Joe Santoro: Perfect is boring. Mountain West football is neither

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong gets sacked against San Diego State on Saturday. "It wasn't perfect," coach Jay Norvell said of the win. The Mountain West may be the most interesting football in the country because not much is perfect, Joe Santoro writes.

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong gets sacked against San Diego State on Saturday. "It wasn't perfect," coach Jay Norvell said of the win. The Mountain West may be the most interesting football in the country because not much is perfect, Joe Santoro writes.

Jay Norvell said it best.

“It wasn’t perfect,” the Nevada coach declared late Saturday night after his Wolf Pack’s homely, plain and downright sleep-inducing 17-13 victory at San Diego State.

Norvell, it seems, has uttered those three succinct words after all six of his Wolf Pack’s victories this season. And he’s not alone. Every coach in the Mountain West should have those three words stitched on a cap or polo shirt. Those three words, after all, are the essence of Mountain West football this baffling season.

“Were we perfect?” Utah State coach Gary Andersen said after his Aggies’ 37-35 win at Fresno State on Saturday. “No.”

It wasn’t perfect. It won’t be perfect. It will never be perfect. If you seek perfection don’t go anywhere near a Mountain West football stadium the rest of this season.

Mountain West football is like a Hollywood movie with shoulder pads and helmets and should come with a warning or a rating, something along the lines of, “Some of what you are about to see might not be appropriate for children under 13. Parents (and fans) are urged to be cautious.”

Watching a Mountain West football game, especially late at night as the pizza boxes are littered across your carpet and all the beer has disappeared from the refrigerator, will make you question the path on which your life has taken you. You will cheer one play, cry the next and ultimately say things out loud that will make your dog, friends and family leave the room. But, like a wreck on the highway, you can’t turn away.

Watching Mountain West football just might be the best three (four? five?) hours you spend all week. No, it’s not great football. It’s unpredictable, frustrating, thrilling, maddening and exhilarating football. From play to play.

Who knew? The beauty of Mountain West football, it turns out, is right there in all of its countless imperfections. It just might be the most fun and edge-of-your-seat thrill ride in all of college football.

“This league has proven out to be kind of what we thought it could be at the start of the year,” Andersen said. “Everybody kind of beats each other up. It’s crazy how some of these things happen in these league games.”

There are just three weekends remaining in this Mountain West regular season and no less than nine of the dozen teams are within two games of first place in their division.

Yes, even the Wolf Pack. With a little help (namely one more loss for both San Diego State and Hawaii) the Wolf Pack could end up winning the West Division and earn a spot in the Dec. 7 conference championship game.

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack is 6-4 overall and 3-3 in league play with two games left (at Fresno State on Nov. 23 and against UNLV at home on Nov. 30). “But I think they’ve helped prepare our players for games like this.”

If that is indeed the case, the Pack could go out and beat LSU, Alabama and Ohio State. The Wolf Pack’s four losses this year, after all, have come by an average of 44 points. That is a lot of preparation for tough games. It’s six victories have come by an average of 5.5 points.

The Pack had just 12 first downs and 226 total yards against San Diego State. They were 2-of-12 on third down and averaged one whole yard on each of their 28 rushing attempts. And they won the game. Perfection, don’t forget, is not a required ingredient for Mountain West success.

“The stats are ugly,” said Norvell, giving us yet another idea for a Wolf Pack polo shirt slogan.

But enough with that kind of talk. It’s time we look at Mountain West football as a piece of art. If you or I kick over a can or two or three of paint and it all splatters over the floor and walls, that is an ugly mess. If Jackson Pollock does the same thing it is worth six and seven figures.

Think of Mountain West football as a Jackson Pollock painting. There is perfection in all of its vast sloppiness.

Half of the dozen teams have already won enough games (six) to become bowl eligible and could be joined by four more by the end of the season. Mountain West teams have combined for nine victories this season against Power Five conference teams. Four of those wins came against Pac-12 teams and three were against SEC teams.

The best thing about Mountain West football, though, are not the non-league wins back in August and September. It’s that there are still meaningful games for just about every team as Thanksgiving approaches.

“We talked about it way back in January,” Andersen said. “We talked about it back in spring ball and we talked about it in fall camp. You have to get yourself some meaningful games in the month of November. That’s exactly what these kids have done. They’ve battled and battled and battled.”

Just about every team in the conference (not you, UNLV) can say the same thing. There are huge games galore over the next three weekends. Fresno State is at San Diego State this Friday night. Wyoming is at Utah State and Air Force is at Colorado State on Saturday. Boise State still has to play at Utah State this year. San Diego State has to go to Hawaii after hosting Fresno State. The Wolf Pack and Fresno State will battle next weekend. Wyoming is at Air Force on the last weekend of the regular season.

Go ahead and try to predict any of these games. You might get them all right. Or you might get them all wrong. That, too, is the beauty of Mountain West football. You never know how any of these teams will play on any given week.

The coaches know least of all. But forgive the Mountain West coaches for their lack of willingness to engage in such things as division titles right now. This season has left them all drained.

Fresno State is at San Diego State on Friday night in one of the biggest games of this season yet neither coach is all that happy right now. San Diego State, after all, lost to Nevada last week and Fresno State lost to Utah State.

“Misery loves company, I guess,” said San Diego State coach Rocky Long with a smile. “We’re pretty miserable right now and they’re probably pretty miserable right now, too. Now we get to play each other and one of us will feel much better and one of us will feel just as bad or worse.”

Coaches despise answering questions about such futuristic things as possible division titles. Keep in mind, though, that the future as far as a coach is concerned is anything that goes beyond the current week. They have enough problems, after all, wondering if all their players will show up for practice the next day.

“You can’t talk about the next three games,” Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said. “It’s about this game (at San Diego State) and what we do this week.”

“I don’t care about the West Division,” Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich said. “All I care about is UNLV (the Rainbow Warriors’ opponent this weekend).”

The Mountain West coaches are fighting back verbally. Yes, they’ve heard the criticisms about their football teams and their conference. They’ve heard the criticisms about their judgments and decisions. And they, well, a few of them answered those criticisms this week.

“I see things on social media at times,” said Bryan Harsin, coach of the 8-1 Boise State Broncos. “And a lot of it is negative. That’s just how people are. You used to have to be somebody to have an opinion. You had to work your way into a position where your opinion actually mattered. You didn’t say anything until you showed you had the knowledge and the wisdom and the expertise to provide a valid opinion. You don’t have to do that anymore. Any idiot can say whatever they want now.”

Long was questioned last Saturday for choosing to kick a field goal on a 4th-and-6 play from the Nevada 27-yard line, trailing the Wolf Pack 17-10 with about four minutes to play, instead of going for a first down and a game-tying touchdown.

“Maybe people think it’s a bad call to kick the field goal,” Long said. “They’re wrong. I’d do it again.”

Wyoming coach Craig Bohl also drew criticisms for some of the Cowboys’ play-calling choices during a 20-17 overtime loss at Boise State last weekend.

“Every guy out there knows how to do two things,” Bohl said. “Coach Little League baseball and call offensive plays. It’s always amazing to me. They all got it all figured out. If you run a flea flicker and it doesn’t work out, all of a sudden that’s a bad deal. If it works, it’s a great call.”

The Wolf Pack had wide receiver Elijah Cooks throw a pass in the fourth quarter of a tie (10-10) game at San Diego State last Saturday. It worked and set up the game-winning touchdown. Norvell looked like a genius. If Cooks would have been intercepted, well, it would have been yet another reason to question Norvell’s job security.

“That’s life,” Bohl said.

That’s Mountain West football. One minute you are on the coaching hot seat. The next minute you are qualifying for a bowl game and playing for a division title.

“That play (kicking the field goal with just under four minutes to play) worked out exactly like I thought it would,” Long said. “But the offense didn’t play worth a damn when it got the ball back.”

That, too, is Mountain West football. Sometimes even your best-laid plans can go exactly how you want them to and end up blowing up in your face.

You won’t want to miss the next three weekends.


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