Joe Santoro: It’s a confidence game for Nevada Wolf Pack | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: It’s a confidence game for Nevada Wolf Pack

Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack's 72-19 paddling of Portland State on Friday night at Mackay Stadium is not certifiable proof this football season will conclude with a parade down Virginia Street.

Whipping a Big Sky Conference team that hasn't won a game in nearly two years doesn't mean the Wolf Pack will win at Vanderbilt on Saturday. It also doesn't mean the Wolf Pack will beat Oregon State, Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State later this season at home.

But it does mean all of those things are indeed possible.

And, that, above all else was the goal on Friday night. You can't win a championship in the first game of the season. But you can leave serious doubt it's even possible. The Pack, for one week at least, erased all that doubt.

But is all the confidence for real? Is it just false bravado brought on by a misleading rout of a bad football team in the season opener? Yes, the Wolf Pack is saying all the right things right now about its confidence. They played with confidence and swagger once the shock of that 9-0 deficit wore off on Friday. But we’ve heard similar words before.

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"It just gives us confidence," Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said.

Confidence is the greatest gift the Wolf Pack can receive right now after a 3-9 knee-to-the-groin season a year ago. Yes, you can beat Portland State without confidence. You can beat Portland State by 53 points even if your team doesn't show up for the first 11 minutes of the game like the Pack inexplicably did on Friday, building a you've-got-to-be-kidding-me 9-0 hole. But you can't win at Vanderbilt or beat Boise State anywhere without the C word.

"It was, for sure, a confidence booster," Wolf Pack sophomore tight end Trevion Armstrong said. "It was something we needed at the start of the season, especially coming off our record last season."

Let's not forget the Wolf Pack had confidence to start the 2017 season. A ton of confidence. The confusing Brian Polian era was finally over, replaced by Norvell, who seemed to immediately bring a sense of seriousness, purpose and order to all things silver and blue.

Norvell also defiantly stated in his first Wolf Pack press conference he wanted to make the Pack the best program in the Mountain West. He was, from the start, the embodiment of confidence and he instilled that in his players in the spring and summer of 2017 before he ever coached a game at Nevada.

You don't, after all, become an All-Big 10 defensive back for the Iowa Hawkeyes like Norvell did without confidence. You don't go play for Mike Ditka and the Chicago Bears as a replacement player during the NFL strike in 1987 without confidence. You don't help coach teams to the Super Bowl (Oakland Raiders in 2002) and BCS title game (Oklahoma in 2008) without confidence. You don't get to call plays for such schools as Oklahoma, UCLA, Texas and Nebraska without confidence. You don't stay focused and work your tail off as an assistant coach for two decades waiting patiently for your first head coaching opportunity that might never come without confidence.

So, yes, the Pack had plenty of confidence heading into the 2017 season and it showed in the first two weeks of the season. The Wolf Pack went to Chicago and nearly beat Northwestern in Norvell's first game as coach. In Game 2 at home the Pack played a talented Toledo team well before losing.

And then disaster struck in Game 3.

If anything, the Wolf Pack was too confident heading into a Week 3 matchup with Idaho State of the Big Sky Conference. The Pack fell behind 30-7 (that deficit still boggles the mind to this day) and lost 30-28. Losing to a Big Sky team completely obliterated Norvell's debut season and the C word for the final nine games quickly became confused, calamity, catastrophic and catatonic. It certainly wasn't confidence. The Pack went into Washington State, Boise State, San Diego State and Fresno State and played with about as much confidence as a frightened 6-year-old in his or her first Tee Ball game. The Wolf Pack only beat teams a year ago (Hawaii, San Jose State, UNLV) that had even less confidence than they had.

That might have also been the case on Friday. There's no reason a Portland State team that went winless a year ago should have had confidence playing at Nevada. But that's not the way it looked in the first 11 minutes when the Pack fell behind 9-0. It looked like the Pack's confidence was off eating ribs in Sparks.

But by the end of the night that all changed. That's what demoralizing Portland State did the most for the Pack. It told them all good things are indeed possible.

"It gets our confidence up," said cornerback Daniel Brown, who returned an interception 42 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter for the Pack's first positive moment since they wheeled the Fremont Cannon off the field after beating UNLV last November. "It lets us know what we can be as a team."

Brown's play just might turn out to be the single most important play of this season. The Pack was down 9-0 to Portland State at the time. Had that ballooned to 16-0 or even 30-7 like a year ago against Idaho State, well, that old C word might never have found Mackay Stadium. Memories of a year ago were making everyone uneasy when it was 9-0.

"It was in the back of a couple guys' minds," said Brown of the early 9-0 deficit.

Brown's play cleared the Pack's minds before the demons of 2017 could move back in. Think of his interception return as a healthy swig of the Pack's own 12-game energy drink.

"This does give us confidence and we want to carry it into next week," Pack quarterback Ty Gangi said.

The C word can do wonderful things for a football team. It can help you go to Vanderbilt and beat a SEC team. It can help you beat a Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State at home with a Mountain West division title on the line. It can transform a football program.

"Last year, losing the first couple games, everybody's mentality was, 'Why us?'" Brown said. "This year it's 'Why not us? Why can't we be that team?'"

It would be easy to point out a few Wolf Pack events that didn't go so well against Portland State. You can look at the 348 yards Portland State rolled up on the Pack defense. You can look at the 35-plus minutes Portland State's offense controlled the ball. You can look at a few big plays Portland State pulled off early on offense, shredding the Pack defense. You can look at the Pack's nine penalties. After Friday it's apparent Gangi still has some serious accuracy issues. And there was that ugly incident in the end zone when the Pack allowed a Division I-AA defensive line to blow up its offensive line for a safety.

But dwelling on those sorts of things would be missing the point of this game. There was really only one point of this game for the Pack. It was important for the Wolf Pack to go out and treat a Division I-AA team like, well, a Division I-AA team.

That had not happened since the Pack beat UC Davis 36-7 in 2013. But even in that game the Pack lost starting quarterback Cody Fajardo to a knee injury. Since that game, though, the Pack always seemed to treat its I-AA opponents like they were Boise State. The Pack only beat Southern Utah 29-19 in 2014, UC Davis 31-17 in 2015, Cal Poly just 30-27 in overtime in 2016 and then came the disaster against Idaho State last year.

The mission for the Pack was to destroy Portland State. Mission accomplished.

"I told everyone all week I wanted 70 points," wide receiver Kaleb Fossum said.

They got 72.

The Portland State game, above all else, was about restoring confidence. You can't get confidence by beating a bad I-AA team by anything less than three or four touchdowns. So the Pack went out and won by seven touchdowns.

That's why this is the time to dwell on the good things. The 72 points are the most the Pack has ever scored in its season opener. The Pack rolled up its most total yards on offense (636) since Chris Ault's final game as head coach (659 against Arizona in 2012). The defense shut out an opponent over a complete half (the second) for the first time in the Norvell era.

"We wanted to show that we have the most explosive offense in the Mountain West," wide receiver McLane Mannix said.

The Wolf Pack offense was so explosive against Portland State everyone on offense might have trouble getting through airport security this week on the trip to Nashville. In one ridiculously easy stretch of just 6:30 in the third quarter, the Pack scored 28 points and had 250 total yards offense and took just a total of 12 plays to do it. Talk about a confidence boost. The Wolf Pack for those six-plus minutes looked like Heidi Klum and Giselle Bundchen at a PTA meeting.

Norvell now has a ton of confidence in his entire roster. He's no longer afraid of asking his defense to make a play, like he was a year ago when he never wanted to punt the ball. He's no longer afraid of asking his offense to run every single play in his vast playbook.

"We have a lot of playmakers," Norvell said. "I don't know if we're going to play that many teams that throw the ball as well as we do. We have a lot of confidence in our skill players. We have a lot of confidence in our young players. We aren't afraid of giving them opportunities."

The Pack are truly not afraid of anything right now. That's what confidence will do for a team. That's what playing a team like Portland State is supposed to do for you.

But is all the confidence for real? Is it just false bravado brought on by a misleading rout of a bad football team in the season opener? Yes, the Wolf Pack is saying all the right things right now about its confidence. They played with confidence and swagger once the shock of that 9-0 deficit wore off on Friday. But we've heard similar words before.

We will find out this week, when the Pack goes to Vanderbilt, whether or not it's true confidence or merely a con game.

"This year we're kind of like, 'Enough with the talk,'" Fossum said. "We're just going to show you guys."