Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Carson Strong has just scratched the surface | NevadaAppeal.com
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Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Carson Strong has just scratched the surface

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada quarterback Carson Strong during the first half of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Jan. 3.
Steve Conner/AP | FR171631 AP

The young man has a name right out of Hollywood, so perfect it doesn’t even need a nickname.

Carson Strong.

If you were going to dream up a name for a fearless Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback, well, that would be it. A first name taken right out of the state capital. A family name to indicate strength, courage and bravery.

Carson Strong. Nevada Strong. Wolf Pack Strong.

He’s Pack perfection.

And, yes, humble.

“I feel there’s a lot for me to learn from this year,” the Wolf Pack freshman said after a 30-21 season-ending loss to Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last week. “I’m just going to take it all in and do the best I can to be the best player I can be for the team next year.”

A Hollywood script in 1930 couldn’t have put it any better. All that was missing were a couple well-placed, “golly gees” and a sparkle flashing off his teeth.

A storybook hero in the making.

If you needed a reason to get excited about the next three years of Wolf Pack football, all you had to do was watch Carson Strong on the blue Boise turf on Jan. 3.

Strong turned that turf into Wolf Pack blue. He owned it. He attacked each play as if he was trying to change the course of a mighty river. Each time he dropped back or rolled out it was as if he was trying to bend steel in his bare hands. He played the entire afternoon fighting for truth, justice and the Wolf Pack way.

As a Wolf Pack fan and supporter you should have gotten chills watching young Carson strong-arm the Bobcats, trying to pull off a miracle comeback.

Yes, in the end, he couldn’t overcome the Boise blue turf, the Bobcats’ option offense, his own youthful we-will-never-surrender exuberance and, yes, even his own coaches.

But that is not important. There was, after all, no Fremont Cannon on the line. The trophy was a hideous glass bowl of potatoes with the winning coach getting a sideline shower of stale French fries. No great loss. The only trophy worth fighting for this year is still down in Las Vegas painted red.

Strong, though, won something last Friday that is far more important than some raw potatoes in a glass bowl on a Friday afternoon in an almost empty stadium.

He won over a football program. He won over a community. He gave notice to the entire Mountain West (yes, that includes you, Boise State) that Wolf Pack football is about to mature right before its eyes. Strong showed us all that the next three years this Pack team just might be able to leap tall challenges (yes, that means you, Boise State) in a single bound.

“The future is very bright,” Norvell said.

For once, we believe him. We saw it with our own two tired eyes, made Fremont Cannon red and bloodshot by countless such hollow Pack promises in the past.

This time, it just feels real.

Strong was inspiring in the Potato Bowl. He had the leadership of Chris Vargas. He owned the lightning fueled right arm of John Dutton and Mike Maxwell. He exhibited the grit of Eric Beavers, Jeff Rowe and David Neill. He confidently displayed the boldness of Zack Threadgill and the confidence of Cody Fajardo and Colin Kaepernick. He had the youth and promise of Fred Gatlin.

Yes, Pack fans, Carson Strong had all those wonderful things last Friday, all rolled into one silver and blue super hero.

Pack Strong, indeed.

The numbers alone suggest that the afternoon was one giant program-changing moment. And it happened in Boise in a bowl game against a tough-as-nails Ohio team from the slug-it-out Mid American Conference. Strong passed for 402 yards and a touchdown, completing 31-of-49 passes when everyone in the stadium and watching on a nationwide ESPN television audience knew that he was going to throw the ball.

It was, quite simply, one of the best performances by a Wolf Pack quarterback in a bowl game ever. The 402 passing yards are a Wolf Pack bowl game record, blowing away Kaepernick’s 370 on the same Boise blue plastic grass in 2006 against Maryland. The 49 attempts equaled Maxwell’s Pack bowl record against Toledo in the Las Vegas Bowl in 1995. The 31 completions established a Pack bowl record, besting Maxwell’s 27 in 1995.

We’ve seen plenty of Pack quarterbacks soil themselves in bowl games down through the years. Remember Kaepernick as a freshman in 2007 against New Mexico?

But not Strong as a freshman in January 2020 against Ohio. Strong’s performance, though, was about more than mere numbers. We’ve grown weary and bored, after all, with fancy empty calorie Air Raid numbers for Pack quarterbacks, especially when they add up to a loss. So don’t dwell on the numbers.

What you should get excited about was the fire in Strong’s belly. The laser-like focus in his eyes. The disappointment and determination he showed after every incomplete pass, punt or field goal or goofy drive-ending play called by the coaches. There was the Nevada grit that dripped from his pores. His teammates fed off him like he was a free buffet on Virginia Street. It was reminiscent of Vargas and the Mackay Miracle Men of the early 1990s, minus the miracle.

The Pack trailed 30-9 entering the fourth quarter against Ohio and with each field goal the Pack kicked, you could just see it burning a hole in Strong’s heart.

Everything was working against Strong at that moment. Even the devious blue Boise turf came up and bit him late in the third quarter, causing a fumble that led to Ohio’s final touchdown and that ugly 30-9 deficit.

Up by three touchdowns with a quarter to play, you could just sense the Ohio players start to fantasize about how they were going to cook up all of those Idaho spuds. Strong, though, simply kept playing football.

The freshman from Vacaville, Calif., completed 13 of his first 18 passes in the fourth quarter for 189 yards. He turned receivers Elijah Cooks, Melquan Stovall and Ben Putman into Nate Burleson, Trevor Insley and Alex Van Dyke. Before you could turn the channel the Wolf Pack trailed just 30-21 and still had two more drives to win the game. And it was all because their freshman quarterback was overcoming obstacle after obstacle tossed into his path.

But that’s when the Pack coaches decided to toss one more obstacle in his way by emptying their already bloated playbook.

The first time was when the Pack had a first-and-goal from the Ohio 6-yard line with a full three-plus minutes to go.

The Pack then decided to send 5-foot-8, 230-pound battering ram Devonte Lee on a sweep to his left. A sweep with Lee is bad enough from anywhere let alone the 6-yard line. But the Pack then had Lee try to pitch the ball back to Cooks, who was heading the other direction to the right. The ball was batted down and recovered by the Ohio defense.

Imagine that. Who could have seen that coming? Not Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme.

A goofy, childish, utterly ridiculous, see-how-many-plays-we-have-in-our-playbook type of call at a crucial moment in the game – a play that not even the 1966 Green Bay Packers could have executed – blew up in the Pack’s faces.

Go figure. That wasn’t Strong’s fault. They barely let him touch the ball on the play.

Strong, though, the righter of all Pack wrongs, simply went back to work. He brought the Pack back down to the Ohio 9-yard line with just under two minutes to play on the very next drive.

What followed were four incomplete passes into the end zone that not even Tom Brady in his prime likely could have completed. Ohio had them all covered more thoroughly than a pound of melted cheese and a gallon of sour cream on a baked potato. It was the Air Raid at its worst at the worst time yet again.

Strong, after all, is not Tom Brady in his prime. Not yet. Strong is not yet even Carson Strong in his own prime. By the time the fourth pass to an overly-covered Pack receiver fell incomplete, Ohio was dumping French fries on their coach’s head.

Strong, you can be sure, will overcome it. He will survive it. That day is coming. Soon. And when it does come, look out Mountain West. Strong is going to win a lot more than a bowl of raw potatoes.

“Having a kid who is a veteran quarterback now with three years left of eligibility, that’s exciting,” Norvell said.

Strong finished his freshman year with 2,335 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Kaepernick, by comparison, passed for 2,175 yards and 19 touchdowns as a freshman in 2007. Cody Fajardo piled up 1,707 yards and six scores as a freshman in 2011. Gatlin had 2,522 yards and 19 touchdowns as a freshman in 1989. David Neill had 3,249 yards and 29 touchdowns as a freshman in 1998.

Who is the best freshman Pack quarterback over the last 40 or so years? Hard to say, even harder to compare different eras, different offenses, different coaches and different opponents. The only thing they had in common was their youth.

But Strong is certainly in the conversation with those other Pack greats. Over his last five games Strong completed 131-of-200 passes for 1,359 yards eight touchdowns and just one interception, an average of 272 yards and nearly two touchdowns a game. Over the last two games Strong was 64-of-103 for 753 yards, two scores and no picks. Take the Strong we saw over the final five games and stretch that over an entire 13-game season and Mackay Stadium might already be sold out until the end of the 2022 season by now.

Yes, we understand that the Pack lost those two games to UNLV and Ohio with the Fremont Cannon and a national ESPN audience watching.

But winning and freshman quarterbacks rarely go together. The Pack was just 6-7 with Kaepernick in 2007, 7-6 with Fajardo in 2011, 6-5 with Neill in 1998, 7-4 with Gatlin in 1989 and 7-6 with Strong this year.

A 7-6 season with a bowl game and a win over a Power Five team (Purdue) and one on the road against a Top 25 team (San Diego State) is a pretty good debut season for any quarterback.

Not even Mumme and Norvell and all of their ill-timed goofy plays can keep this kid’s talents bottled up.

“Carson, this is just his first year,” Norvell said. “He just continued to get better as the year went along.”

Norvell and Mumme could learn a few things from their freshman quarterback about continuing to get better. That goofy call, don’t forget, came on the second-to-last drive of the season. Hopefully Norvell and Mumme will learn to trust their ever-improving quarterback with the games on the line in the future instead of trying to trick everyone.

“To throw the ball 49 times (against Ohio) and not have a turnover is pretty good,” Norvell said. “He’s just scratching the surface of what he can do as a player.”

And as a leader of Pack men.

“The thing about Carson is his leadership skills,” Norvell said. “That’s what I have been so impressed with and why we’re so excited for the future.”