Joe Santoro: Still waiting for the Nevada Wolf Pack’s best game | NevadaAppeal.com
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Joe Santoro: Still waiting for the Nevada Wolf Pack’s best game

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada quarterback Carson Strong (12) turns to hand the ball off during the first half of the Idaho Potato Bowl NCAA college football game, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Boise, Idaho. Nevada won 38-27. (AP Photo/Steve Conner)

A 7-2 record with a bowl victory and a win over UNLV is a successful Nevada Wolf Pack football season no matter how you slice it. So, go ahead, give coach Jay Norvell another contract extension, award every senior another year of eligibility and throw a parade down Virginia Street (no spectators, please). But why does it feel like the Wolf Pack never really played as well as it could in any game this year? Maybe we expected too much but this team had a legitimate chance at going undefeated and winning its first Mountain West title. And it proceeded to lose two of its last three regular season games with those dreams on the line. Blame it on COVID, no fans in the stands and playing a college football season in an environment less rowdy than fourth-period study hall in fifth grade. But the Pack never really played to its potential in any game this year. That 7-2 record was more a product of the schedule than it was anything else.

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The Pack led Wyoming 28-6 in the opener and had to survive in overtime. There was the lackluster 18-point win over a truly awful UNLV team in Week 2, a team that went winless and was beaten by 13 or more points in every game. The Pack fell behind 9-0 to a dreadful Utah State team at home, a team whose coach would quit the next day. There was the 13-10 deficit at halftime against New Mexico in an ugly 27-20 win. The Pack should have lost to San Diego State, turning the ball over with a five-point lead in the final minutes on an ill-advised pass. The Aztecs had first down at the Pack 4-yard line and proceeded to throw three passes on its next four plays despite not having a legitimate quarterback on the roster since Brian Sipe and Dennis Shaw in the early 1970s. The Pack had just 14 first downs and were outgained 599-416 by Fresno State, a team that hadn’t played in three weeks. The Pack should have beaten Tulane by four touchdowns. And we all know what happened against Hawaii and San Jose State. Norvell constantly reminded us all year that his Pack had yet to play its best game. We won’t argue with him.



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This might have been the easiest schedule in Wolf Pack football history. None of the seven victories came against a team with a winning record this year. The seven victims have a combined record of 18-33. More than half of those 18 wins were by two (Tulane, San Diego State) teams. The other five Pack wins came against teams that are a combined 8-23. The Wolf Pack’s formula was simple. They merely sprinkled in enough big plays on offense to demoralize their overwhelmed opponents and the held their breath on defense and hoped for the best. It worked seven of nine times and didn’t in the two most important games (Hawaii, San Jose State) of the year.



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How much did the Wolf Pack rely on the big play on offense this season? Well, there was only two games all season long when the Pack did not have a touchdown pass or run for 50 yards or more. Those two games? You guessed it. Hawaii and San Jose State. The Hawaii and San Jose State games were also the only two games in which the Pack did not have a touchdown run or throw of at least 20 yards. The Wolf Pack had eight touchdowns of 50 or more yards, 12 of 30 or more yards and 15 of 20 or more yards.

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The offense scored 34 or more points in five games this season and 20 or more in every game. Consistency was the name of the Pack offense in 2020. It was the first year the Pack did not score 40 or more points in a game since 2015 and the first time it did not score under 20 points since 2012. That lack of a 40-point performance on offense is further proof that this team never did play its best game this year, especially with a quarterback (Carson Strong) that averaged three touchdowns and 318 yards a game.

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Want more proof that the Pack never played its best game this year? Strong passed for five touchdowns in two games (Fresno State, Tulane) this season, becoming the ninth quarterback in school history to throw for five or more in a game. The other eight are Mike Maxwell, Stan Heath, Larry Worman, Colin Kaepernick, John Dutton, Chris Vargas, David Neill and Fred Gatlin. The nine have combined to do it 15 times. Strong, though, is the first to do it in a game in which the Pack scored fewer than 48 points. And he did it twice. The Pack scored just 37 (Fresno State) and 38 (Tulane) in Strong’s five-touchdown games.

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Nobody, of course, knows what next season will be like. But if all goes as planned, the schedule will be a whole lot tougher in 2021 than it was in 2020. First of all, the Pack will likely have to travel outside the state of Nevada for more than two games in 2020. The road games are at California, Kansas State, Fresno State, San Diego State, Boise State and Colorado State. The home games include Hawaii, San Jose State, UNLV, Air Force, Idaho State and New Mexico State. No, we will not predict an undefeated season for the Pack in 2021.

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The officials at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl should be ashamed of themselves for giving the Wolf Pack a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end of the game. With the game all but over (Nevada led 38-20 with 17 seconds to play) the Pack players dumped a bucket full of French fries on Jay Norvell’s head on the sideline. The officials gave the Pack a penalty and Tulane scored a touchdown on a 65-yard run by Cameron Carroll while, it seemed, nine of the 11 Pack players on the field were heading over to the sideline to eat the discarded fries. It’s college football. The game was decided. It was at the end of a trying pandemic season after a meaningless game on a Tuesday afternoon in Boise with nobody in the stands. Was a penalty really necessary?