Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack offense missing in action
For the Nevada Appeal
Jay Norvell wants to take the blame for the Nevada Wolf Pack’s shrinking Air Raid offense.
“I’m just going to take the bullet on that whole thing,” Norvell said this week.
The Wolf Pack offense, on the other hand, has been shooting blanks, for the most part, this season. And the numbers are disturbing.
The Wolf Pack is last in the 12-team Mountain West and 117th out of 130 FBS teams in scoring at 19.1 points a game. The Pack is 11th in the Mountain West and 100th in the nation in total offense at 357.1 yards a game. The Wolf Pack has scored one or fewer touchdowns in a game this season in five of eight games. A kicker (Brandon Talton) and a linebacker (Austin Arnold) have combined to score 40 percent (63-of-153) of the points this season.
“We’ve been overwhelmed somewhat by the better defenses we’ve faced,” Norvell said.
The numbers would suggest that the Wolf Pack has faced the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2000 Baltimore Ravens week after week. But the Pack scored three points against a Hawaii team that now allows 35.4 points a game this year. The Pack also scored just three points against Wyoming (17.6 points allowed), six against Oregon (14.8), 10 against Utah State (24.1) and 19 against FCS Weber State (20.4). The Pack’s best offensive showings have come against awful defenses (34 against Purdue, 37 against UTEP and 41 against San Jose State). All three of those teams are allowing 28 or more points a game right now.
“The teams we’ve beaten just are not very good defensively,” Norvell admitted.
The Wolf Pack is seemingly headed toward its worst offensive season in two decades. The Pack is averaging 19.1 points a game, its lowest average output since the 2000 team scored 17.3 points a game. The Pack is averaging 357.1 yards a game, its lowest total since the 2000 team produced 312.4 yards a game. The Pack has scored a mere 18 touchdowns this year, a rate over the first eight games that will give them 29 in a 13-game season. The last time the Pack scored under 30 touchdowns in a season was, you guessed it, in 2000 (26).
That 2000 season, Chris Tormey’s first at Nevada as head coach, is the Wolf Pack’s worst offensive season since the school moved to Division I-A (FBS) in 1992. No other season has even come close to that sort of futility on offense.
Until this season.
“It’s a lack of confidence,” Norvell said.
There’s a reason for that lack of confidence. Norvell and his staff have bungled the quarterback situation. Freshman Carson Strong started the season as the starter. He was removed as the starter for one game at UTEP in the fourth game of the year because of bumps and bruises that Norvell admitted did not prohibit him from playing. Strong was then benched right before halftime against Hawaii and then removed for the next two entire games against San Jose State and Utah State. Cristian Solano started against UTEP and played half of the game against Hawaii and now does brief guest appearances as quarterback. Malik Henry, who is no longer even on the Pack’s active roster, started the two games against San Jose State and Utah State and vanished as quickly as he showed up in the starting lineup. Strong is now, once again, the starter. For now.
“It was hard,” said Strong, referring to the two games when he was removed as the starter in favor of Henry. “But I knew my career was not over. I just knew I had to stay strong, focus on my mistakes and try to get better.”
Strong has played roughly 4 ½ games this year and thrown three touchdowns with six interceptions. He hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since August. He was thrown back into the starting lineup last week in a tough environment at Wyoming against a solid defense and, well, looked like a guy who had played a half of football over the past 35 days.
“I did have some jitters at the start of the game (last week at Wyoming),” Strong said.
“Carson is our guy,” said Norvell, repeating words he said early in the season before removing Strong as the starter a few weeks later. “We’re going to keep teaching him our style of football that we want to play. He’s our quarterback.”
The offensive line has also been a concern all season long. Nate Brown (right guard), Aaron Frost (right guard), Nathan Edwards (center), Jake Nelson (left tackle) and Miles Beach (left guard) started each of the first five games. Since then, because of injury and a lack of positive performances, the offensive line has added Tyler Orsini at center and Gray Davis at left and right guard as starters. Beach moved to left tackle and Frost moved to left guard. The Union, it seems, keeps adding members week by week and nothing seems to work for long.
“We’re not playing well up front,” Norvell said. “That’s where it all starts.”
Norvell has repeatedly pointed out this season the inexperience at center (Edwards, Orsini), explaining that the communication along the line has been a source of most of the breakdowns.
“We still are not getting clear communication at center,” Norvell said. “But offensive line is a group that has to be matured over time.”
“We use (the quarterback’s) clap as our signal and the defenses are now waiting until we clap and then they are moving,” Strong said. “We’ll make the call along the (offensive) line, I’ll clap and then the defense moves so now we are in the wrong call. We need to change our cadence so the center can make the right call.”
The offensive line seems to be at the root of the Pack’s problems on offense. Yes, there have been injuries at wide receiver and running back. A key running back (Jaxson Kincaide) abruptly left the team after four games. And the quarterback shuffle has been well documented. But, as Norvell said, the problems all start up front.
“We have to be realistic,” he said. “We have to do what our offensive line allows us to do.”
The struggles on offense, now that we are squarely in Year Three of the Air Raid, have been a bit shocking. Scoring points, after all, is not all that difficult in this day and age of pinball college football.
Norvell, after all, a former offensive coordinator at Power Five schools, was hired to add excitement and explosiveness to the offense. He then brought in Air Raid expert Matt Mumme to work with the quarterbacks and be the caretaker of the offense. Scoring points was not expected to be a concern in the Norvell-Mumme Air Raid era, especially not in Year Three.
The 2016 Pack under coach Brian Polian, which abandoned Chris Ault’s Pistol Offense, produced just 25.4 points and 382.2 yards a game and just 39 touchdowns for the year. Norvell and Mumme came in, even after bumbling the quarterback position for the first four games, and improved the offense in 2017 to 29.2 points and 397.6 yards a game and 45 touchdowns. That improvement, thanks in large part to senior quarterback Ty Gangi, produced 31.1 points and 430.8 yards a game and 52 touchdowns last year.
There were some peaks and valleys along the way the past two seasons but the Air Raid, for the most part, lived up to its billing.
This year, though, the Air Raid has shriveled up and disappeared in more than half of the first eight games as Norvell has played musical chairs at quarterback.
It’s actually been worse than that. Yes, the Pack scored 34 points against Purdue but 27 of those points came in a flurry over the final 22 minutes. The Pack scored 37 at UTEP but nearly half of it (16 points) came in the final 17 minutes against a team that has allowed 31 or more points in six of seven games. The Pack had 41 against San Jose State but that included a defensive touchdown, a field goal as time expired and a 75-yard throw-it-up-and-pray touchdown pass on the first play of the second half.
The Pack has yet to play a complete game on offense this year, a streak of frustration that actually goes back to the 10th game of last year since it beat Colorado State 49-10. Remember how the Pack offense disappeared in the second half against UNLV last year in Game 12? At San Jose State in a 21-point effort in Game 11? In the bowl game against Arkansas State? Well, that disappearing act has carried over to the first eight games this year.
“We need to score in the 30s to give ourselves a chance,” Norvell said.
Former coach Chris Ault knew that as well as anyone. That’s why he made sure his Pack offenses averaged at least 30 points a game from 2005 through the end of his career in 2012. His 1994 and 1995 teams averaged 37.6 and 44.0 points a game.
Norvell’s Air Raid has produced just 11 games with 30 or more points over the last two-plus seasons and 33 games. The 2010 Wolf Pack that ran the Pistol offense with Ault and quarterback Colin Kaepernick had 11 30-point games by itself. The 2012 Pistol Pack with Ault and quarterback Cody Fajardo had 12. The 1995 team with Ault and quarterback Mike Maxwell scored 30 in 11 of 12 games and topped 40 seven times.
Eye-opening offensive numbers have been a huge part of the history and fabric of Wolf Pack football.
The Wolf Pack led the nation with 36 points a game in 1946 and 43.6 a game in 1948. In 1947 the Pack was fourth in the nation at 29.2 points a game. The Wolf Pack led the nation in total offense with 487 yards a game in 1948 and also led the country in 1993 (569.1), 1995 (569.4) and 1996 (527.3).
The Wolf Pack was in the top five in total offense every year from 1993 through 1999 with coaches Jeff Horton, Ault and Jeff Tisdel. Tisdel was fired after a 1999 season in which his offense was second in the country at 472 yards game.
The Wolf Pack led the nation in passing in 1946 (Bill Mackrides at quarterback), 1948 (Stan Heath), 1993 (Chris Vargas) and 1995 (Mike Maxwell). The Pack led the nation in rushing in 2009.
The Pack’s average of 569.4 yards a game in 1995 is the 17th best season in FBS history. The 1993’s team average of 569.1 in the 18th best all-time.
So, yes, the Wolf Pack knows a thing or two about offense and scoring points. The program, after all, was built on offense. And we know when it isn’t working.
“Carson (Strong) will improve every week as he plays,” said Norvell, reminding us all how much the time Strong has wasted on the bench this year has hurt his development. “It’s just execution. There’s no magic to it.”