Joe Santoro: Pack season at crossroad | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack season at crossroad

Joe Santoro

Sports fodder …

The football season for the Nevada Wolf Pack is at a crossroads. Will it be yet another mediocre six or seven-win snoozer that ends in a meaningless bowl game? Or will it be a landmark, breakthrough season that transforms the entire Wolf Pack football program? We could find out sometime late Saturday night. A victory over Boise State on Saturday at Mackay Stadium could give the Wolf Pack the type of confidence jolt it needs to sweep through its final five games and into the Mountain West title game. A loss on Saturday (the Pack is a two-touchdown underdog) won't ruin the season. But it will likely leave a hollow bowl game as the only consolation prize at the end of the year. These are the types of games that define the careers of players and coaches.

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The Boise State Broncos are beatable this year. San Diego State, a team playing a backup quarterback and tailback, walked onto Boise's blue turf a week ago and simply dared the Broncos to move the ball. The Broncos didn't and lost, 19-13. This is not the same Broncos football program that obliterated Chris Tormey's Wolf Pack and then frustrated Chris Ault's Wolf Pack from 2000-12. These Broncos are good. But they're no longer great. Quarterback Brett Rypien has to do it all by himself on offense and the defense has been hurt by injuries. A Wolf Pack victory on Saturday will leave Boise State with three losses in their last four games for the first time since the end of the 1997 season. This is the same program that didn't lose three games over an entire season from 2008-12. The Broncos have now lost two or more games for the last seven consecutive years. They lost two or more just twice from 2002-2011. The Broncos have gone from a national program that deserved to play in New Year's Day bowl games to one that has to scramble to win a Group of Five division.

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Boise State, though, is still the model for the Wolf Pack football program. The Broncos are what the Pack hopes to grow up into someday. We thought that happened with the Pack's 34-31 overtime win over the Broncos in 2010 but it was just a one-night mirage. The Wolf Pack hasn't beaten the Broncos since and hasn't even put together an eight-win season. Boise State has won eight or more games every year starting in 1999. The Wolf Pack destroyed Boise State three years in a row from 1996-98. Those three years saw four different Bronco head coaches (Pokey Allen and Tom Mason in 1996 followed by Houston Nutt, Dirk Koetter) compile a record of 12-22. But Koetter's second season in 1999 turned the Boise program around. Koetter left after 2000 but Dan Hawkins, Chris Peterson and now Bryan Harsin have continued the Bronco dynasty. This is Jay Norvell's second season. Can Norvell be the Pack's Koetter? We could find out on Saturday.

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The 21-3 loss to Fresno State last Saturday is the most positive Wolf Pack loss since the memorable 69-67 four-overtime loss at Boise State in 2007. That loss to Boise was Colin Kaepernick's coming out party and proved the Pack was ready to compete with the mighty Bronco bullies, at least as long as Kaepernick was around. It put the Pistol offense on a national stage for the first time. The loss to Fresno is the coming out party for the Wolf Pack defense. The Pack held Fresno State to just a dozen first downs and 271 yards. It was the best performance by a Pack defense against a good team since a 30-14 win over San Diego State in 2014. Kaepernick hit the ground running in that Boise State game in 2007 and never stopped. We'll find out Saturday night if this Pack defense can do the same.

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The loss to Fresno State, though, does mean the Pack's Mountain West division title hopes need the Bulldogs to lose two of its remaining seven Mountain West games. That's entirely possible since Fresno State still has to play San Diego State at home and at Boise State. Hawaii, already 3-0, currently leads the Pack's West Division, but that won't last. The Rainbow Warriors still have to play the Pack and Utah State at home as well as Fresno State and San Diego State on the road. San Diego State is 1-0 but the Aztecs are doing it with mirrors right now and they still have to go on the road to Fresno State and Nevada. The Pack's division title hopes will be decided in the next three games against Boise State and San Diego State at home and Hawaii on the road. The last three games, against Colorado State, San Jose State and UNLV, are winnable and will be a red carpet walk to either a division title or simply a consolation prize bowl game.

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Those last three games, even if the next three are disasters, should get the Pack into a bowl game. Will that excite anyone other than the players and coaches? Of course not. But it will make Year Two of the Norvell era an improvement over Year One. The Pack, which finished 3-9 a year ago, hasn't been to a bowl since it beat Colorado State in the Arizona Bowl in 2015. Going two years without a bowl game is bad enough. They hand out bowl games now in college football like free laundry detergent samples in your mailbox. If that streak becomes three, especially when the Pack was halfway (three wins) to a bowl game by the end of September, well, it simply can't happen. This is a down year for the Mountain West. Any team can lose to just about any other team on a given week. If all else fails, the last three games of the year will save the Pack season. This Pack team is too talented and has shown too many positive signs to completely collapse and not get into a bowl. Right?

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We will assume Wolf Pack football fans have been waiting for this Saturday night for the past four years. Boise State hasn't played at Mackay since 2014 and, well, attendance at the House that Ault Built has been lifeless in recent years. Last Saturday's game against Fresno State drew just 15,367, the third smallest crowd at Mackay over the last six-plus seasons. If this Saturday's crowd is even under 25,000 then that's a signal that something is seriously wrong with the Wolf Pack's connection to the community. The last time Boise State played at Mackay Stadium a crowd of 32,327 showed up. The only crowd at Mackay even over 25,000 since then was the 29,551 that showed up to see UNLV in 2015. The Broncos have attracted a crowd of more than 25,000 at Mackay for its last five visits. The last three have gone over 30,000. Don't look at the point spread. The Pack can win this game. Northern Nevada loves to see the Broncos (almost 28,000 came out way back in 1991). Saturday night should be no different.