Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack should give thanks for brawl ‘punishment’ | NevadaAppeal.com
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Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack should give thanks for brawl ‘punishment’

Joe Santoro
For the Appeal

Austin Arnold needs to send the Mountain West a Christmas gift. A carefully-worded holiday card, a box of chocolates or even just a thank you note will also suffice. The junior defensive back, after all, is lucky to still be a member of the Nevada Wolf Pack football team. And he has the good, kind Wolf Pack-friendly folks at the Mountain West to thank. Arnold was suspended by the conference for a mere two games for his part in the Wolf Pack’s ugly brawl after a 33-30 loss to UNLV on Nov. 30. Well, to be clear, Austin did more than just take part. To borrow a few words from Conor McGregor, Arnold wasn’t there to just take part, he took over. He delivered the best Pack hit of the day. You could argue that he caused the brawl, coming up from behind on UNLV quarterback Kenyon Oblad and punching him in the head. For that violent act, Arnold was told to sit out two games. That’s it. Two games almost eight months apart. Two meaningless games, in an insignificant bowl game in Boise on Jan. 3 against Ohio and Aug. 29 at Mackay Stadium against UC Davis. You sucker punch someone in a Mountain West game, causing a disgusting brawl, and all you have to do is sit out two unimportant games. With that sort of slap on the wrist as punishment, the Mountain West is fortunate three dozen Pack players didn’t sucker punch a Rebel after that game. If Arnold does the same thing on Virginia Street, he’s talking to lawyers, police and a judge. He does it in a Mountain West game and his punishment is to not play in Boise in early January and in the Nevada heat in late August against a Big Sky team.

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The Arnold-Oblad incident might not have been a spur of the moment confrontation. It likely has its roots in Southern Nevada high school football. Arnold is a Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) High graduate. Oblad is a Liberty (Henderson) High grad. We have no idea what prompted Arnold to cheap-shot Oblad, but it might have had something to do with Oblad reminding Arnold (either verbally or just by his physical presence) of Liberty’s stunning 30-24 overtime playoff victory over Gorman in the Nevada high school playoffs the week before. Liberty’s win ended Gorman’s streak of 10 consecutive state titles. Arnold, who played for UNLV coach Tony Sanchez at Gorman in 2014, took part in three (2014-16) of those state titles. Gorman had won 115 games in a row over Nevada teams. Four of those victories came over Oblad and Liberty from 2014-17. Gorman obliterated Liberty in the state semifinals in 2014 (50-0) and 2017 (35-13) and in the state title game in 2015 (62-21) and 2016 (84-8). What happened on Nov. 30 at Mackay Stadium likely wasn’t the first time Oblad got punched in the head by a Gorman player.

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The Wolf Pack announced this week that defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, safeties coach Mike Chamoures and secondary coach David Lockwood will not be part of the coaching staff in 2020. All three leaving Nevada at the same time might not have been a coincidence. All three, after all, once coached at West Virginia. Casteel was West Virginia’s defensive coordinator from 2002-11. Chamoures was a graduate assistant at West Virginia in 2010 and 2011. He also was a defensive assistant at Arizona in 2012 when Casteel was the Wildcats defensive coordinator from 2012-15. Lockwood coached cornerbacks for Casteel at West Virginia from 2008-11 and at Arizona from 2012-15. The West Virginia (and Arizona) era at Nevada is now over.

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It is always easy to blame the defense for what ails the Nevada Wolf Pack football team. Chris Ault, after all, did it for three decades and, well, he was right most of the time, although he conveniently used to forget that he hired all those defensive coaches. And the defense certainly had its struggles this year, allowing 32 points and 398 yards a game. The Pack also allowed 77 points to Oregon and 54 to Hawaii and 28 or more points in eight of 12 games. But all of that was to be expected for a defense that was gutted by the loss of seniors Malik Reed, Asauni Rufus, Korey Rush, Dameon Baber, Jomon Dotson and others off last year’s team. The Pack defense, which came up big in the biggest win (17-13 at San Diego State) of the year, didn’t underachieve this year. It did what most everyone expected it would do.

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Casteel’s defense certainly took us on a rollercoaster ride at Nevada over the last three years. Casteel was the Pack defensive coordinator for 37 games and, make no mistake, there were a few bright moments. Our favorite was the Pack’s 21-3 loss to Fresno State in 2018. Holding that Fresno State team, which was led by quarterback Marcus McMaryion, to just 21 points was Casteel’s best effort at Nevada. The Bulldogs, after all, went 12-2 in 2018, won the Mountain West title and then beat Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl. The rest of Casteel’s top performances at Nevada came against offensively-challenged teams (San Diego State this year and last, Colorado State last year, San Jose State in 2017 and 2018, UNLV in 2017, Weber State and New Mexico this year and Arkansas State last year). Casteel’s defenses held opponents under 20 points just eight times in 37 games.

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It was the offense, though, that underachieved this year. The Pack averaged just 21.3 points a game, good for 11th in the 12-team Mountain West. It was 11th in rushing offense at 122.8 yards a game and 10th in total offense at 359.9 yards a game. Ault used to get those numbers by halftime of most games. The Pack passing offense had 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions this year. And that was with a so-called Air Raid offense. Head coach Jay Norvell also had to take over the play-calling duties at mid-season. The team scored just 29 touchdowns all year, and not all of those scores were by the offense. If changes are needed on the coaching staff this off-season, the bulk of them should come on offense.

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Don’t be all that concerned about the Wolf Pack men’s basketball team’s 75-42 loss at BYU this week. Yes, it was ugly. The Pack shot 25 percent from the floor and missed 20-of-23 threes. But that sort of performance can happen early in the season, especially from a team that is still figuring itself out. But it should be noted that BYU has lost to Mountain West teams San Diego State and Boise State this year and the Pack was never in the game against the Cougars. Also, the crowd at BYU (10,570) was the first uncomfortable environment the Pack has played in this year. Before BYU, the Pack had played five games away from Lawlor and all five were in front of crowds of 3,106 or smaller. You can get a bigger audience working out in a hotel weight room. Being able to win on the road in tough environments (see UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State, Boise State and Utah State) will be one of the biggest keys to this Wolf Pack season.