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Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack, it’s time for a title

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal

This Nevada Wolf Pack football season just might be the start of something big.

The on-again, off-again, back-on-again 2020 Nevada college football season will begin this Saturday (4 p.m., CBS Sports Network) when the Wyoming Cowboys come to Mackay Stadium to open an eight-game season.

We’re here to tell you that your patience during this rollercoaster, makeshift season just might be rewarded with something you’ve never seen before.

A Wolf Pack Mountain West football championship.

Yes, Pack fans, it’s time. Local radio ads are telling us that Pack head coach Jay Norvell has all the pieces in place to do something special this season. And, for the first time since he showed up in Northern Nevada nearly four years ago, we actually believe the silver and blue hype.

This team is that talented. This team is that experienced. And this team is that hungry.

Finally.

“It’s the hunger I see in guys,” senior linebacker Lawson Hall said this week. “Guys are doing extra work, watching more film, doing everything they can to get better. And that’s because they know they have a legitimate shot at winning that championship.”

Talent, experience and hunger can carry a college football team a long way. In Nevada it has always been called Battle Born. In the past those words were just something to put on a flag or team marketing poster. But this Pack football team has lived it.

The first eight seasons of Mountain West football in Northern Nevada, after all, have been one never ending, frustrating, what-might-have-been bloody battle that has toughened up this program and fan base.

Those eight seasons have produced zero conference championships. No division championships. Three different head coaches. A bunch of titles for Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State. And a ton of broken promises and false hope in Northern Nevada.

The Mountain West, so far, has been the Mountain Jest for the Wolf Pack. And the joke has been on the silver and blue. It took the Pack just five seasons to win a Western Athletic Conference title. It took all of one season to win a Big West title. It took five years to win a Big Sky Conference title. We are now heading into Year No. 9 of the Mountain Jest and the Pack is still looking to climb to the top of the mountain and plant its Battle Born flag.

This is the year it could all change.

Since 2012, the year the Pack joined the watered down Mountain West, the eight league championships have been shared by Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State. Colorado State won or shared three (1999, 2000, 2002) league titles before the Mountain West realized there was even more TV money to be made with a conference title game. Four other teams (Hawaii, Utah State, Air Force, Wyoming) have at least made an appearance in the conference championship game.

Notice we’ve never mentioned Nevada. The Pack is one of just four current Mountain West schools with San Jose State, New Mexico and UNLV that have yet to win a Mountain West title or at least play in the conference title game.

In case you are wondering, it is never a proud moment to be mentioned in the same football breath with San Jose State, UNLV and New Mexico.

That has to stop.

When Norvell introduced himself to Northern Nevada in December 2016, he promised to make the Wolf Pack champions, just like Chris Ault used to do in the Big Sky, Big West and WAC.

“It is our charge to make this the flagship program of the Mountain West,” Norvell said.

The Pack flag is still in storage.

It is time the Wolf Pack reminds Fresno State, Boise State and San Diego State that they don’t own the conference. And it is certainly time for the Pack to separate itself from the UNLVs, New Mexicos and San Jose States of the world and makes the transition from the Mountain Jest to the Mountain Best.

This proud program deserves it. Northern Nevada deserves it. Norvell and this Pack team deserve it.

They’ve earned it. Everyone has paid their dues.

“We’re just excited to have the opportunity to line up and play,” Wolf Pack offensive coordinator Matt Mumme said this week.

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this Wolf Pack team, even if the only way you can experience it is by staring at your favorite device for three or four hours every weekend.

Since there will be just eight games, every game will be like a bowl game. Every game will have meaning. Every game is a conference game. Every game is a mini Mountain West championship game. Best of all, every game for the Wolf Pack team is winnable.

The rest of the Mountain West might not know it just yet but the Pack is the best team in the conference. It will certainly be the best team on the field in the eight games it plays this season.

It’s time to prove it.

When Norvell and Mumme came to Nevada they promised an explosive offense that would light up the sky above Northern Nevada. We’ve seen it at times the past three years but the promise has always been tempered with tired excuses, shoddy decision making and a hint of desperation. OK, a lot of desperation.

This year will be different. It will be program-changing different. It will be the season when Norvell and Mumme finally make good on their promise. That’s because all of the pieces, both physical and mental, are indeed finally in place.

“The biggest thing is people will see our identity show a little more,” said Mumme of his offense.

This Pack offense promises to be one of the best in the nation.

Quarterback Carson Strong is back for his second year as the starter. Wide receivers Elijah Cooks and Romeo Doubs are back. Running backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee are back if and when needed.

Strong completed 237-of-374 passes for 2,335 yards and 11 touchdowns last year in 10 games. He’ll more than likely surpass those numbers in the eight games this year.

Doubs caught 44 passes for 649 yards and four scores last year while Cooks grabbed 76 for 926 and eight touchdowns. Cooks and Doubs are one of the best wide receiver duos in the country.

“We know what Romeo and Cookie can do,” Mumme said. “I promise you Wyoming knows what Romeo and Cookie can do.”

They will certainly know by Saturday night.

Mumme also pointed out pass catchers Cole Turner and Melquan Stovall, who should also haul in their fair share of Strong tosses.

“Other guys will get opportunities if our opponents are bringing too much attention to Cookie and Romeo,” Mumme said.

That’s not a threat. It’s a promise.

“We can exploit some space in the passing game for sure,” he said.

The Pack will also be able to run the ball, you know, if Mumme actually gives them the ball. Taua ran for 807 yards and six scores last year while Lee picked up 302 and seven touchdowns.

But when Mumme talks about showing off the true identity of the Air Raid offense, well, he’s not talking about running the ball. Running the ball as opposed to throwing it, as far as Mumme is concerned, is sort of like sitting down in 2020 and writing a letter, finding a stamp and dropping it all in the mailbox instead of simply sending a text. It’s called the Air Raid for a reason. And Mumme has been waiting a long time to show us those reasons.

This is the start of something big, Pack fans. And it’s something that could last for quite a while. Strong and Stovall are just sophomores. Doubs, Lee, Taua and Turner are juniors. Norvell just got a contract extension. Whatever you see out of this offense this year will likely look even better in 2021 and 2022. You know, if there is a 2021 and 2022 season.

So wake up on game day this season, Pack fans. Find your charger, plug it into the wall and juice up your favorite device. Or go old school and turn on your television.

You won’t be disappointed.

“We’re all just happy to play,” Mumme said.

It’s time to plant that Pack flag.