Joe Santoro’s 2019 in Nevada Wolf Pack sports
For the Appeal
A year ago at this time the Nevada Wolf Pack football and men’s basketball teams had unlimited expectations, promise and hope.
The basketball team, coached by Eric Musselman and led by the greatest senior class in the program’s history, was coming off a Sweet 16 season and was considered one of the 10 best teams in the nation. The football team, coming off an overtime victory in the Arizona Bowl and its first eight-win season after seven years of mind-numbing mediocrity, dreamed about a Mountain West championship and painting the Fremont Cannon blue.
Well, here we are a year later and all those expectations seem like a cruel joke. The Pack’s hoop dreams got blown away in an Iowa cornfield in March and before we knew it the Musselman family loaded up the Muss Bus, headed south and was seen wearing red and chanting “Woo Pig Sooie” in Arkansas. And, to top the year off, the Fremont Cannon is still red.
So, yes, 2019 didn’t exactly live up to expectations for the Wolf Pack football and men’s basketball teams. But it wasn’t all silver and blue heartache and disappointment.
The basketball team spent January, February and even the early part of March with visions of a Final Four dancing in its head. The shock of watching the Muss Bus drive away was quickly soothed by the arrival of a new coach with an even better resume. And there was even one magical evening in late August when a freshman quarterback and kicker pulled off a Mackay Miracle.
A look back at the Top 10 most stunning, important, thrilling, disappointing and unforgettable Wolf Pack football and men’s basketball stories of 2019 . . .
10. Malik, we hardly knew ye
Few players in Wolf Pack history have packed as many thrills, highlights and eye-opening stunning moments into two weeks as Malik Henry. The former Florida State recruit and YouTube sensation started just two games at mid-season and disappeared quicker than he arrived. Few quarterbacks in school history have had a starting debut as dramatic as Henry on Oct. 19 at Mackay Stadium in a 41-38 victory over San Jose State. He completed 22-of-37 passes for 352 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half to Romeo Doubs. Henry capped off his first start by leading the Pack to a game-winning 40-yard field goal by Brandon Talton as time expired. Oh, Henry!, though, quickly turned into Oh, no, Henry. The following week after beating San Jose State, Henry was a frustrating 17-of-38 for 213 yards and two interceptions in a 36-10 loss at Utah State. He was then removed from the active roster a few days later for off-the-field issues and has yet to see the field since.
9. Hawaii air raid bombs Mackay
The Wolf Pack football team, winners of three of its first four games, strutted into the normally friendly confines of Mackay Stadium on the night of Sept. 28 a confident bunch. The opponent, after all, was the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, a team the Pack destroyed 40-22 just a year earlier in Honolulu. The Wolf Pack had not lost to Hawaii at Mackay in a dozen years. A national television audience on ESPN2 was going to witness a Pack party. What they saw was the worst night for the home team in Mackay Stadium’s 53-year-old history. Hawaii, coached by former Wolf Pack offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, suffocated the Pack 54-3, handing Nevada its worst loss at Mackay since the stadium opened in 1966. Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald passed for 312 yards and four touchdowns, completing 25-of-30 passes. The run-and-shoot embarrassed the Air Raid in the Air Raid’s own backyard. Hawaii outgained the Pack 512-203. Two Pack quarterbacks combined for 105 yards through the air. It was, without question, one of the most stunning home losses in Pack history.
8. Seniors leave Lawlor with tears, hugs and Mountain West title
Northern Nevada came to Lawlor Events Center on the night of March 9, 2019 to say good-bye. The greatest senior class in school history, led by Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline, were going to play their final game at Lawlor. And nobody disappointed. Caleb scored 25 points, Caroline added 16 and Cody scored 14 as the Pack whipped San Diego State 81-53 in front of 11,243 adoring fans on Senior Night. The victory completed a perfect 15-0 home season and capped off the regular season with a Mountain West title and a 28-3 record. Musselman removed the Martins and Caroline from the game with two minutes left, hugging all three as they approached the bench while the crowd stood and applauded the end of an era. “The number one goal is to try to find a way to get a number one seed (in the conference tournament) and win your conference,” Musselman said after the game. “Mission accomplished at both ends.” It would be the last mission the Pack accomplished in the season.
7. Wolf Pack stuns Aztecs in San Diego
The Wolf Pack football team had not beaten the San Diego State Aztecs in San Diego since 1946, losing five games in a row in the shadow of Sea World. In a season when almost nothing made sense, good or bad, the 5-4 Pack headed to Southern California on the night of Nov. 9 to take on the 7-1 Aztecs. And, of course, the Pack won. Devonte Lee’s 1-yard touchdown run with 10:31 to play gave the Pack a 17-10 lead in an eventual 17-13 victory. San Diego State had more first downs (18-12), more yards (309-226), had the ball longer (32:19 – 27:41) and held the Pack to an ugly 29 rushing yards on 28 carries. But the Aztecs, trailing 17-10, elected to kick a 44-yard field goal with 3:46 to play instead of going for a first down on 4th-and-6 from the Pack 27-yard line. The final Aztecs drive stalled on a fourth down incomplete pass from its own 42-yard line with 70 seconds to play. The win made the Pack bowl eligible and kept its Mountain West division title hopes alive.
6. Caroline takes frustrations out on fire extinguisher
Utah State’s Dee Glen Smith Spectrum hasn’t ever been the Wolf Pack basketball team’s favorite place to play. Strange things, after all, have been known to happen to the Wolf Pack in Logan, Utah. But the night of March 2, 2019 might have been the strangest of all. The Wolf Pack was ranked 12th in the nation with a 26-2 record heading into its showdown with the Aggies. The Pack, though, was outplayed and outcoached in an eye-opening 81-76 loss to the Aggies. Caleb Martin led the Wolf Pack with 23 points but also missed 13 of his 19 shots and eight of his 10 3-point attempts. Jordan Caroline was 3-of-15 from the floor and scored just seven points in 36 minutes. But the strangest moment of the night took place after the game. Just minutes after the Pack bobbed and weaved its way through the crowd of 10,387 that had emptied out onto the floor, Caroline started punching a fire extinguisher in the hallway leading to the Pack locker room. He then had to be physically restrained by Wolf Pack personnel. It was our first sign that the Pack dream season was about to come crashing down.
5. Only the Strong survive
Carson Strong could not have imagined a better beginning to his Wolf Pack career. The red-shirt freshman quarterback completed 30-of-51 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns in his starting debut in a thrilling 34-31 win over the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackay Stadium on Aug. 30. With the Pack trailing 31-14, Strong led his teammates to 20 points in the final 23 minutes to pull off the stunning victory over a Big Ten team. Strong found Elijah Cooks from 20 yards out to tie the game, 31-31, with just 52 seconds left to play. After an interception by Daniel Brown, Strong then connected with Cooks again for 17 yards down to the Purdue 39 yard line to set up a game-winning 56-yard field goal by fellow freshman Brandon Talton as time expired. It would turn out to be the greatest Pack win at Mackay in the 2019 season.
4. Muss Bus pulls out of northern Nevada
Nobody in northern Nevada seemed all that stunned to learn in early April that Musselman was leaving town to coach the Arkansas Razorbacks. All that remained in question, after all, seemed to be the timing of the announcement and the destination. Musselman had four amazing years at Nevada, going to three NCAA tournaments, one Sweet 16 and winning a CBI title. He was 110-34 at Nevada and, along with his wife Danyelle and daughter Mariah, captured the hearts of northern Nevada like no other Pack coach in history. So it was not easy to see northern Nevada’s First Family go and even more difficult to see them all over social media wearing red, waving their arms in the air and yelling “Woo Pig Sooie.” In the end, though, the Pack just couldn’t compete with the Southeastern Conference or the $12.5 million that Musselman received to Call the Hogs.
3. All’s well with Alford
Musselman leaving was not a shock. Replacing him less than a week later with a coach even more accomplished, though, was a stunner. Steve Alford came to northern Nevada in early April having coached at UCLA and Iowa, among other places. He had won nearly 600 games and was already one of the greatest coaches in Mountain West history while at New Mexico. He was one of the greatest players in NCAA history, playing for Bobby Knight. He won an Olympic gold medal and a national title at Indiana. He’s been to the Sweet 16 four times in his coaching career. And, best of all, he told Wolf Pack fans the day he was hired that, “We are thrilled to be in northern Nevada. I want this to be the last stop of my coaching career.” Muss who?
2. Iowa did not turn out to be Pack heaven
This was not the way the greatest season in Wolf Pack basketball history was supposed to end. Not with a 70-61 loss to a mediocre Florida Gators team in Des Moines, Iowa in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Pack, after all, was ranked in the Top 10 in the nation most of the season. The Wolf Pack had lost just four games all season heading into the tournament. It won its first 14 games and 24 of its first 25. Florida was an offensively-challenged team that had already lost 14 games. Well, the supposedly best team in school history became the most disappointing team in school history on March 21. Cody Martin scored 23 points but his twin brother Caleb missed 9-of-11 3-pointers and turned the ball over six times. Caroline was 2-of-11 from the field. Musselman, out-coached once again, seemed completely out of answers. It was the most disappointing Wolf Pack loss in the NCAA tournament since a loss to Montana in 2006 in Salt Lake.
1. Fremont fisticuffs
Few days in the long history of Nevada Wolf Pack football have been as demoralizing as Nov. 30, 2019. So much was expected. So little was accomplished. The ultimate prize, the Fremont Cannon, sat on the UNLV Rebels sideline painted red for much of the afternoon under a cloudy northern Nevada sky. The Pack, stunned by a 34-29 loss the year before at Las Vegas when it somehow wasted a 23-0 lead, vowed to get the cannon back. The Pack, though, wasn’t ready to play. UNLV, which was playing for a lame duck coach (Tony Sanchez) who was coaching his final game, jumped out to a 17-0 lead and still led 27-13 late in the fourth quarter. Carson Strong, though, who said earlier in the week that he wanted to go 4-0 in his career against UNLV, refused to lose. He tossed a 24-yard touchdown pass to Dominic Christian and engineered a 10-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard scoring run by Devonte Lee with 92 seconds left to tie the game at 27-27. The freshman, it seemed, was about to put his first UNLV notch in his Wolf Pack belt when Brandon Talton gave the Pack a 30-27 lead in overtime with a 42-yard field goal. UNLV, though, won the game, 33-30, when quarterback Kenyon Oblad found a wide open Steve Jenkins for a 19-yard touchdown pass. The two teams then engaged in an embarrassing and ugly brawl after the game, resulting in four player suspensions for each team. The cannon then went back to Las Vegas, still painted red.