Joe Santoro: How good (or bad) is the Nevada Wolf Pack? | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: How good (or bad) is the Nevada Wolf Pack?

Joe Santoro

Where, exactly, does the Nevada Wolf Pack stand in the world of college football? There are some (like the Oregon Ducks) that suggest the Wolf Pack is simply a glorified Big Sky Conference team with a better television deal. The Wolf Pack, after all, has sat at the big boys’ table of college football since 1992 but has rarely joined in the conversation with the real movers and shakers. We all got an ugly reminder last Saturday in Eugene, Ore., that the difference between the Wolf Pack and the elite teams in Division I-A is much greater than the difference between the Pack and its former Big Sky brothers. That is why this Saturday’s matchup against the Big Sky’s Weber State Wildcats leaves everyone in Northern Nevada who was around in the early 1990s a bit uneasy. Yes, the Wolf Pack should win by three touchdowns. But they also should have steamrolled the Wildcats three times from 1991-93 and the Pack lost two of those games (1992, 1993) and needed a miraculous 35-point comeback to win the other. We will find out on Saturday whether nearly three decades of eating at the big boys’ table has changed anything at Nevada.

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How good or bad is this Wolf Pack football team? The answer to that question is a little of both. Unfortunately, the 34-31 comeback win over Purdue and the 77-6 loss at Oregon hasn’t shown us much of anything of value. Beating Purdue at home and losing at Oregon, well, a lot of teams in the nation would do the same. And we might not find out anything important the next two weeks as the schedule softens up considerably against Weber State and UTEP. The key for the Pack all along over the first four weeks was to get ready for the Mountain West opener against Hawaii on Sept. 28 at Mackay Stadium. The next two weeks have one purpose, to build the Wolf Pack’s confidence.

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The Wolf Pack hasn’t been able to run the ball (3.0 per carry), it hasn’t been able to stop the forward pass (61 completions, 825 yards, 11 touchdowns in two games), it has been awful on third down (8-of-34), it has committed too many penalties (20) and the quarterback has gone from Carson Strong (295 yards three touchdowns against Purdue) to Carson Weakling (89 yards, no scores, two interceptions against Oregon) seemingly from one pass to the next. The next two weeks is the time to get all of those numbers trending in the right direction.

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Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell is no stranger to giving up 70 or more points in a game. It happened Saturday in Oregon and it happened three times during his long (1989-2016) assistant coaching career. Norvell’s Nebraska Cornhuskers lost to Texas Tech 70-10 in 2004 and his Iowa State Cyclones lost 73-14 at Nebraska in 1995 and 77-14 at Nebraska in 1997. The 71-point loss at Oregon, though, is the biggest of his playing (1982-85 at Iowa and 1987 Chicago Bears) or coaching career.

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The Mountain West has had a solid start to this season. The conference has won 15-of-22 games so far with six of the victories coming against Power Five schools. This weekend, though, is the biggest test for the Rodney Dangerfield Conference that gets no respect. New Mexico is at Notre Dame (the Lobos obviously need the money more than victories), Air Force is at Colorado, UNLV is at Northwestern, Hawaii is at Washington and Colorado State is at Arkansas. The Mountain West could very well lose all five of those games, though Air Force and Colorado State have a puncher’s chance at stealing a win.

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UNLV, however, is already in panic mode. The Rebels opened the season with a meaningless 56-23 win over Southern Utah of the Big Sky two weeks ago and followed that up by getting embarrassed 43-17 at home by Arkansas State, the team that handed the Pack an ugly 16-13 Arizona Bowl win last season. UNLV coach Tony Sanchez, still employed for some reason, also seems to be feeling the heat. Sanchez put his quarterback (Armani Rogers) on the hot seat after the loss to Arkansas State, saying, “I know when a quarterback struggles to find himself you’ve got to help him out a little but there were too many balls below the guys’ knees. The thing that really frustrates me is the accuracy. We’ve got to find some rhythm in the passing game. We can’t just rely on handing the ball off over and over and over.”

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The Wolf Pack, for the most part, has done its best to keep Sanchez employed as the Rebels’ head coach, losing to the glorified high school coach twice in four meetings since 2015. Sanchez, who was 85-5 with six state titles in six seasons as Bishop Gorman’s coach, is 17-33 at UNLV. More than 40 percent of his victories (seven of 17) have come against either Division I-AA teams (five) or the Pack (two). Half (five) of Sanchez’s other 10 wins have come against teams that won three or fewer games in the season they lost to the Rebels. UNLV football, never a priority down south, is in jeopardy of disappearing altogether with the coming of the NFL’s Raiders next year. It might finally be win-or-else time for Sanchez.

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The Zendejas family keeps churning out great kickers. Cristian Zendejas, a sophomore, has booted seven field goals already this season for the Arizona State Sun Devils. Zendejas’ father is former Sun Devils’ kicker Luis Zendejas (1980-84) and Luis is the brother of former Wolf Pack kickers (Tony Zendejas, 1981-83, and Marty Zendejas, 1984-87). Tony is second in the Wolf Pack record book behind his brother Marty in career field goals (72-70). Tony is also third in kick scoring (300 points) behind Marty (385) and Brett Jaekle (361).