Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack will win Saturday | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack will win Saturday

Joe Santoro
Special to the Nevada Appeal

The Nevada Wolf Pack football team will beat the Oregon State Beavers on Saturday at Mackay Stadium. Keep in mind this victory, over a Pac-12 bottom feeder, wouldn't be a program-changing victory for the Wolf Pack. It wouldn't point them in the direction of a national championship. It wouldn't convince ESPN to do a 30 for 30 two-hour documentary on the Jay Norvell era. But it's a game the Pack desperately need to win just the same. There are a lot of reasons why the Pack should walk off the field Saturday night with its second victory of the year. The game is at Mackay. Norvell's teams have won four of their last five games at home. Oregon State has lost 20 games in a row on the road. Oregon State isn't Vanderbilt. Playing a Pac-12 team at home, for the Wolf Pack, is a whole lot easier than playing a SEC team on the road. The Pack has beaten Pac-12 teams before. Three times (Cal in 2010 and 2012 and Washington State in 2014) in the last seven seasons, in fact. The Pack are a three or four-point favorite over Oregon State. Do you know how bad a team from a Power Five conference has to be to be considered a three or four-point underdog to the Wolf Pack? We will see on Saturday. Pack could win this by three touchdowns.

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Forget what happened last Saturday in Nashville (a 41-10 loss at Vanderbilt). The Wolf Pack wasn't exposed. The Wolf Pack isn't headed to another three-victory season. None of the realistic hopes and dreams for this Pack team (an 8-4 record or better and a possible Mountain West division title) weren't wiped out in Music City. A loss to Oregon State, though, might do all those things. This is a game the Wolf Pack should win. We can't say that often. Heck, the Big West Conference version of the Pack almost beat the Beavers at home way back in 1999. And that Pack team finished 3-9 and got its head coach (Jeff Tisdel) fired. You lose to Oregon State at home and, well, you can lose to anybody anywhere. OK, maybe not San Jose State anywhere. But anybody else anywhere. This wouldn't be a program-changing victory. But it might be a season-killing loss.

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This Oregon State game has the potential to get the Pack pointed in the right direction on and off the field for the first time in the Norvell era. The Wolf Pack is on an unfortunate streak of 10 home games in a row with a crowd of under 20,000. It's the longest streak of sub-20,000 crowds since Mackay Stadium was expanded to 26,000 seats in 1991 (from 14,000). The last time the Pack drew 20,000 or more was Oct. 8, 2016 against Fresno State. That game ended a stretch of 23-of-27 crowds of 20,000 or more. That could all come to an end on Saturday. Three Pac-12 teams (California in 2010, Washington State in 2014 and Arizona in 2015) have come to Mackay in recent years and have attracted an average crowd of 26,395. The last time Oregon State came to Mackay, back in the 20th century (1999), the crowd was 29,167. A crowd of 20,000 or more wouldn't convince the Wolf Pack athletic department to increase Mackay's seating capacity to 40,000, but it would put an end to a disturbing trend.

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The Wolf Pack offense needs to understand it's not a sign of weakness to actually stay on the field. The Pack's time of possession this year after two games is just 24:15. Talk about your fast food offense. When you're on the field shorter than an episode of Sabrina The Teenage Witch and The Nanny, well, you're not doing your defense any favors. The first year of the Norvell era produced a time of possession of just 25:44. Just three teams in FBS — Mississippi, Missouri and, of course, San Jose State — had the ball less on offense. So this isn't just a two-game trend. To put it all in perspective, the Wolf Pack had a time of possession of 30 minutes or more from 2004 through 2015, the entire era of the Pistol offense. The 2011 team controlled the ball for more than 34 minutes a game. We understand a lot of factors go into time of possession but a few less 1-yard runs as well as those seemingly inevitable drive-stopping incomplete passes might be the biggest factors. The overworked defense would appreciate it and might have some energy in the second half to actually stop someone.

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Where in the world is Kelton Moore? The big Pack back (5-foot-11, 240 pounds) has just 10 carries this year for 29 yards. He's had just five carries in each of the Pack's first two games. A couple of freshmen Norvell recruits (Toa Taua and Devonte Lee) each have more carries than Moore, a junior and former Brian Polian recruit. Moore rushed for 865 yards last year. He had four 100-yard games, including 216 against Hawaii and 106 against Boise State. He had 109 yards on 23 carries in the season-ending win over UNLV last year, scoring the game-winning touchdown with just more than seven minutes to play. He's on the Doak Walker Award and Earl Campbell Award watch lists this year. Pretty soon he might be on the side of a milk carton if the Pack doesn't start feeding him the ball.

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The Wolf Pack also might want to start using wide receiver Brendan O'Leary-Orange more this season. O'Leary-Orange was inactive for the Pack's season opener against Portland State but did return for the Vanderbilt game. His only catch against Vanderbilt went for a 9-yard touchdown late in the first half. We expect O'Leary-Orange to spend quite a bit of time in the end zone this season. Now a junior (another Polian recruit), the 6-foot-4, 210-pound O'Leary-Orange would seem to be the perfect complement to mighty-mite receivers McLane Mannix and Kaleb Fossum (both 5-9). He caught 39 passes for 618 yards and four touchdowns last year in just 11 games. His 11 catches for 214 yards and three touchdowns at San Diego State a year ago is one of the greatest performances by a Wolf Pack receiver in school history. Throw him the ball.

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The Wolf Pack football team might be on the verge of doing something special. The next three games (home against Oregon State and on the road at Toledo and Air Force) are crucial as far as building this team's confidence and swagger and setting the tone for the rest of the season. If the Pack are 4-1 after going to Air Force on Sept. 29 (a real possibility), look out. Anything is possible. But Week Six is when this Pack season truly gets serious. A five-game stretch (Oct. 6 through Nov. 10) will see Fresno State, Boise State, San Diego State and Colorado State come to Mackay. The only road game during that stretch is at Hawaii but Hawaii is scoring a ton of points this year and they're always at their best in Honolulu. Those five games will determine the Pack's chances at a Mountain West division title. But it's these next three games that might make that title possible.