Joe Santoro: Pack needs better backup plan | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack needs better backup plan

Joe Santoro

Don't blame Cristian Solano.

The Nevada Wolf Pack's tedious and vapid 21-3 loss to the Fresno State Bulldogs on Saturday night at the Mackay Mausoleum wasn't the result of having to play a backup quarterback. Solano, playing in his first full game in almost five years, turned in an inspiring and courageous effort.

It wasn't his fault.

Head coach Jay Norvell late Saturday night all but blamed the loss on what he claimed was a lack of production from the Pack's running game. But Norvell, too, was doing the honorable thing and simply trying to deflect the blame from his plucky backup quarterback.

It wasn't the running game's fault either. And forget about blaming special teams, the defense, the cheerleaders, the guy who took your ticket at the gate, the guy who cut you off in traffic on the way to the stadium and the woman who sold you a beer at halftime. None of those people are responsible for the listless and lethargic loss.

This one is on the coaches. The brains behind the Wolf Pack's so-called Air Raid offense (Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme) just never got a grip on the game. They certainly never got a grip on Solano. They left their game but inexperienced backup out there on the damp, dark and murky Mackay turf to try to flop, jump and twist his way out of danger all night long like a salmon trying to avoid a Grizzly bear in a river.

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"We just didn't make enough big plays," Norvell said.

That's because they were asking Solano to make the big plays. Fresno State picked off three of his passes but all three were on deep balls. Solano never should have even attempted a pass longer than the length of his arm, let alone 30 and 40 yards downfield.

When a backup quarterback is rushed into active duty because of an injury to the starter (Ty Gangi, Norvell said, had a leg injury), the game becomes a coach's game. It's the duty and responsibility of the coaches to take that nervous, skittish backup quarterback by the hand and guide him through the game, step by step, pass by pass, handoff by handoff.

The first goal is to make sure that jittery, fidgety backup quarterback doesn't feel the need to win the game all by himself. That backup quarterback needs to understand his job is to simply call the play in the huddle, take the ball from center and then get rid of that ball as quickly as he can.

That's not what happened on Saturday. Solano had the ball more than Allen Iverson in a 3-on-3 playground game. He had the ball in his hands as much as any Wolf Pack quarterback has had the ball in a game in recent memory. It was as if he was back at San Fernando High his senior year in 2013, passing for 43 touchdowns and running for 23 more.

The Pack coaches simply lost control of their own backup quarterback in one of the most important games of the season. And every one of the 15,367 in attendance (the third smallest Mackay crowd over the last six-plus seasons) knew it was only a matter of time before those Grizzlies sunk their teeth into him.

At times it was like watching a puppy cross four lanes of freeway traffic.

Solano, to be sure, earned everyone's respect on Saturday. He didn't look frightened at all. The lights didn't seem too bright for him. He looked like a middleweight fighter who was going to take full advantage of his one shot at a title. And he was going to go down swinging.

Solano is a survivor. You have to be a survivor to emerge from the gritty halls of San Fernando High with a Division I college scholarship. This is a young man, after all, who signed with the Pack in February 2014 and then had to watch fellow backup quarterbacks Tyler Stewart, Gangi and even Kaymen Cureton all get named as starters ahead of him. David Cornwell never got a start but he did get to throw 25 passes in a game while Solano stayed on the sideline. Wide receiver Andrew Celis also tossed more career passes from 2014-16 (eight) than Solano (six).

Solano is a fighter. He believes in himself. His teammates believe in him. We saw that on Saturday.

But, while inspirational, Saturday night was also painful to watch. The coaches simply didn't protect him enough.

The numbers are staggering.

Solano completed 22-of-43 passes for 195 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. He also ran the ball 23 times for 71 yards. Don't forget this was a guy who had thrown seven passes (one was on a fake punt) and run the ball two times over two-plus seasons (he was a grayshirt in 2014, a redshirt in 2015 and then just another shirt on the bench from 2015 until Saturday night).

He looked like a guy on Saturday who had to go out and win the game by himself.

Colin Kaepernick, the greatest player in Wolf Pack history, never ran the ball more than 20 times in a game. Cody Fajardo only ran it as many as 23 times in a game once (against Hawaii his senior year in 2014). Jeff Rowe, the Pack's first Pistol quarterback, never ran the ball more than 16 times in a game. And that was in an offense made for a running quarterback. Gangi has never carried the ball more than 12 times (against Utah State in 2016) in a game. Solano ran the ball on Saturday nearly as many times as Gangi had run the ball (27) over the first five games this year.

"He kind of wore down as the game went along," said Norvell of Solano.

Yeah, no kidding. Go figure. The Pack took a young man who hasn't walked as far as from his front door to his mailbox in the last two-plus seasons and then asked him to hike the Pacific Crest Trail on Saturday. You bet he wore out.

Solano's 66 runs and passes combined against Fresno State are proof of how much Norvell and Mumme lost control of the game and their backup quarterback. Kaepernick only had 66 passes and runs in a game once in his amazing career when he had 50 passes and 16 runs against Boise State in 2008. Fajardo only once went more than 66 runs and passes combined in a game, when he had 51 passes and 17 runs against San Diego State in 2013. Gangi has never had more than 54 runs and passes combined (against Toledo this year). The most times he's ever run the ball in a game for Norvell the past two seasons is eight (this year against Oregon State).

"When our quarterback is our leading rusher, we can't function that way," Norvell said.

Then why didn't he just calmly tell his overly enthusiastic backup quarterback on Saturday to simply take the snap from center and hand the ball off? Norvell is always preaching his so-called Air Raid offense desperately needs to run the ball effectively. Saturday was the perfect opportunity to do just that. What happened? The Pack gave the ball to its running backs a grand total of 19 times.

Norvell is always insisting he wants the running game to be productive. It's just he doesn't want to hand the ball off.

How should a coaching staff handle a game when a backup quarterback is playing? Back in 2013, with Fajardo out with a knee injury, the Pack took a green Tyler Stewart and walked him through a victory over Hawaii. Offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich allowed Stewart to throw the ball just 20 times (he completed 14 for 202 yards and three touchdowns) and run the ball just four times. We'll do that math. Stewart ran or threw the ball just 24 times, about a third of what Solano did against Fresno State. And the Pack won 31-9.

Rolovich, by the way, now the head coach at Hawaii, coached another backup quarterback (Chevan Cordeiro) to a 17-13 victory on Saturday over Wyoming. Cordeiro threw 29 passes and ran the ball a dozen times.

Norvell sort of admitted the error of the Pack ways on Monday.

"As we were going through the game (watching it on film), I was like, 'Gosh, we've got to stay with the run a little bit more,'" Norvell said. "But we rushed it 43 times."

The problem was 23 of those runs were by a salmon fighting for his life.

The Wolf Pack has some of the more talented running backs in the Mountain West with Toa Taua, Kelton Moore and Jaxson Kincaide. Taua, who has been a freshman sensation, rushed for 170 yards this year at Toledo and followed that up with 76 at Air Force. Moore ran for 855 yards last season but this year has never gotten the ball more than 11 times in one game. Kincaide ran for 99 yards in his only start as a freshman in 2016 (against Buffalo) and scored a touchdown at Notre Dame later that year. Last year he had 92 yards on 15 carries in Norvell's first game at Northwestern. But he rarely sees the field now.

Norvell said on Monday (maybe that's why he likes to call it "Tell The Truth Mondays") the Pack backs need to see an increased workload.

"We have to get our backs more involved a little more in what we're doing," Norvell said.

Who better than Taua, Moore, Kincaide and company to help guide Solano through his first career start against arguably the best defense in the Mountain West? Well, they never really got the chance, not with just 19 collective carries (for 62 yards).

"We didn't do enough to help him (Solano) offensively," Norvell said. "We have to adjust as coaches."

Norvell and Mumme didn't do much adjusting on Saturday. When asked after the game whether or not the Pack had to adjust its game plan with Solano playing, Norvell answered, "Not that much."

Let's hope that isn't really true. You don't tailor your game plan drastically for a guy who hasn't played a full game in almost five years, since he was a senior in high school? Maybe that's the reason why the Wolf Pack failed to score a touchdown at Mackay Stadium for the first time since a 14-6 loss to Fullerton in 1983.

Last Saturday, above all else, reminded us this coaching staff is going through a learning process just like the players. Norvell is a veteran coach, but he has just 18 games experience as a head coach. Mumme came from Division III and was raised in the pure Air Raid offense that ignores running backs, designed by his father Hal.

Neither one handled Saturday well at all. But this eclectic staff has struggled since Day One in the area of managing games. They allow games to get out of hand quickly. They struggle to close out victories. The play calling has been erratic at best. They started a freshman quarterback (Kaymen Cureton) just three games into his career (last season) and haven't played him since. Gangi, who will go down in history as one of the Top Ten most productive quarterbacks in Wolf Pack history, has covered up a lot of their flaws and inconsistencies. And all of those flaws and inconsistencies were exposed once again on Saturday for everyone to see.

Norvell's biggest mistake on Saturday might have taken place before the game even started when he decided to sit Gangi. All we know for sure is what Norvell has told us. He said he didn't make the decision until Saturday to sit his starting quarterback. He said Gangi practiced on Friday. He said Gangi wanted to play on Saturday.

"He wanted to play," Norvell said. "He did."

Then he should have played.

Norvell and the Wolf Pack tossed away a chance at a landmark victory. If Norvell himself didn't rule out Gangi as late as Saturday and if Gangi truly wanted to play, then the Pack owed it to their veteran senior quarterback to at least allow him to go out there and try to play.

No disrespect to Solano, but a one-legged Gangi just might have beaten Fresno State. The Bulldogs looked lifeless and bored on Saturday, as if they were asking to get beat. Who can blame them? There was nobody in the stands. They were playing a team they beat 41-21 a year ago and now all they had to deal with was a backup quarterback. But it was still only 7-3 at the half and 14-3 midway through the fourth quarter and that was with Solano running for his life on every other play.

Gangi, even on one leg, likely would have beaten Fresno State. But we'll never know.

"He (Gangi) couldn't protect himself," Norvell said. "There's a difference between pain and injury. A lot of guys have bumps and bruises who are playing. It's part of football. But if you can't protect yourself, then you can't compete. That's really a personal thing. Ty has to answer that."

It seems like Gangi did exactly that when he said he wanted to play.

Norvell is always talking about toughness, grit and leadership. What better opportunity to inspire your football program than by allowing one of your toughest and grittiest players to go out there on one good leg and lead his team to victory in one of the most important games of the season?

It was an opportunity for a program-changing victory. The game was there for the taking. Norvell, though, elected to play it safe and made sure Gangi was healthy for the bowl game push late in the year against Colorado State, San Jose State and UNLV, three teams Solano could beat on one good leg.

"It's not a one-game season," he said. "We still have six games to go."

Gangi wasn't even in uniform on Saturday. Imagine the emotional lift the Pack would have had if he strutted out onto the field in the fourth quarter in relief of Solano with the Pack down 14-3. Think Willis Reed in the 1970 NBA Finals.

Gangi couldn't protect himself from pressure? OK, fine. Just have him sit in the shotgun and flip the ball to Kaleb Fossum and McLane Mannix on quick slants. Still too big of risk? Then just tell him to hand the ball off to all those underused backs, you know, like Solano should have done all night long. You just know the offensive line, the Pack's proud Union, a group that thrives on emotion, would have knocked the Fresno State defense into the parking lot.

But we didn't get a chance to see it. The Pack played it safe with Gangi off the field and then allowed Solano to get eaten by a Grizzly on the field.

Go figure.