Joe Santoro: Time for the Pack to throw the ball | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Time for the Pack to throw the ball

Joe Santoro

The time has come for the Nevada Wolf Pack's Air Raid offense to really take flight. The first nine games saw the Pack develop a couple of young running backs (Toa Taua, Devonte Lee) and nurse quarterback Ty Gangi through a hip injury at mid-season. The Pack also played a few teams who could actually play a little defense now and then (Vanderbilt, Toledo, Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State, Air Force). So we didn't expect 65 passes a game. But the Air Raid has kind of lost its explosiveness. There has been as much ground in the Pack's raid as air and that's not what head coach Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme were brought here to do. The Pack has scored 17 touchdowns through the air and 17 on the ground this year. Last year the Wolf Pack ratio was 30 passing scores to 12 on the ground. Only one Pack receiver (Kaleb Fossum with 56) this year has more than 34 catches. Opponents have thrown more touchdown passes (22) than the Pack this year (17). Last year the Pack held a 30-24 edge in that category. It's all well and good the Pack's ground game has improved. But it's time to pump up the air and have some fun.

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The last three Pack regular season games against Colorado State, San Jose State and UNLV certainly lend themselves to some wild offensive numbers. None of them can play a lick of defense. The ball goes up in the air and they turn into a bunch of second graders during the Cold War and hide under their desks. If Norvell and Mumme want to reestablish fear in the hearts of opposing defenses, well, these last three games are the perfect opportunity. Just three Pack wide receivers (McLane Mannix, Elijah Cooks and Brendan O'Leary-Orange) have caught a touchdown pass this year. Fossum and Romeo Doubs have caught 82 passes between them and not one of those catches have ended up in the end zone. It's time for the Air Raid to fly.

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Gangi has earned the opportunity to have a little fun. Let him go wild. The senior has the ability to pass for 1,500 yards and a dozen touchdowns over these last three games. He's paid his dues, first sitting on the bench behind Tyler Stewart the bulk of his first year at Nevada in 2016. The Pack then made a coaching change and the first thing the new coaches did was go out and sign a former Alabama quarterback (David Cornwell). Gangi beat out Cornwell to start the 2017 season but just two games into the year he was back on the bench in favor of a freshman (Kaymen Cureton). All Gangi has done when given an opportunity is put up big numbers. He can end his Wolf Pack career with a flourish.

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With victories in the final three regular season games Gangi can get his career record as the Pack starting quarterback over .500. He's currently 10-12 which is quite an improvement after losing eight of his first 11 starts. He's gone 7-4 as the starter starting with the final three games of last season. Don't forget Cody Fajardo was just 22-22 as the Pack starter from 2011-14 and that was after starting 5-0. Gangi will end up as one of the seven or eight most productive quarterbacks in Wolf Pack history, a remarkable achievement considering he will likely only start 26 games in his career. He's currently ninth in Pack history in attempts (843) and completions (503) and 10th in touchdown passes (49) and yards (6,165).

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Will there be enough bowl games for all of the Mountain West teams that qualify? Utah State, Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State have already become bowl eligible. The Wolf Pack and Hawaii each need to win just one more game. Wyoming needs two more victories while Colorado State, Air Force and New Mexico all need to sweep their final three games. UNLV and San Jose State, the only two Mountain West teams already eliminated from bowl possibilities, can't wait for the season to end. The Mountain West is only guaranteed five bowl games now (Las Vegas Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque, Arizona Bowl in Tucson and Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu). The conference is also the backup plan for the Cheez-It Bowl in Phoenix and the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif. (Levi's Stadium). Five bowls might be enough as the four who have already qualified plus the Wolf Pack, which gets to play Colorado State, UNLV and San Jose State the next three weeks, are the only real locks to become eligible. Hawaii, though, does get to play UNLV and Air Force can certainly beat Wyoming, Colorado State and New Mexico to also become eligible. Wyoming also has a fighting chance to beat both New Mexico and Air Force to also crowd the Mountain West bowl picture.

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All of the Wolf Pack men's basketball team's new toys this year (Trey Porter, Nisre Zouzoua, Jordan Brown, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson and Tre'Shawn Thurman) are interesting and certainly capable of playing an important role this season. But we learned in the season opening 86-70 win over BYU on Tuesday when it comes time to win the game, it'll always get down to Cody and Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline. The Martins never left the court and Caroline only missed a minute in the second half after the Pack muddled though an inconsistent and choppy first half. Musselman at halftime saw his team's lofty No. 7 ranking and chance at a top three seed in the NCAA tournament fading away and it wasn't even Thanksgiving yet. The Muss Trust right now is only with the Martins and Caroline. He's not going to experiment with new players in close games. At Nevada you only get so many chances at a Final Four team. And by "so many" we really mean one. This is it. So when the game is in doubt this year, it's the job of the Martins and Caroline to go out and win it.

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We did, however, see a lot of positive things from the newcomers. Porter is a man among boys and is a double-double waiting to happen every night. Johnson hit some big 3-pointers. Tre'Shawn Thurman had nine rebounds in 21 minutes. Brown flashed a you-can't-stop-this right-handed hook in the lane for his only bucket. Henson and Zouzoua both have the fearlessness you need shooting threes, even though their shots aren't falling yet. Musselman, it's obvious, is a little nervous and confused by having to play nine guys each game. He's more of a seven-man rotation type of coach. And he's not going to change. Not this year. Oh, the Pack will have plenty of blow-out victories this year and there will be nights when a dozen guys will play. Musselman's daughter Mariah could do the subbing those nights. But in the games that require actual coaching and strategy, don't be surprised if all of this new-found Pack depth is pared down to that old reliable seven-man Musselman rotation.

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Lawlor Events Center is going to be one giant New Year's Eve party all season long. A crowd of 11,094 showed up on Tuesday and you can expect a crowd of 10,000 or more for each one of the Pack's 15 home games this year. The crowd on Tuesday is the second largest in Wolf Pack history for a home opener, behind only the 11,125 that showed up on Nov. 23, 1984 to see a 97-89 victory over UNLV. A Pack home game is a guaranteed good time. The home team almost never loses (Musselman has won 33 of his last 35 home games), there are pretty cheerleaders, alcohol, free T-shirts and seemingly non-stop ear-splitting tunes. Come to think of it, it's better than most New Year's Eve parties because, you never know, the coach might even take off his shirt at the end of the night.