Joe Santoro: The concern with Jay Norvell | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: The concern with Jay Norvell

Joe Santoro

Jay Norvell can coach. You might not believe that as you watched him blow a 23-0 lead at UNLV last Saturday in a ridiculous 34-29 loss to the Rebels. But it's important in these troubling times to think of how good you felt about Norvell when the Pack was 7-4 on the season, riding a four-game winning streak and leading 23-0 on Saturday. You don't last three decades in the coaching profession, with the vast majority of those years at Power Five schools, without being able to recruit, organize, coach, teach and motivate. Norvell earned the Wolf Pack job as the most qualified and experienced coach to ever take over the program. His players seem to respect him and play hard for him. Norvell is a football man, through and through. He's earned everything he has ever achieved in the sport as a player and coach. He's tough, strong-willed, determined and believes in himself and those who work hard for him. He was a safe, solid choice to become the Wolf Pack head coach after the 2016 season. That hasn't changed, even after Saturday night.

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But there does remain one concern about Norvell. Can he manage a game? He can manage a team and a roster from Sunday through Friday and January through August. But managing a game, from the opening kickoff to the final tick of the clock, seems to be his demon. The ability to manage games is what separates good assistant coaches from good head coaches. When your team hands you a 23-0 lead against one of the worst football programs in the nation, you should be able to carry, push and pull that team to victory. Yes, nobody would have been shocked to see the Pack blow a 23-0 against Alabama. But this was the University of Notta Lotta Victories, as was once scratched on the cannon. All it took to win was smart play calling and elementary clock management. Tony Sanchez, a guy with 16 career victories in four years, out-coached Norvell over the final 40 minutes. The Rebels played with passion, energy and purpose. The Pack played as if the greatest trophy in college football wasn't at stake.

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Don't forget Norvell's Pack nearly gave away another 23-point lead (30-7) earlier this season at Mackay Stadium against Oregon State, another awful football team. The Pack also led Air Force 28-10 and nearly gave that game away. Norvell, at times, can't seem to stop the bleeding when the other team puts up anything resembling a fight. In 22 games as Pack coach against Division I-A, Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Norvell's teams have been outscored 141-98 in the fourth quarter. Norvell's Pack has scored more than seven points in the fourth quarter against FBS teams just twice in 22 games. They've been shut out eight times in the final 15 minutes. When these numbers turn around, the Pack will start winning conference championships and you can then call Norvell a good head coach.

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The loss to UNLV is on the offense. The Air Raid offense is great for putting up flashy numbers. But, historically, it doesn't win a whole lot of championships. The problem with the Air Raid, it seems, is it only has one speed. Yes, it has a couple thousand plays. But all those plays are with one goal in mind — to score in three minutes or less. The same plays are called when the game is 0-0 as when it's 23-0 and again when it's 29-28. It's never about protecting a lead, something at which the Pistol Offense was brilliant. The Air Raid, it seems, never knows the score. If it knew the score on Saturday, we would have seen an avalanche of Wolf Pack runs (the Pack averaged 6.3 yards a carry) and safe and secure passes to McLane Mannix and Kaleb Fossum at or behind the line of scrimmage. Instead, we saw Ty Gangi firing dangerous passes downfield and getting intercepted three times. The Air Raid has a nasty tendency to allow opponents to get back into games. The Pack's first four drives produced 23 points. The last nine contributed six points and, oh yeah, three turnovers and four punts.

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What does the loss to UNLV actually mean? Well, it does cast some shadows on the 7-4 record and four-game winning streak going into the game. The seven wins now, it seems, are more a product of a forgiving schedule than any tremendous improvement on the part of the Pack. Yes, there has been improvement (last year's team would have lost those games to Oregon State and Air Force) but it's not as much improvement as we thought when the Pack was up 23-0 on Saturday. This year is a step in the right direction and not a giant leap. Even the Pack's signature win (over 7-5 San Diego State) has lost its shimmer and shine after seeing the Aztecs lose to UNLV and Hawaii in the last three weeks.

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Yes, the Pack still has one more game remaining this year in a bowl matchup that will likely be announced on Sunday. But all you need to know about bowl games is they're random games against random opponents in random cities on random dates in front of random crowds and played with random motivation and intensity. In most bowl games the coaches on both sides are more worried about sending out their resumes. In other words, the games are meaningless. They're simply television programming. Even if the Pack loses its bowl to fall to 7-6 on the year, it won't mean the sky is falling. It just means the players got some nice dinners and gifts after a long season. Yes, if the Pack wins, even if it's against San Jose State at Reno High School, Norvell will proudly declare it was a great victory and that it shows tremendous promise for the next season. And that's perfectly fine. He's earned the right. Eight-win seasons, even if all eight came against San Jose State and similar foes, don't come around often at Nevada. But nobody will truly buy into it. You see, the Fremont Cannon is down in Las Vegas right now and it's painted red.

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Norvell must understand the loss to UNLV will never go away. No silly bowl game can wash it away. When you lose to UNLV, Wolf Pack fans, which already were lukewarm at best to Norvell's teams, never forget. The Fremont Cannon game isn't a meaningless bowl game simply created to fill a random programming time slot for a meaningless cable network. The Wolf Pack-Rebel game is for the fans. It's for state pride. It's for the Fremont Cannon. Norvell is now, officially, on the Fremont Cannon clock. You lose once to UNLV the cannon is pointed in your direction. You lose twice, well, it's time to duck and run for cover. Norvell had better win a whole lot of games between now and when he loses to UNLV again.