy offense. Yes, Norvell might be tired of watching Mountain West championships vanish on a cold and damp Friday night in Las Vegas in an outdated and abandoned stadium. He might indeed jump at the first three-year deal from a Power Five school. He will be, after all, 58-years-old in 2021 and Power Five opportunities don’t exactly appear under your Christmas tree every year.
But Norvell is also smart enough to understand that any offers he might get in the coming months will likely pale in comparison to the offers he gets after the Pack dominates the Mountain West the next two years with young Carson and the Wolf Pack’s Traveling Touchdown Show.
Strong was named the Mountain West’s Offensive Player of the Year on Tuesday after throwing for 2,587 yards and 22 touchdowns this season in just 22 games. He, of course, believes he should have around 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns by now but that fire is what makes him worthy of your never-ending Wolf Pack devotion.
Don’t be surprised if by this time two years from now he is the first three-time winner of the Offensive Player of the Year award in Mountain West history. Just Bradlee Van Pelt (Colorado State, 2002-03), Andy Dalton (TCU, 2009-10), Derek Carr (Fresno State, 2012-13) and Donnel Pumphrey (San Diego State, 2015-16) won it two years in a row.
“Our expectations were to go to the Mountain West championship game and win it,” said Strong, the most competitive, confident, mentally fierce and talented Wolf Pack quarterback since Colin Kaepernick. “We fell short of that. That is going to drive us all off-season. I know it will be on my mind as I work out and train every single day.”
Kaepernick used to be motivated and disrespected after he would only get 12 yards on a run. Strong is motivated each time one of his passes doesn’t end up in the end zone. The 2007-09 seasons gave Kaepernick three years of motivation for the 2010 dream season. Strong got three-plus hours of motivation last Friday night to carry him through the next two seasons.
If you liked what you saw out of the Wolf Pack this season (before the start of the second half on Friday, that is), then you will go crazy over what you will see in 2021 and 2022.
Strong will be back and better than ever. Running backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee will be back and more angry than ever. The young and promising offensive line will be back and bigger than ever. The wide receivers will be back and more confident that ever.
Dom Peterson will be back on defense with, hopefully, two strong ankles. Everybody will be back, if they want to come back.
The NCAA is granting every senior this year an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19. It’s sort of an athlete stimulus check.
Why wouldn’t they all come back? Playing college football is a fantasy and an escape from the real world. And nobody wants to be in the real world right now.
Do you think any of the Pack seniors in 1990 and 1991, who lost to Georgia Southern and Youngstown State, don’t dream every single night of getting to play another game, let alone an entire season? What about the seniors who lost to UNLV to end the 1994 season? Losses to Massachusetts in 1978 and Georgia Southern in 1986 also ended perfect seasons and the careers of some amazing Pack players on a low note.
Nobody should have to end their college careers with losses like that. This year’s doesn’t have to.
Yes, we understand that this year’s team has one more game remaining, against Tulane in Boise’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Tuesday. But don’t let anyone in silver and blue fool you this week. A win in Idaho on a Tuesday afternoon against a team from New Orleans is not going to make the loss to San Jose State sting any less. A win over Tulane is not going to earn the Pack a real championship, no matter how many potatoes they can stuff in that silly trophy.
If it does alleviate the pain of last Friday night, well, then this program still needs a lot more growing up to do. Those players who think a Potato Bowl win is just as impressive as beating Boise State in the Mountain West title game need to do everyone a favor and go find a job this summer and not accept the NCAA stimulus check.
Rest assured there won’t be that many Pack players who feel that way. Bowl games, after all, are nothing more than college football’s detox and rehab centers, a place to get your mind right and unwind after a long and trying season. Next year’s Pack, you can be sure, will be as talented, deep, hungry and angry as any in Wolf Pack history.
“This whole team can be real special coming back,” Strong said.
Make no mistake, the Wolf Pack did indeed blow it Friday night. How do you get outscored 23-0 in the second half with that offense? The Pack was up 20-7 at halftime, dominating the Spartans like they’ve done most every year since the rivalry started in 1899. A spot in the title game was already sitting on the Wolf Pack’s plane with its seat belt buckled and mask in place at McCarran International Airport waiting to fly home to Reno.
“There are some guys who are down and disappointed how we ended this season,” linebacker Lawson Hall.
The one who aren’t down and disappointed, well, they should have stayed in Las Vegas where losing is a way of life. Just ask UNLV.
The losing, though, stops here for the Wolf Pack. A two-year Pack party is about to begin.
“We could easily be undefeated right now with a handful of plays going the other way,” Norvell said.
Next year. And the next.