Joe Santoro: Pack about to be something special | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack about to be something special

Joe Santoro
Special to the Appeal

We're looking at the best 3-4 team in the history of Nevada Wolf Pack football.

The Wolf Pack has lost two games in a row, three of its last four and four of its last six. And it wouldn't take much of an imagination to see how the Pack could have lost all six. But things haven't looked as promising, the arrow hasn't pointed more upward and the future hasn't looked as bright as it does right now in and around Mackay Stadium.

"We're definitely not where we want to be as a team," head coach Jay Norvell said after Saturday's inspiring 31-27 loss to the Boise State Broncos. "But we're not where we used to be."

On the surface, it appears the Wolf Pack is exactly where it used to be and has been since 2010. Over the past seven-plus seasons, the Pack is 43-53, has lost three-of-four bowl games, has never won a conference title or even finished more than a game over .500 in any one season. Mediocrity has clearly taken a permanent residence up on North Virginia Street.

But you need to look beyond the surface, past the won-loss record, to see what's really happening with Norvell's blossoming Wolf Pack. Don't let the record or the Mountain West standings fool you. Don't let the 16th loss in 17 games against Boise State trick you into believing nothing has changed, that malaise and his sloppy, lazy buddy run-of-the-mill are also moving in at Manzanita Hall.

The only place where the Wolf Pack is where it used to be is in the standings. Everywhere else, in all the places that truly are meaningful, the Pack is headed to somewhere special.

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"You can tell this is a much different team in that locker room," Wolf Pack senior linebacker Malik Reed said after the Boise State loss. "We're just going to keep getting better."

For the first time in a long time we believe him. We can see it. Feel it. Sense it. And so does Norvell.

"Our guys are really gutted," Norvell said minutes after talking to his football team late Saturday night. "We got a lot of seniors who played their hearts out, that are not happy with the outcome. That's something we didn't have last year."

Yes, good teams are still coming to Mackay and going home with victories. But now they're leaving a little piece of themselves on the Mackay turf. If you look closely, you can likely see little pieces of Boise State blue and orange shredded and torn in the corners of Mackay Stadium this morning.

"I was really disappointed in how we played this team physically last year," said Norvell of the Pack's ugly and lifeless 41-14 loss at Boise State just a year ago. "I didn't think we fought them. We didn't get in the trenches and make them work for plays. And I let our team know how disappointed I was."

A year ago the Wolf Pack was scared to play good teams. Not only didn't the Pack put up a fight, they curled up in a fetal position and let good teams step on them on the way to the end zone. Washington State, Fresno State, Boise State and San Diego State took their lunch money, their vintage Air Jordans, their girlfriends' phone numbers and ripped the Wolf Pack logo off their helmets, beating the Pack by an average of 25 points. It could have been 45 points but they seemed to simply lose interest and, well. it's not sporting to kick a guy when he's in the fetal position and handing you his lunch money.

"That was not the case (on Saturday)," Norvell said.

It also wasn't the case two weeks ago against Fresno State in a 21-3 Pack loss. The Bulldogs were fortunate Pack starting quarterback Ty Gangi wasn't wearing a uniform that night. Gangi returned against Boise State and nearly did something only one Pack quarterback (Colin Kaepernick in 2010) has done since David Neill in 1998. He nearly beat Boise.

"We played very possibly the best two teams in our league (Utah State would argue that) the last two weeks and we fought them toe to toe," Norvell said.

The scoreboard this past Saturday was never an accurate representation of what was happening on the field. The Pack found itself in a 17-17 tie at halftime, for example, that simply had to be a lie.

The Wolf Pack led 3-0 in the first quarter and was about to make it 10-0 with a first-and-goal at the Boise State 4-yard line. Pack running back Kelton Moore then took a handoff, ran into Boise's Jabril Frazier at the line of scrimmage and promptly fumbled the ball away. Boise State then scored on the next play on an improbable 88-yard run by wide receiver John Hightower. That fantasy 10-0 lead was turned into a reality 7-3 deficit.

The resilient Wolf Pack, though, led 10-7 and seemed to be on the way to taking a 13-7 or 17-7 lead with a first down at the Boise State 29-yard line, thanks to the second interception of the game by Dameon Baber on the previous play.

The Pack was now taking the Broncos' lunch money. Just two plays into the second quarter, the Pack had a 10-7 lead and had already picked off two Brett Rypien passes. Boise State had committed five penalties and the Pack offense already had 11 first downs and 152 total yards. Gangi had out-passed Rypien 103-21. And, oh yeah, he now had the ball just 29 yards away from the end zone on first down.

Gangi then lofted a pass down near the goal line on the right side. It was picked off by Boise's Tyler Horton who then somehow turned around and bobbed and weaved his way through the entire Pack offense down the sideline for a 99-yard touchdown interception return. A fantasy 13-7 or 17-7 lead was now a reality 14-10 deficit.

It made no sense.

Norvell, though, doesn't believe in fantasy. You don't after all, turn around Team Mediocrity, a program built on malaise and run-of-the-mill, with silly visions of fantasy. You force them to deal with reality.

"That was the champion of our league," said Norvell, referring to Boise's 2017 Mountain West title. "And they had to make a couple of unbelievable plays to beat us."

The Broncos actually made about a half dozen unbelievable plays to beat the Pack. The Broncos haven't had to work as hard to beat the Pack since they took a historic 69-67 four-overtime decision over Nevada in 2007 in Kaepernick's first career start.

There were so many incredible, what-the-heck-just-happened Boise moments that maybe the most pivotal one of all was simply overlooked. Boise drove the ball 55 yards in seven plays over the final 37 seconds of the first half for a field goal for a 17-17 halftime tie. The key play in the drive was, believe it or not, a 15-yard run by Rypien, a guy who even now has minus-110 rushing yards for his career.

There were more unbelievable, improbable, otherworldly feats by the Broncos in the second half.

Rypien came out of the halftime locker room and completed his first 12 passes for 156 yards and two eye-opening touchdown passes of 36 and 41 yards to C.T. Thomas and A.J. Richardson. It was as good of a performance by a throwing quarterback in one quarter in Mackay Stadium history. Rypien later would put the game away with an eight-yard gutsy, daring bullet of a pass to the left sideline to Thomas on 4th-and-eight for a game-clinching first down with just under three minutes to play. It's the type of pass most NFL quarterbacks wouldn't even attempt with the game on the line. Most college coaches wouldn't even dream of allowing their quarterback to try that type of throw in practice, let alone with a game on the line.

"He made some incredible throws," said Norvell, who once coached wide receivers that were paid to catch Peyton Manning's passes with the Indianapolis Colts.

Boise first got lucky and then they simply became great to beat the Pack. That's a tough combination to beat for any team, especially one like the Pack which is still learning how to close out games.

Rypien was great in the third quarter and then his teammates joined in the fun in the fourth quarter. The Broncos then decided to simply take over the fourth quarter. If you love down-and-dirty, grit-and-grind, punch-to-the-gut football (Norvell, a former Big Ten defensive player, certainly does) then what you saw in the fourth quarter by the Broncos was a work of art.

Boise State took all the mystery, luck and wizardry out of the game and simply took the football and went home in the fourth quarter with a 31-27 victory. The Broncos only allowed the Pack offense to run five plays for a total of 36 yards (32 on a meaningless end-of-game pass) in the final 15 minutes. Zero Pack first downs. Just 92 seconds of possession time. You're lucky if you see two pitches in a baseball playoff game in 92 seconds. It was old school football at its best. You can't win, after all, if you never touch the ball.

It was as if the Pack was just the opening act on Saturday and then got off the stage in the fourth quarter and let Boise State close the show. Boise State had 27 plays in the fourth quarter and held the ball for 13:28. The Broncos never scored but you don't have to score if you have the lead and you never give up the football. They just let their lead guitarist play a 13-minute solo and he played until the curtain closed.

"Give them credit," Norvell said. "That's what championship teams do."

The Wolf Pack isn't a championship caliber team yet. They're moving in that direction but it's a road filled with twists, turns, potholes and dead skunks in the way. You can argue Boise State this season isn't a championship caliber team also. That might have been the worst Boise State team the Pack has played since 1998. But the Broncos showed on Saturday they still have enough muscle memory to beat a Wolf Pack program that's still in its formative years. The Pack is still building those muscles.

"We've got to respond in the fourth quarter when the game is in the balance," Norvell said. "That is the next step we have to take."

That will come. Soon. In fact, it might come over the final six games (five regular season and one bowl) this season starting Saturday night at Hawaii. This Wolf Pack program grows closer to kicking mediocrity and malaise out of their dorm room with each passing game.

"We can finish out the year strong and have a chance to win out," Gangi said.

That's what the last two Saturday nights did for the Pack. It fortified their confidence. Yes, the games against Fresno and Boise ended in defeat. But they didn't end the Pack's development. Those losses, in fact, speeded up the Pack's development. We just might be looking at the best two-game losing streak in Wolf Pack history.

"It definitely shows progress," Gangi said.

The first thing Norvell said in his postgame press conference as Saturday night was about to turn into Sunday morning was "there is no consolation prize from these games." Gangi later added "Moral victories, we don't believe in them."

We're here to tell them that's OK to grab a consolation prize from a tough loss against a team that was favored to leave Mackay with a two-touchdown victory. It's perfectly fine to chalk the Boise game up in the moral victory category. That's what happened in 2007. After that game the Pack knew it was going to turn into something special. And Boise knew it would have to save its own lunch money if it wanted to eat as long as Kaepernick was wearing silver and blue.

Not all losses are created equal, just like all victories. There are ugly wins (see Oregon State last month) and beautiful losses. The latest loss to Boise State is more inspiring for the Pack than any of the six victories in the Norvell era.

"We've got a lot of season left," Norvell said, "games where we can really show some progress and get in the win column."

If the Pack plays like it did the last two weeks in losses, it will make the elusive win column a permanent home the rest of this season. Norvell then said something Saturday night that should be printed on sweatshirts and worn around campus. A billboard or two around town might also sell some tickets. It's something he couldn't say all last year and something he couldn't really say before the last two games against Fresno State and Boise State.

"We have a football team," he said. "We have a bunch of guys that fight for each other."

Yes, Wolf Pack fans, you have a football team.

A pretty good one that's about to become something special.