Nevada Wolf Pack is bad and still could win a title, Joe Santoro says
For the Nevada Appeal
The Nevada Wolf Pack is not a very good football team right now.
The Pack has lost two of its last three games by 51 and 26 points. The only victory in the last three games required a last-second field goal at home to beat a team (San Jose State) that has won just 10 of its last 44 games.
The Wolf Pack has lost three games this season by 25 points or more for the first time since 2004. It has been outscored, on average, this season by 17 points a game. Its losses have been by an average of 49 points. Its victories have been by an average of seven points. The Pack has the worst offense (21.4 points a game) and the worst defense (38.6 points a game) in the Mountain West.
Yes, the Wolf Pack is 4-3 right now but two of the victories came on a last-second field goal and another was by six points over a Division I-AA team (Weber State). The only other victory saw the Pack tied 21-21 late in the third quarter against a team (UTEP) that has now won just two of its last 28 games.
When the Pack has won this year, it sneaks out the back door. When it has lost, it can’t wait for the game (and, seemingly, the season) to end.
Make no mistake, there is absolutely nothing about this Wolf Pack team that screams out championship. Well, there is one thing. It’s a fairly important thing, too. The Pack plays in the West Division of the Mountain West, a collection of rag-tag football teams that have just as many disturbing issues, if not more, than the Wolf Pack.
“There’s a lot of football left in this conference and we have a chance to make some hay,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said on Monday.
The Wolf Pack can win the West Division and play either Boise State, Utah State, Wyoming or Air Force in the Mountain West title game.
OK, stop laughing.
The West Division of the Mountain West is that mediocre. It is that forgiving. It is that soft. Nobody in the division plays well from quarter to quarter, let alone game to game. Nobody in the division has an offense and a defense that shows up in the same week. The Wolf Pack, despite its ugliness and ineptness at times during this feast or famine season, is right in the hunt for a division title whether it deserves it or not. The Pack is a one-eyed wolf in the hunt against a couple three-legged dogs and a couple deaf cats. The West Division of the Mountain West is the college football version of a presidential debate. Somebody has to win in the end. It’s in the rule book.
“When you look across the board everybody is kind of the same,” Norvell said last week. “Everybody is fighting to keep ground. We’re just like everybody else. It’s really about who handles the challenge.”
The beauty of the West Division is that you don’t have to handle the challenge every week. All you need to do is win five of your eight conference games this year and you will likely be in the running for the division title at the end of the season.
The cast of characters in the West Division shouldn’t even scare a Wolf Pack team that has crawled up in the fetal position each time its opponent has fought back.
San Diego State currently leads the division with a 3-1 conference record. The Aztecs, at 6-1 overall, are the only team in the division that has not lost at least three games. The Aztecs are the clear-cut favorite to win the division right now. But they are doing it with defense and a whole lot of well-placed mirrors.
The Aztecs play like its 1968. San Diego State has the best defense in the Mountain West (by far) but its offense is at times the worst. The Aztecs are 11th in the conference in scoring (22 points a game) and 12th in total yards (328 a game). This is a team that beat Weber State just 6-0.
Fresno State is the ultimate West Division team. The Bulldogs are mediocre in everything, including the standings (3-3, 1-1). Fresno’s three victories this year have come against two god-awful FBS teams (UNLV, New Mexico State) that are a combined 2-12 and one FCS team (Sacramento State). Its losses have been against the only three teams it has faced that showed a pulse (USC, Minnesota, Air Force).
Hawaii (4-3, 1-2, like the Pack) whipped the Wolf Pack 54-3 three weeks ago and looked like the 1989 San Francisco 49ers but since then has lost 59-37 at Boise State and 56-26 to Air Force at home. Yes, the team that allowed just three points to the Wolf Pack has given up an average of 57 points a game since then.
The other two teams in the West Division are San Jose State (3-4, 1-3) and UNLV (2-5, 0-3). San Jose State has just three winning seasons since 1992. UNLV has had just four winning seasons since 1986. Those trends will continue this year.
Still think the Wolf Pack season is over? Or are you just hoping it was? Good or bad, it’s not. It’s only getting started.
“10-3 is our goal,” senior wide receiver Kaleb Fossum said, adding in a victory in a bowl game just for fun. “Our goals haven’t changed. We want to win this thing out.”
Fresno State still has to play Hawaii, San Diego State and San Jose State on the road and Nevada, Colorado State and Utah State at home. The Bulldogs could very well finish 3-5 in league play.
Hawaii has to play New Mexico and UNLV on the road and Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State at home. The Rainbow Warriors have the easiest remaining schedule among the four teams in the West Division that can actually chew gum and walk at the same time but could still very well lose four or five league games.
San Diego State is the favorite right now but the Aztecs also have the most difficult schedule remaining with home games against Nevada and Fresno State and road games at UNLV and Hawaii. Three or four league losses are a distinct possibility for the Aztecs especially if they insist on beating teams 17-10 every week.
The only other likely victory for San Jose State or UNLV the rest of the way is when they play each other in Las Vegas on Nov. 23.
That leaves the Wolf Pack. The Pack still has to play three difficult road games at Wyoming (this Saturday), Fresno State and San Diego State. The home games are against New Mexico and UNLV.
So we are likely looking at a Wolf Pack conference season of somewhere between 3-5 and 5-3. And 5-3 just might win the West. A 3-5 record better include a win over UNLV on Nov. 30 or the Pack might (should?) be looking for a new coach.
That’s how unpredictable this Pack season has been so far, falling somewhere between championship and all-out disaster. Granted, it is leaning toward all-out disaster right now. But this is a new week.
“Our guys understand that conference games are huge,” Norvell said recently. “If you want a chance to be in the fight at the end you have to take each step along the way. It’s a marathon.”
It’s a marathon where the runners will likely require medical attention and an ambulance along the way. But, hey, somebody has to cross the finish line and win this battle of the mediocre. It might as well be the Wolf Pack.
“I think we match up more favorably with the teams we will play (the rest of the year) than some of the teams we’ve already played,” Norvell said.
The Pack coach especially enjoys going up against a Wyoming, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV offense that struggles to throw the ball more often than not.
“I just think we’re young in the back end of our secondary,” said Norvell, whose battered secondary played its best game of the year last Saturday at Utah State against underachieving quarterback Jordan Love. “The strength of our defense is the front seven. Our strength is playing against the run. And all these teams really like to run the ball.”
A lot of things have to happen for the Pack to win four or five of its final five games. The silly rash of penalties (64 through seven games) has to stop. The quarterback, whether it is Malik Henry, Carson Strong, Cristian Solano, Carson Cristian or Henry Strong or any combination in between, has to take ownership of the offense. Norvell has to give one of these guys the keys to the offense and allow that quarterback to drive it until it runs out of gas. No more test drives. No more twice around the block and bring it right back to the used car lot before a pigeon soils the windshield.
If just those two things happen, if the penalties disappear and a permanent starting quarterback appears, good things can happen this year. Two good things occurring each and every week, after all, is all a West Division title requires.
“We’re not discouraged at all,” Wolf Pack cornerback Berdale Robins said this week. “I still feel like we can win out. That’s my mentality.”
Win out? That’s crazy talk, right? Of course it is. But so many crazy things have already happened this year. A 70-point loss at Oregon. A 50-point loss at home to Hawaii. Two game-winning field goals by a walk-on kicker. A six-point win against a Big Sky Conference team. An offense that has scored one or fewer touchdowns four times in seven games. A defense that has allowed 30 or more points in five of seven games. Season-ending injuries to a senior leader on offense (Jake Nelson) and on defense (Lucas Weber). A 51-point loss at home, the largest in the current Mackay Stadium’s history. Four victories by three different starting quarterbacks.
What’s one more crazy thing, like a Mountain West division title? It’s the only mentality to have in this crazy season.