Joe Santoro: Pack maturing but it’s a process |

Joe Santoro: Pack maturing but it’s a process

Joe Santoro
Nevada quarterback Ty Gangi (6) looks for an open player during Saturday's game at Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Dougal Brownlie/AP | The Gazette

The Nevada Wolf Pack is finally showing some genuine signs of maturity as a football program.

But there’s still a long ways to go.

“It’s a week to week thing,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said this week. “It’s not all of a sudden it’s fixed. We have to continue to work it.”

Football teams, like the rest of us, don’t mature overnight. Did you go from having more hair on your head than in your ears in the blink of an eye? Did you suddenly notice your cell phone contacts list contains more names of doctors than girlfriends? Of course not. It’s a process.

It’s the same with building a championship football program.

“We have to continue to grow,” Norvell said.

The Wolf Pack, though, showed some promising signs of growth last week in a 28-25 victory at Air Force, more so than at any other time in the 17-game Norvell era.

“It’s a team that is showing it believes in each other,” Norvell said. “It’s a team that can handle adversity better.”

All that was certainly true in the first half against Air Force.

The Wolf Pack exploded out to a 21-7 halftime lead, thanks to three long touchdown passes by quarterback Ty Gangi to three different receivers. The Wolf Pack’s Air Raid offense was teaching none other than our nation’s Air Force a thing or two about how to attack from above. And the Wolf Pack defense, which normally rolls over and plays dead against the triple option rushing attack, turned in its most impressive one-half performance in recent memory.

“I was so proud of our defense,” Norvell said. “It was a total team effort.”

Norvell’s wet-behind-the-ears football program was exhibiting some definite signs of maturity right before his eyes. The Wolf Pack outgained Air Force 254-24 in the first half and held the Falcons to just two first downs and no offensive points. Talk about maturity. On the plane ride home from Colorado Springs, we half expected the Pack players to start bragging to their teammates about their lawn mowers rather than their smart phones.

But that all changed in the second half, reminding us all that a football team’s rate of maturity isn’t simply a smooth escalator ride up toward victories and championships. It’s a two steps forward, one step back, one step forward, two steps back kind of process. It can go from promising to pull-your-hair-out from one half of football to the next.

The Falcons outscored the Wolf Pack 18-7 in the second half and came within 11 yards of turning a 28-10 second half deficit at one point into a 30-28 last-minute victory.

Air Force’s longest drive in the first half was seven plays. In the second half the Falcons had four drives of nine plays or longer. The longest the Falcons controlled the ball on one drive in the first half was three minutes, 21 seconds. In the second half Air Force held the ball three different times for 3:47 or longer. They had two back-to-back drives of 23 plays, 125 yards and over nine minutes combined.

With the game on the line, the Wolf Pack allowed Air Force to go from its own 40-yard line with just under three minutes to play down to the Wolf Pack 11 with 90 seconds left. There was Air Force, a team that treats the forward pass like it’s some new-fangled, fly-by-night, unreliable invention, completing three consecutive passes for a total of 46 yards.

All of the maturity the Pack showed in the first half disappeared in the second half. The Pack was turning into Benjamin Button and growing younger right before our eyes.

“We have to finish fourth quarters now,” Norvell said. “We have to go out and score in the fourth quarter and, boy, defensively we have to step up and make critical stops in the fourth quarter.”

Boy oh boy, indeed. The Wolf Pack, like all young, immature and developing football programs, is acting out its own version of short attention span theater this season. In the first half, it usually come out full of youthful exuberance and go from boys to men. In the second half it seems to wear out and let their minds wander as they go from men back to boys.

The Wolf Pack, in its four games this season against Division I-A Football Bowl Subdivision teams, has been outscored 84-34 in the second half. In the fourth quarter alone, the deficit has been 43-13.

The second half struggles have taken place in both victories (Air Force and Oregon State) and losses (Vanderbilt and Toledo). We saw on Saturday what happened at Air Force. A 28-10 rout turned into a 28-25 nail biter. Against Oregon State, it was a 30-7 laugher that turned into a 37-35 cover-your-eyes near nightmare as the Beavers missed a last-second field goal. Odds are Fresno State and Boise State the next two weeks won’t be as forgiving as Oregon State and Air Force.

The good news is two of the four second half struggles ended up as victories. The Pack, don’t forget, is 3-2 right now and not 1-4 with its only victory coming against Portland State, a sad (currently 1-4) Division I-AA team.

The mood would be a lot darker up on North Virginia Street this week had Oregon State kicked that field goal and Air Force had completed one more lucky 11-yard toss. We wouldn’t be talking about the maturity of a young football program right now had those two things happened. We’d be talking about the men’s basketball season.

But that’s the beauty of short attention span theater. You tend to forget what happened yesterday. And that’s a good thing.

“What happened in the past,” Norvell said, “doesn’t matter. All that matters is that on Saturday night we are prepared and ready to play.”

Exactly right. With young teams you dwell on the two steps forward and not that one step back.

“This is another step for us,” Norvell said of this Saturday’s game against Fresno State.

Every game the young and impressionable Pack plays is a crucial step. Norvell, a guy who had to wait almost three decades for his first head coaching job, understands the step-by-step process better than most. He’s patient. He’s positive. He’s a true college professor. He’s well aware nobody, especially not a football team made up of wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears, enthusiastic-to-learn football players, matures into a champion from one week to the next or even one season to the next.

“We’re behind the teams in our conference,” Norvell said. “We’re trying to catch up with the teams in our league with being more physical.”

The odds also tell us more painful lessons, more steps backward, will take place before the journey moves smoothly forward toward those championships we’ve all been promised. A couple of those painful lessons might take place the next two weeks when the two best teams in the Mountain West (Fresno State on Saturday and Boise State on Oct. 13) come to Mackay Stadium.

But, win or lose the next two weeks, it will simply be part of the grueling maturation process. As Norvell said, win or lose, nothing will be suddenly fixed even if the Pack beats Fresno and Boise and is suddenly the feel-good story of the Mountain West. The Pack, after all, beat Boise State in 2010 and that didn’t really change anything.

Would it really surprise anyone if the Pack beat Fresno State and Boise State the next two weeks and then followed that up with losses to Hawaii and San Diego State? Of course not. Steps forward, after all, are almost always followed by steps backward with still ripe football programs. Sometimes success is more difficult to handle than failure.

Norvell, remember, isn’t looking for a one-night or even a one-season fix. He’s looking to change the direction of an entire football program for the long run.

“We’re not where we want to be,” Norvell said. “It’s a process.”