Joe Santoro: Pack defense better than it looks | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack defense better than it looks

Joe Santoro

You might not have noticed it on the scoreboard this season, but the Nevada Wolf Pack defense is vastly improved this season. Honest. The Pack is allowing 32.7 points and 452 yards a game this year after three games, down slightly from the 33.9 points and 471 yards it allowed last year. That would be improvement enough, especially considering two of the Pack's three foes this year have been Power Five conference teams (Vanderbilt, Oregon State). But a closer look at the numbers will reveal a much more drastic improvement from a year ago that, if it continues, will start to show up on the scoreboard. The Wolf Pack is allowing opposing offenses just a 21.7 percent success rate on third down. That leads the Mountain West. A year ago teams converted 44 percent of third down plays on the Pack. The Pack also has a Mountain West-leading 10 sacks so far, almost half of the 23 it got all last season. The defense is also holding teams to 3.2 yards per rush, down from 4.4 a year ago. Stopping the run, putting pressure on quarterbacks and getting off the field on third down will start to show up on scoreboards eventually.

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Saturday's game at Toledo is all about wiping away the road curse that has buried the Wolf Pack and coach Jay Norvell. Norvell is 0-7 on the road as Pack head coach, losing all seven games by an average of 21 points. The Pack defense has allowed an average of 41 points a game on the road under Norvell. But don't blame all of these road problems on the fact the Pack has had to leave Mackay Stadium. It's because of the teams the Pack has had to play on the road in the Norvell era. The Wolf Pack would have struggled to beat all seven even at Mackay. Three Power Five opponents in Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Washington State and four of the toughest teams in the Mountain West in San Diego State, Boise State, Fresno State and Colorado State have been the road foes. This Pack team will win some road games this year, maybe starting this weekend.

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The game at Toledo will be the 19th in Wolf Pack history east of the Mississippi River. The Pack is 3-15 in the previous 18 with the only victories coming at Buffalo (2015), Cincinnati (1949) and Northern Illinois (1994). In recent years the Pack has lost east of the Mississippi at Vanderbilt (two weeks ago), Purdue (2016), Notre Dame (2009, 2016) and Northwestern (2007, 2017) as well as Wisconsin (1993). Four of the losses came in the Division I-AA playoffs at Eastern Kentucky (1979), Southern Illinois (1983), Furman (1985) and Georgia Southern (1990). So, again, it's not a geography problem. It's an opponent problem.

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Last season, after two games, Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi had completed 47 percent of his passes for 476 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. And then he was removed from the starting lineup for the next two games. This season after three games, Gangi has completed 55 percent of his passes for 753 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. It's just a slight improvement from last year's start to the season. But you'll likely see lava spew forth from the top of Mount Rose before Gangi loses his starting job this year. The best has yet to come from Gangi this year but he has shown the same type of inconsistencies he showed a year ago. In the 37-35 victory over Oregon State last Saturday, for example, he completed nine of his first 11 passes for 142 yards on the Pack's first four drives, putting 23 points on the board. The rest of the game he completed eight of 24 for 53 yards, producing seven points. It was the perfect example of Gangi the Great vs. Grab Bag Gangi.

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Four of Gangi's first nine completions last week went to McLane Mannix for 70 yards. The rest of the game, while Gangi was completing just eight of his final 24 passes, the two hooked up just once for 15 yards. Kaleb Fossum, another one of Gangi's favorite targets, caught just one pass last week against Oregon State for six yards. Mannix and Fossum are Gangi's security blankets. He can throw to them blindfolded. There's no reason Mannix and Fossum can't combine for at least 15-20 catches a game. You'll see Gangi's consistency level rise dramatically when that happens.

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The Wolf Pack finally broke its attendance drought last Saturday with a crowd of 20,462 against Oregon State. Yes, it was the smallest Pack crowd to see a Pac-12 opponent at Mackay Stadium since just 17,552 showed up to see Washington State in 2005. The three Pac-12 opponents (Cal, Arizona, Washington State) at Mackay since 2005 averaged 26,395 fans. But it was the Pack's first crowd over 20,000 after 10 consecutive home games in a row under that magic number. It could be the start of a long stretch of 20,000-plus home crowds. The final four teams to come to Mackay this year are Fresno State, Boise State, Colorado State and San Diego State. But it's all about winning.

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Freshman running back Toa Taua has been one of the most pleasant surprises over the Pack's first three games. Taua, the younger brother of former Pack back Vai Taua, ran for 81 yards and a touchdown against Oregon State and now has 161 yards on 26 carries this year. The 5-foot-8, 205-pounder runs with toughness and purpose and also has the ability to change directions and run away from people. "It's real natural for him," Norvell said this week. "He's a natural running back, great on the perimeter and great inside." Toa ran for 73 touchdowns for Lompoc, Calif., High. Vai, now the Pack's assistant director of player personnel and recruiting, went to Cabrillo High in Lompoc. "I'm going to be starting my own legacy," Toa told the Santa Maria (Calif.) Times when he signed with the Pack last February. "I didn't go to Nevada because my brother was there."

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Mackay Stadium has never been easy on field goal kickers unless they were named Zendejas. When Oregon State's Jordan Choukair missed a 34-yard kick that would have beaten the Pack on the final play of the game last Saturday, it was reminiscent of a few other dramatic Mackay misses. Kyle Brotzman's miss of a 26-yard field goal on the final play of regulation and then his 29-yard miss in overtime in the Pack's 34-31 win in 2010 will always be the ultimate example of the Mackay Gods taking care of the Wolf Pack. But Boise's Mike Black missed a 37-yarder that would have beaten the Pack in overtime in the 1990 Division I-AA semifinals (the Pack later won 59-52 in triple OT). Kickers don't have an easy time at McKay even if they're wearing the Silver and Blue. The Pack's Kevin McKelvie missed an overtime field goal in that same 1990 playoff game. But the most painful Pack miss at Mackay will forever be Rick Schwendinger's 27-yard miss at the buzzer in the 1991 Division I-AA playoffs that would have beaten Youngstown State (the Pack lost 30-28). Even when kickers find success at Mackay it seems to be tainted. There are still UNLV fans (and some Pack fans) who insist John Barnes didn't make the 33-yard field goal in the dark that looped over the goal post with a minute to play, giving the Pack a 30-28 win in the rivalry's first game in 1969.