Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack can beat Purdue | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack can beat Purdue

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada running back Toa Taua, shown against Arkansas State on Dec. 29.
Rick Scuteri/AP | FR157181 AP

Sports fodder…

The Nevada Wolf Pack football team can win its season opener Friday night (6:30 p.m.) at Mackay Stadium against the Purdue Boilermakers. Honest. The game is in Reno at over 4,000 feet altitude on a Friday night in late August. None of that favors Purdue. Yes, a Big 10 team is coming to Northern Nevada. But it isn’t Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State or Nebraska. It’s Purdue. And the Pack has beaten a Big 10 team (Northwestern in 2006) at home before. This would not be a program-changing victory for the Pack. It would just be a solid way to open a season. Wolf Pack 34, Purdue 31.

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The Wolf Pack nearly beat the Boilermakers just three years ago in West Lafayette, Ind. The Pack had the ball at the Purdue 3-yard line, trailing just 17-14 with nine minutes to go. Victory for the Pack was just a James Butler off tackle play away. Butler scores and, well, Brian Polian might still be the Pack coach. Well, Butler (who jumped to Iowa of the Big 10 the following year) didn’t score and Polian is teaching Notre Dame players how to cover punts once again. The Pack ended up missing a chip shot 27-yard field goal on that drive and eventually lost 24-14. But the Wolf Pack forced four Purdue turnovers and led 14-3 at one point. If that happens again (an 11-point Pack lead and four Purdue turnovers), there’s a good chance Mackay Stadium, the altitude and the 1,700-mile road trip for Purdue in the late August heat will spell Wolf Pack victory.

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Of course, all of this Wolf Pack optimism is based on a few assumptions. We assume that Wolf Pack freshman quarterback Carson Strong won’t get a case of stage fright and start throwing the ball to the Boilermakers. We assume that the Pack offensive line will give the strength of this Pack team, the running backs and wide receivers, enough holes and time to work their magic. We assume that the rebuilt Wolf Pack defense can hold a mediocre Big 10 team to under 35 points. We assume that the Purdue players will get nosebleeds a feel a little light-headed when playing at an altitude higher than the top of Larry Bird’s head. If all of the above assumptions prove wrong, the Pack will likely lose 34-17. Stay tuned.

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There is a ton of history going against the Wolf Pack on Friday night. Mountain West teams are just 7-49 against Big 10 teams since the Mountain West was created in 1999. And most of those seven victories (four) are by teams no longer in the Mountain West (TCU, Utah). The Mountain West has lost 33 games in a row to Big 10 teams. The Wolf Pack has opened 12 seasons against Power Five schools (home or away) since it joined Division I-A in 1992 and has lost 11 of them (the lone win was against California in 2012). The Pack has more questions (quarterback, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, secondary) than answers right now. If the game was at Purdue, we’d expect a 14-point Boilermaker party. But Hot August Nights in Reno have a magical way of making Northern Nevadans smile.

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A Pack loss on Friday night likely means an 0-2 start to this Nevada season. The Wolf Pack must travel to No. 11 Oregon next week. Would an 0-2 start mean the season is over? Not at all. The last 11 times the Pack started 0-2 or worse, it finished with six wins or more seven times. Six wins would get this Pack team to a bowl game. An 0-2 start this year likely means the Pack will be 4-2 after six games. Purdue and Oregon are followed on the Pack schedule by Weber State, UTEP, Hawaii and San Jose State, all games the Pack will likely be favored to win.

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ESPN’s “Matchup Predictor” predicts that the Pack will finish 6-6, losing to Purdue, Oregon, Utah State, Wyoming, San Diego State and Fresno State and beating Weber State, UTEP, Hawaii, San Jose State, New Mexico and UNLV. The Sports Fodder Matchup Predictor predicts an 8-4 season and disagrees with ESPN’s computer on the Purdue and Wyoming games.

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The non-conference portion of the schedule is always extremely crucial for Mountain West football. Winning non-conference games against Power Five teams is the only way an ignored conference like the Mountain West can get some national attention. Hawaii earned the Mountain West a ton of respect by beating Arizona 45-38 last week. This week the Mountain West respect meter will be focusing on the Pack against Purdue, Boise State at Florida State, Utah State at Wake Forest, Colorado State against Colorado, Missouri at Wyoming and Fresno State at USC. A loss in five or all six of those games this weekend will be disastrous for the Mountain West. Wins in three or four of them, though, could signal a rebirth of the conference.

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It’s time the Wolf Pack starts beating good teams. Not mediocre or awful teams with eight or fewer wins (like Purdue this year). Good teams with nine or more victories (like Oregon and possibly Utah State and Fresno State this year). It hasn’t happened for the Pack in nine years. Norvell has 11 wins in his Wolf Pack coaching career and none of the 11 came against a team that won more than eight games. But all of this is nothing new. Polian, the Pack head coach from 2012-16, also never beat a Division I-A team that won more than eight games. The last time the Pack beat a Division I-A team that would end up with nine or more victories was Boise State (12-1 in 2010). And that required a Mackay Miracle.