Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Air Raid offense needs the ground game

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack running backs had a simple message for their teammates on the offensive line last Saturday at Mackay Stadium.

“The running backs came in at halftime and we fired up the offensive line,” Pack back Jaxson Kincaide said. “We told them that we have to get the run game going if we want to win this game.”

It’s too bad the offensive line didn’t relay the message to head coach Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme.

It took Norvell and Mumme almost the entire game against the Big Sky Conference’s Weber State Wildcats to come to their football senses. With the Pack clinging to a 19-13 lead with 3:27 to play, the Air Raid twins finally and mercifully listened to the running backs.

Mumme and Norvell took the air out of the raid and ran the ball. Eight times in a row. They even ran on 3rd-and-9 from their own 39. The Pack never threw the ball over the final 3:27 and they also never gave the ball back to Weber State.

It was a thing of beauty.

“The more that we can keep our defense off the field, the more success we’ll have as a team,” Norvell said.

The Pack was ahead by just two Brandon Talton field goals with three-plus minutes to go mainly because talented, fearless and, yes, haphazard quarterback Carson Strong had tossed two interceptions and fumbled the ball away once.

That’s why, when the Pack took over the ball at its own 25 with the game on the line there was a feeling of nervousness in the Mackay air. What we didn’t know, though, was that the Pack had decided to give its freshman quarterback the rest of the game off.

The time for the Air Raid and its tricky, slick and sleight of hand magic was over. All of the deception, illusion and creativity, after all, produced just 19 points against a Big Sky defense. So Mumme finally put his look-what-I-came-up-with pass-happy playbook, which is seemingly filled with three dozen ways to throw a 5-yard pass, to rest.

We’re not sure, but our guess is that he privately and quietly under his breath apologized to his dad Hal (the inventor of the Air Raid) and then publicly made his head coach happy by calling eight consecutive running plays. And the Pack kept the ball, kept the lead and killed off those tense 207 seconds to complete the victory.

It was simply a Division I-A team knocking a I-AA team on its backside. You know, like it should have done all game long.

Kincaide and the Pack backs delivered on their promise in those final three-plus minutes. Toa Taua, the most underused weapon in the Mountain West this season, picked up 13 yards on the first play. He gained another 13 on that game-changing 3rd-and-9 run from the 39-yard line. Kincaide then put the game away with a 9-yard run down to the 35 with under a minute to play.

“That was important for us to run the ball at the end of the game and run the clock out,” Norvell said. “To be able to be physical and run downhill at the end of games, that’s important to win games. I was proud of the way we handled the end of the game.”

It wasn’t just the players that Norvell was proud of. He also sent a little message Mumme’s way after the game.

“Air Raid teams don’t get to run the ball with three tight ends in the game very often,” Norvell said, trying to hold back a smile. “I know Matt Mumme’s probably not going to feel very comfortable about that.”

That statement is disturbing on so many levels, too many to list here. But it’s not like Norvell didn’t know what he was getting into when he sold his soul to the Air Raid back in 2017.

Wolf Pack quarterbacks have been intercepted 36 times in 28 games since the Air Raid arrived, an uncomfortable average of 1.3 a game. Chris Ault’s run-happy Pistol quarterbacks from 2005 through 2012, by comparison, were picked off a total of just 77 times over 104 games, about half that of Norvell’s Air Raid gun-slingers.

Maybe it’s time Mumme starts to find his comfort zone with the run game. Nobody is saying he has to steal Knute Rockne’s playbook or even Ault’s Frank Hawkins and Charvez Foger playbook. But when you have a freshman quarterback maybe it’s not the best strategy to simply put the game squarely on his back and arm.

“We’ve got three (Taua, Kincaide, Kelton Moore) good backs and Devonte (Lee, who has been out with a knee injury) is coming back, too (in two weeks),” Norvell said. “They will get their opportunities.”

The Wolf Pack has thrown the ball 125 times over the first three games and run it 107 times. Taua, the Mountain West Freshman of the Year last year, has just 34 carries.

Is that how you protect a freshman quarterback at the start of his first season? It is in the Air Raid. Strong has fired 120 passes over the first three games, an alarming total for a redshirt freshman.

But the Air Raid doesn’t baby its quarterbacks. It throws them in the deep end of the pool right from Day One and sees if they can swim. That philosophy almost cost the Pack an embarrassing loss to a Big Sky Conference team on Saturday. Strong turned the ball over three times and almost drowned. It was reminiscent of another Pack freshman (Kaymen Cureton) against another Big Sky team (Idaho State) in 2017. Cureton was picked off once and fumbled the ball away twice in a 30-28 loss. Cureton is now a defensive back.

The Pack could have prevented all of the anxiety and mistakes on Saturday by allowing the run game to protect its quarterback and set the tone. But that’s not in the Air Raid’s nature.

“We wanted Carson to get off to a good start,” admitted Norvell. “We had a lot of quick stuff where we wanted him to get the ball out quickly. Weber also did a good job of loading up the box (to stop the run) so we felt we could attack them that way (through the air).”

The Air Raid Wolf Pack attempted 45 passes against Weber State and ran the ball 42 times. And don’t forget that it was 45-34 before that final drive. That’s not how a Division I-A team is supposed to attack a Division I-AA team. It’s not how the Wolf Pack normally attacks a I-AA team.

The Wolf Pack had played 11 Division I-AA games before Saturday since it joined the Western Athletic Conference in 2000 and the Mountain West in 2012. In each one of those 11 games it ran the ball far more than it threw the ball, an average of 48 runs and 31 passes. It never threw the ball more than it ran it in any of those 11 games.

Until Saturday.

The 45 throws against Weber State are the most the Pack has thrown the ball against a Division I-AA team this century. The result? Those 19 points – 13 of which came off the foot of Talton – are the fewest the Pack has scored against a Division I-AA team since it was a I-AA team itself in a 17-14 win over Boise State in 1991.

Strong, somehow, is keeping his head above water so far. But it has been touch and go a few times, like in the first 25 minutes or so against Purdue, all afternoon long against Oregon and roughly every other drive against Weber State.

And he is paying a big price physically. They didn’t, after all, hit this hard back at Wood High in Vacaville, Calif. Strong was sacked four times by Weber State. Oregon dumped him three times. And that doesn’t count the numerous other hits he has absorbed when he didn’t have the ball.

“He’s a little banged up,” Norvell said.

The bodies in front of him are also a little banged up, at least mentally. That’s why those final eight plays on Saturday were crucial for the Pack offensive line. It is a young line in spots that has struggled mightily this year, allowing 10 sacks and opening enough holes for the run game to average a meager 3.2 yards a carry. And we won’t mention the false starts and holds.

“I really challenged the offensive line this week to take a lot of pride in playing clean and playing penalty-free and to protect the quarterback, the things we didn’t do last week,” Norvell said.

The Pack offense has, for the most part, stumbled and bumbled its way through the first three games. It has scored just one touchdown over the last two games and just five all year. Three of the five touchdowns came in a 21-minute flurry against Purdue.

The struggles go back to the final three games of last year when the Pack scored just 21 points at San Jose State, just nine points in the final three quarters at UNLV and just 16 points in the Arizona Bowl overtime win over Arkansas State.

The Air Raid needs some help.

The last time the Pack offense scored just one touchdown over two consecutive games was in 2003, in a 12-9 win over SMU and a 16-12 loss to UNLV. The 25 points over the last two games is also the Pack’s lowest two-game total since it scored 20 in the first two games of 2009 in a 35-0 loss to Notre Dame and a 35-20 loss to Colorado State.

Running the ball effectively just might be the key to reviving this Air Raid offense. We saw what it could do in the final 3:27 against Weber State. It can certainly help take the pressure off a redshirt freshman quarterback. At the very least it can help keep him healthy.

Mumme’s Air Raid, though, insists on throwing the ball. Mumme, after all, even calls pass plays on running plays. Moore took a handoff and flipped a one-foot pass forward to Taua inside the Weber 10-yard line behind the line of scrimmage in the second quarter. It gained a yard.

That play has been called a few times over the past two Pack seasons with varying degrees of success. On Saturday, though, against a Division I-AA team that already had its back up against its own end zone, it looked a bit desperate and sad. It was simply a case of an offense trying too hard to show its creativity.

You shouldn’t have to do that against a I-AA team. You just roll up your sleeves and go to work and hit people in the mouth.

“We always want to run the ball,” Taua said. “We want to show that they can rely on us and can give us the ball when they need to.”

Just like in those final 207 seconds.


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