Joe Santoro: Strong revs Nevada Wolf Pack’s engine

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong (12) gets the pass off against a persistent Purdue defense.

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong (12) gets the pass off against a persistent Purdue defense.

Carson Strong felt like a 1979 Honda Civic with two flat tires puttering along in the fast lane on Interstate 80 at the beginning of his first game as the Nevada Wolf Pack’s starting quarterback.

“The first quarter, it was a little bit fast,” the Nevada Wolf Pack freshman admitted after Friday night’s 34-31 win over the Purdue Boilermakers. “It was a little faster than what I’ve seen in practice.”

It didn’t take Strong long to figure out where the gas pedal was located. That 40-year-old Civic turned into a new Porsche by the end of the night as Strong matured right before our eyes at Mackay Stadium. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman from Wood High in Vacaville, Calif., who earned only about five inches worth of attention in this year’s 168-page Wolf Pack media guide, led the Wolf Pack to 20 points in the final 18:21 to stun the Boilermakers.

“As the game went on and as each drive went on, it slowed down for me,” said Strong, who studied at the right hand of Ty Gangi a year ago at Nevada. “By the end of the game it was basically slow motion.”

The Civic with the under-inflated tires mustered just two yards on offense on his first drive Friday night. The second drive netted three yards. He was 1-for-3 for zero yards through the air after those two drives and was sacked once for a loss of a yard. It looked like that Civic with the Jimmy Carter for President bumper sticker on the back fender was about to drop its engine on the highway.

“I had to calm our guys down on the sideline,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “They were frustrated, saying things like, ‘We’ve got to throw the ball down the field.’”

Norvell wasn’t about to allow a freshman in his first start sling the ball all over Mackay Stadium against a Big 10 team to start the game.

“I just told them, ‘We’re doing good,’” Norvell said. “‘He’s not turning the ball over. We’re doing good.’ I was pleased with Carson the whole night.”

That pleasure factor increased as the night wore on.

“Carson missed a lot of throws, which is understandable because he was playing in his first (start),” Norvell said. “Carson is like anybody else. He’s excitable. In the first half he was probably a little too hyped up and sometimes you have to dial it back a notch.”

Strong moved his Civic over to the right-hand lane midway through the first quarter to avoid a disaster. But the Pack still trailed 24-7 at halftime as the freshman quarterback was an uninspiring 10-of-17 for 64 yards. Don’t forget that standing on the sideline was backup quarterback Malik Henry, now a junior, who once was deemed the future starting quarterback at Florida State.

Strong said he never looked over his shoulder at either Norvell or offensive coordinator Matt Mumme or even to see if Henry was warming up.

“I know the coaches believe in me,” Strong said. “Coach Norvell and Coach Mumme really helped me get through the game. I appreciate them sticking with me through the ups and downs.”

The downs continued through the first two drives of the second half when five of Strong’s first seven passes fell incomplete. He was now a Civic-like 12-of-24 for 81 yards in the middle of the third quarter as the Pack trailed 24-7.

But the Wolf Pack never called Triple-A for some roadside service. It was about that time that something magical happened. Think Forrest Gump finally running full speed as his cumbersome leg braces flew off, piece by piece.

A big-time, big-game, big-play quarterback emerged in silver and blue midway through the third quarter. And the Purdue Boilermakers, who know a thing or two about producing big-time quarterbacks (see Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Drew Brees, Mike Phipps and Jim Everett to name just a handful) stood there and became helpless.

Over the final 23:17 last Friday night, Strong became a fast and furious Porsche, completing 18-of-27 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the game 30-of-51 for 295 yards and three touchdowns in one of the most inspiring performances by a Wolf Pack freshman quarterback making his first start in school history.

“I just made some adjustments,” said Strong, who had not started a game since his junior year at Wood High in 2016. “I knew I had to just execute and keep my eyes where they needed to be.”

The Wolf Pack over the last two decades has had an incredible string of good fortune with freshman quarterbacks making their first college start. Colin Kaepernick ran for 177 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 243 yards and three touchdowns in a 69-67 loss at Boise State in 2007. Cody Fajardo passed for 93 yards and ran for 49 in a 37-0 win over UNLV in 2011. Tyler Stewart passed for 202 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-9 win over Hawaii in 2013 and David Neill passed for 328 yards and three scores in a 27-24 win at Fresno State in 1998.

“What I love the most about Carson is communicating with him,” Norvell said. “He makes the proper adjustments. Those are the things that Carson also does in practice.

“I’m real concerned about doing the things on game day that you also do in practice. That’s what Carson has been doing.”

It was Purdue that was running around in slow motion by the fourth quarter as Strong blew their doors off.

The Vacaville Virtuoso completed a 21-yard touchdown to Elijah Cooks as the Pack cut Purdue’s lead to 24-14 with 6:49 to go in the third quarter.

Strong then completed 13-of-18 passes for 167 yards in the fourth quarter, including the game-tying touchdown to Cooks from 20 yards out with 52 seconds to play.

He then turned in his very first Mackay Miracle.

Strong and the Pack took over the ball at their own 34-yard line with just 38 seconds to play and the game tied at 31-31. It appeared the Pack was about to head into its second consecutive overtime game, since a 16-13 victory in the Arizona Bowl over Arkansas State last Dec. 29.

A 5-yard Strong pass to Cooks put the ball at the 39. Two plays later a 10-yard pass to Kaleb Fossum put the ball at the 49 but a delay of game penalty knocked it back to the 44. Strong, though, then found Cooks again, this time for 17 yards to the 39 with just three seconds to go.

Overtime still seemed like the natural conclusion to the game. But some of that Strong freshman magic rubbed off on another Pack freshman. Brandon Talton, another Vacaville product (at rival Vacaville High), promptly kicked a 56-yard field goal to win the game. Yes, it might be time to paint a huge V up on Peavine next to the big N, at least for one week.

“It was a complete team effort,” Strong said.

This is now clearly a complete Pack team because it has a complete quarterback.

“Carson strong is a clear-eyed quarterback,” Norvell said. “He can see coverage. He knows where his routes are.”

Strong ran the Pack’s Air Raid offense as well as anyone has since Norvell and Mumme came to town for the 2017 season.

“We just needed to get first downs,“ Strong said. “At first I was trying to hit the home run ball a little too much. Once we started to move the ball efficiently, it started to get a little easier.”

Strong seemed to be playing in his 50th game in the Air Raid, not his first.

“He knows where his check-downs are,” Norvell said. “He didn’t force the ball into coverage. He checked it down where he needed to.”

It’s been a while since a Wolf Pack quarterback checked down as much as Strong did against Purdue. He completed nine passes to his running backs (Toa Taua caught eight and Jaxson Kincaide grabbed one) for 68 yards. Taua’s eight catches are the most for a Wolf Pack back in one game this century (statistics before 2000 are not readily available).

“Carson is poised,” Wolf Pack senior cornerback Daniel Brown said. “That kid looked like a three-year starter. You couldn’t tell he was a redshirt freshman.

“You know, once you are out there, they don’t care how old you are, what class you are in. As long as you play good ball, you got a chance.”

The Pack definitely has a chance at some special things this year with Strong. It might be time to start selling some silver and blue Livestrong bracelets.

“That game just reassured us what we can do,” Strong said.


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