Joe Santoro: We’ll see how tough the Nevada Wolf Pack is on Saturday

Nevada's Melquan Stovall returns a kick against New Mexico in the second half Saturday at Mackay Stadium.

Nevada's Melquan Stovall returns a kick against New Mexico in the second half Saturday at Mackay Stadium.

Jay Norvell would like his Nevada Wolf Pack football program to grow up and become the San Diego State Aztecs someday.

“I just respect how they play,” the Wolf Pack coach said this week as he prepared to meet the Aztecs on Saturday night in San Diego. “It’s a no-nonsense program. They don’t try to trick you. That’s how you build things for the long term.”

The Aztecs play football as if Calvin Coolidge or Herbert Hoover were still president, all football fields still had to be watered, the only lights at stadiums were from the Model T’s circling the field, the forward pass was a sign of weakness and desperation and mud and bodily fluids were the preferred halftime snacks.

The Aztecs’ stadium (San Diego County Credit Union Stadium) is a 50-year-old outdated, crumbling edifice next to a highway that has already been abandoned by the San Diego Chargers, Padres and Chicken and now looks like a cheap 1960s knockoff of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland.

“They are a mature program,” Norvell said.

Think classic NFL Films highlights with steam coming off a burly lineman’s head in the 1970s. Think aging New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Title beaten and bloodied on both knees late in his career. Think Dick Butkus biting the opposing center’s leg at the bottom of a pileup in the 1960s. That’s Aztec football.

Their stadium, after all, used to be called The Murph. Yes, even the stadium sounds like a tough guy who puts up both fists each time he hears the timer on his stove go off.

That’s also the brand of football Norvell prefers. He swears by grit and toughness. Yes, he adores the sight of a Romeo Doubs streaking down the field with a 60-yard touchdown pass. But he also knows that Doubs can’t shine unless 10 other guys are slugging it out punch by punch. Norvell is old-school toughness. It’s why he wanted to strangle his football team a few weeks ago because they were showing none of those traits.

“Sometimes you have to keep running the football even if you aren’t running the ball well,” Norvell said this week.

That just might be our most favorite sentence out of Norvell’s mouth since he came to town. It speaks to the essence of grit and grind.

So far, though, it has been just a meaningless catchphrase.

San Diego State, as Norvell said, builds its program for the long term. Norvell has built the Pack the past 30-plus games seemingly from week to week. They can’t decide on a quarterback until there’s nobody else available. They can’t decide if the offense is Air Raid or Air Pistol, runs to throw or throws to run. Who is calling the plays and for how long? The Pack is all over the place. San Diego State is, well, “they know who they are,” Norvell said.

Who or what is the Pack? After nearly three full years under Norvell we’re still not quite sure. But we will find out more along those lines on Saturday.

The Aztecs, you see, eat grit and toughness for breakfast and wash it down with gravel, sand and pluck. They are coached by Rocky Long, a rub-dirt-on-it, stop-your-whining, go-tell-it-to-someone-who-cares, straight-shooter whose mere name suggests he just might have had seven fights over four months against Joe Louis in the 1940s.

Yes, the Aztecs play near beautiful sandy and sunny beaches in perfect weather. How tough can you be if you are wearing flip flops and sunscreen all day? Well, the day after an Aztec game those very same beaches resemble 24 hours after the troops landed at Normandy.

The Aztecs remind us all in this pitch-and-catch, sleight-of-hand, touch-me-and-I’ll-tell-the referees era of college flag football just why the sport was invented in the first place. It’s a warriors’ game. There’s nothing politically correct about it. The Aztecs separate the cheerleaders from the linebackers.

“I love to go down there and compete,” said Norvell, who cut his football teeth on gritty, frozen tundra, upper Midwestern high school and Big Ten college football last century. The guy even had the grit to become a strike-breaking NFL player in the late 1980s. “I love playing there,” said Norvell of sunny San Diego.

We will find out if Norvell’s Wolf Pack loves it as much as he does on Saturday night. The Wolf Pack’s season, its entire mission statement, is on the line.

We will find out if Nevada Grit is real, more than just a marketing tool to slap on stadium banners, YouTube ads, coach luncheons and season ticket brochures. We will find out if the Wolf Pack truly loves to play football or if they merely enjoy putting on a shiny new uniform color combination each week. More than anything, we will find out just how much Norvell’s football team has indeed grown up.

“There’s no real secret in beating a good football team,” Norvell said.

The secret of football is when you get punched in the gut you punch the other guy in the nose. If he sticks his cleats on your chest you stick your cleats on his throat. We haven’t seen a lot of fight in the Pack this year, especially when the other team fights back.

The Aztecs, you can be sure, will fight back.

“The first thing is they have good players,” Norvell said.

The Pack has good players. Doubs just might be the best athlete on the field on Saturday. Running back battering ram Devonte Lee might even be the toughest guy on the field.

“They recruit players who fit what they do,” Norvell said.

The Aztecs fight. They recruit fighters.

“All their kids can run,” Norvell said.

The Pack has players who can run. They don’t always run to the correct place but they can run.

“They make you earn your yards,” Norvell said.

That has rarely happened this season with the Pack even against teams that don’t know the difference between cheerleaders and linebackers.

“We’ve got to show up,” Wolf Pack senior cornerback Daniel Brown said.

And grow up.

The Pack learned nothing about itself against Oregon, Hawaii, Utah State and Wyoming. Well, nothing good. But it might have learned even less in the last four victories (Weber State, UTEP, San Jose State and New Mexico).

Norvell will learn about his football team on Saturday night. He will learn about their heart, character and love of the game. He will learn if they truly want to learn something from playing football at Nevada (things like grit, toughness, work ethic, fearlessness, tenacity) that will last them the rest of their lives.

Will we see timid Wolf Pups or a tenacious Wolf Pack? Will we witness Nevada Quit or Nevada Grit?

Nobody is expecting the 5-4 Wolf Pack to go down to San Diego and beat the 7-1 Aztecs. The Aztecs, after all, are two-touchdown favorites and the Pack has not beaten the Aztecs in San Diego since Harry Truman was president in 1946.

Yes, it is indeed possible that the Pack could win. San Diego State, after all, has no offense. There won’t be a Donnel Pumphrey, Marshall Faulk, Rashaad Penny or a Ronnie Hillman running the ball or an Isaac Curtis or Gary Garrison catching passes on Saturday night wearing red and black. The Aztecs look at offense as frivolous cheerleader routines, something to make the crowd smile. They use defense to win championships and demoralize opponents. The Aztecs just want to bludgeon you on the head and beat you with three field goals and a safety.

So, yes, a timely touchdown or three might be enough to beat the Aztecs. It happened last year at Mackay Stadium when the Pack beat the Aztecs 28-24 at Mackay Stadium. San Diego State led 24-15 at halftime and then tried to simply punch the Pack in the face the rest of the game with a backup quarterback and running back. The Pack, a resilient bunch a year ago, came out after halftime, took a few punches and then punched back even harder, smacking the Aztecs in the face, bloodying their lips and shutting them out in the second half.

That’s how you stand up to the Aztecs. You lose a limb and then beat them over the head with the bloody stump.

But that Pack team a year ago was full of fighters. It was a senior-led team (Malik Reed, Dameon Baber, Asauni Rufus, Ty Gangi, Wes Farnsworth, Sean Krepsz, Anthony Hankins, Korey Rush and others) that had been through a ton of adversity in their careers. They were tired of losing important games.

“We came back in the locker room at halftime (last year against San Diego State) and the seniors got right up into us and told us what that game meant,” Brown said this week. “We just played with a whole lot of pride and energy.”

That victory over the Aztecs last year is the most meaningful of Norvell’s two-plus seasons at Nevada.

“That was a very big win for us, honestly,” Brown said. “It kind of made a statement of what we’re doing here.”

That is the kind of statement the Wolf Pack needs on Saturday. But, quite frankly, it’s the kind of statement we just haven’t seen all that much of, if at all, this season.

You don’t lose four of your first eight games by 25 or more points without having more Nevada Quit than Nevada Grit. A 71-point loss at Oregon. The Pack still hasn’t mentally recovered from that one. A 51-point loss to Hawaii at home, maybe the most embarrassing home loss in school history. A 26-point loss at Utah State against a team that has been outscored 73-21 in two games since it splattered the Pack. A 28-point loss at Wyoming against a team (like San Diego State) that is perfectly happy to beat you 10-9 and take your lunch money.

The Pack scored a grand total of one touchdown in those four losses combined. And that who-cares touchdown was a 20-yard run by Toa Taua with under five minutes to play when Utah State was likely playing seven random walk-ons plucked from the parking lot who just drove in from Tooele.

On Saturday night we can’t see any of the ugliness we saw against Oregon, Hawaii, Utah State and Wyoming. If that happens, well, say good-bye to a West Division title and a spot in the Mountain West championship game. Say good-bye to Nevada Grit for yet another year.

The only prizes the rest of the season will be a cannon that has been soiled by living in Las Vegas for a year and a who-cares bowl game. Those prizes have become as stale as opening up that 17th consecutive tie on Father’s Day. The thought is nice but it’s hardly worth getting punched in the face for.

“These are the games we look forward to the most,” Pack offensive tackle Miles Beach said.

That’s what we like to hear. Don’t tell me how good you feel after beating UTEP, Weber State, New Mexico and San Jose State. Tell me how good you feel after slugging it out toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose with San Diego State. Yes, even if you lose. It’s not about the winning or losing when you play San Diego State. Winning is always the goal. But it’s more about the fight than the final score. It’s the fight that builds your program for the long term.

There’s a very good chance the Wolf Pack should be more proud of itself after losing at San Diego State than it did after beating UTEP, Weber State, New Mexico and San Jose State.

It will mean that Norvell’s program is finally growing up.


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