Joe Santoro: The Nevada Wolf Pack’s best 12 minutes | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: The Nevada Wolf Pack’s best 12 minutes

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada head coach Jay Norvell, shown Oct. 27, 2018 against San Diego State in Reno.
Tom R. Smedes/AP | FR171463 AP

Did they really happen? Or were they simply a Nevada Wolf Pack mirage? We’re talking about the best 12 minutes of Wolf Pack football this season. For the final dozen minutes against Purdue back on Aug. 30, the Wolf Pack offense was explosive, determined and productive. The defense was ferocious, stingy and hungry. The Wolf Pack outscored the Purdue Boilermakers 17-0 over those final 12 minutes and played inspired, fearless, confident football. Carson Strong completed 13-of-19 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown and also ran for 39 yards on five brave scrambles. Brandon Talton kicked one of the most dramatic field goals in school history, a 56-yarder as the clock expired to beat a Power Five team. Daniel Brown had an interception that was delivered by the football gods. The Pack outgained Purdue 188-20 over those 12 minutes and never let the frightened Big 10 team cross midfield. For the other 228 minutes this year the Wolf Pack has played confused, lifeless, ugly, forgettable, monotonous and tedious football even while winning two games. It’s those 12 glorious minutes, though, that give us hope that this season can be special. The Pack needs to remind us that those 12 minutes actually can happen again.

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Yes, we understand that the Wolf Pack has won two of three games since those unforgettable dozen minutes. But don’t be fooled by the won-loss record. Sputtering through a 19-13 win at home against Weber State and a 37-21 win on the road at UTEP is far more disturbing than it is inspiring. Weber State is a FCS team from the Big Sky Conference. UTEP is one of the worst football programs in all of college football. They likely wouldn’t win half of the Texas state high school conferences. The Pack led Weber State just 16-13 in the fourth quarter and was tied at UTEP 21-21 very late in the third quarter. The hope is those last 180 minutes of Pack football were the real mirage and not those final 12 against Purdue.

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The Wolf Pack held Weber State and UTEP to a combined 179 passing yards and 403 total yards. It is the Pack defense’s best performance in back-to-back games in those two categories since it held UNLV and New Mexico to a combined 97 passing yards and 367 total yards in the middle of the 2011 season. Reality tells us that the Pack went up against the worst collection of quarterbacks against Weber State and UTEP in consecutive games that it has seen since New Mexico and UNLV eight years ago. We also know that Hawaii, the Pack’s next opponent Saturday night at Mackay Stadium, would sacrifice any quarterback into an exploding volcano that couldn’t pass for 97 yards by the middle of the second quarter. The bad news for the Wolf Pack pass defense is that Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald has completed 115-of-160 passes this year. The good news is that nine of those 115 completions have been caught by the opposing defense. We will find out Saturday if the Pack pass defense has actually improved.

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This Saturday’s game against Hawaii just might be the Pack’s most important game of the year. It is certainly the most important to date. The toughest games the rest of the season for the Pack are road games at Utah State, Fresno State and San Diego State. The easiest are home games against San Jose State, New Mexico and UNLV and a road game at Wyoming. That leaves Hawaii as an extremely pivotal game for the Pack. It could very well be a must-win for the Wolf Pack, if winning the West Division is the goal. The Pack wins Saturday and it likely won’t lose a game at home this year. That alone could be the difference between winning and losing the division.

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Fresno State and San Diego State are extremely beatable this year. Their domination of the West Division could come to an end this year. The team that walks off the field Saturday night at Mackay Stadium just might find itself in the Mountain West title game against either Boise State or Utah State. Don’t be surprised if the West Division champion has three conference losses by the end of the season. You don’t have to be perfect to win a West Division title this year. You just have to beat the right teams at the right time and one of those times for the Wolf Pack this season is Saturday night.

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The Mountain West has been floating about aimlessly in the world of college football ever since 2011, when Utah, BYU and TCU had all vacated the conference. BYU and Utah took off after 2010 and TCU left after 2011. TCU, BYU and Utah won or had a part in 11 of the first 13 (1999-2011) Mountain West football titles. So it’s no wonder why the Mountain West has struggled for national attention the past seven-plus seasons. Imagine if the Big 10 lost Michigan, Ohio State and either Michigan State and Penn State. Imagine if the Pac 12 lost USC, Washington and Oregon or the SEC lost Alabama, Georgia and either LSU, Florida or Auburn. Imagine if the ACC lost Clemson, Florida State and either Virginia or Virginia Tech. It must be noted that TCU, BYU and Utah have not enjoyed all that much football success since they left the Mountain West. The Mountain West was good for them and they were good for the Mountain West.

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We are still waiting for the Wolf Pack offense to erupt. Yes, we have those thrilling 12 minutes against Purdue as an indication of what is possible. But before and after those 12 minutes, well, it’s been like watching a dog trying to get a bag of potato chips off its head. There is tremendous potential stored up in this offense. Strong has a talented arm. The wide receivers are as talented a group as you will find in the Mountain West. The key just might be the running backs. Toa Taua, Jaxson Kincaide, Kelton Moore and, eventually, Devonte Lee (who has been injured) could lead this Pack team to a conference title. Through four games the top three backs (Taua, Kincaide and Moore) have just 105 carries. Taua, who might be the best offensive player in the Mountain West, should be approaching that many carries already by himself, especially with a freshman quarterback.