Joe Santoro: 10 questions on Nevada Wolf Pack football

Nevada running back Toa Taua (35) runs against UNLV ( ) in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Reno, Nev., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes)

Nevada running back Toa Taua (35) runs against UNLV ( ) in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Reno, Nev., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes)

Ten questions as we look forward to the 2020 Nevada Wolf Pack football season.

1. On a scale of 1-10, with one being a nauseating, fire-the-coach failure and 10 being a throw-a-parade-down-Virginia Street success, how should we judge the 2019 Wolf Pack football season?

The 2019 season was a disappointing, all-too-predictable, don’t-tell-me-they-lost-to-UNLV-again, we’re-feeling-generous 5. First of all, no Wolf Pack season that includes a loss to UNLV at home – a four-win UNLV team that had already fired its coach, by the way – can be judged a success. Yes, the Pack won seven games and, yes, it beat a bad Purdue team at home and a vastly overrated San Diego State team on the road. But the other five wins were ugly or lucky (or both) against bad teams (Weber State, UTEP, San Jose State, New Mexico, Fresno State). And when the Pack played a team with a pulse, such as Oregon, Hawaii, Utah State and Wyoming, it got destroyed. The 51-point loss to Hawaii at home was downright embarrassing. A grade of 5 is indeed very generous.

2. After three seasons how should we judge Norvell as a head coach on a scale of 1-10, with one being “why is he still here?” and 10 being “why hasn’t he gotten a 10-year Steve Alford contract yet?”

Again, a middle-of-the-road five sounds about right. Norvell has an uninspiring overall record of 18-20 and 12-12 in the Mountain West and has gone 1-1 in bowl games and 1-2 against UNLV. Look up the definition of “yawn” in the dictionary and you’ll see a photo of Norvell wearing his rumpled Pack hat and hoodie. But being a head coach at Nevada is about more than simply winning games. Norvell has all the qualities of a solid head coach. He seems to care about his players and their well being on and off the field. He’s as experienced as any coach in the country. He values hard work, maturity and mental and physical toughness from his players on and off the field. He’s a solid representative of any football program. But college football is not a day care center. It is about winning football games. Can Norvell win far more football games than he loses? We haven’t seen evidence of that yet. The two losses to UNLV are huge red flags. The numerous blowout losses the last three years are also disturbing. Some guys are just great assistant coaches and mediocre (at best) head coaches. Norvell, right now, appears to be one of those guys so far.

3. Is the 2020 season Norvell’s make-or-break season at Nevada?

Brian Polian had a very Norvell-like record of 18-20 overall, 11-13 in the Mountain West, 1-1 in bowl games and 1-2 against UNLV after three years (2013-15) at Nevada. And he was fired after his fourth year when he beat UNLV and went 5-7. Does Norvell get fired if he goes 5-7 in 2020 and beats UNLV? Probably not. He probably gets a 3-year extension. The difference between Polian and Norvell? That list would likely fill up the internet. But it probably all comes down to the fact that Norvell was hired by current athletic director Doug Knuth. Knuth is a say-nothing athletic director so nobody truly knows what he believes. But the guess here is that he believes in Norvell a whole lot more than he believed in Polian. Polian was volatile, unpredictable and would say whatever he wanted. He was, at times, the most entertaining thing about Pack football for his four years in town. Norvell is safe, steady, boring, predictable and says almost nothing but clichés. He’s perfect for Knuth, who seems to have sold his athletic director soul to men’s basketball (see Alford’s 10-year deal).

4. What can we expect from the Wolf Pack in 2020?

This should be Norvell’s breakout year. The schedule is ridiculously manageable. The non-conference games are UC Davis and UTEP at home and Arkansas and South Florida on the road. Even San Jose State won at Arkansas last year. The Mountain West road games are Hawaii, UNLV and New Mexico, who will all be in transition years under new head coaches, and San Jose State, who is still, well, San Jose State. The home conference games are Wyoming, Utah State, San Diego State and Fresno State. And no Boise State anywhere on the schedule. We could be looking at a 10-win Pack season.

5. What will be the strengths of the 2020 Wolf Pack?

Scoring points. This is the team Norvell has been waiting for at Nevada. An experienced quarterback. Experienced wide receivers and running backs. This will be Year Four of Norvell’s so-called Air Pistol offense. All of the bugs and kinks should be worked out by now. The offense should be so good, in fact, that it will likely make even Norvell’s goofiest play calls work. Carson Strong, who could be the best quarterback in the Mountain West over the next three years, should thrive in the pass-happy Norvell playbook. Strong is a tough competitor, a natural leader, has a burning desire to win and there isn’t a throw he cannot make. This will be his third year in the Air Pistol. He’s ready to make it his own. Strong will also have an abundance of toys at wide receiver, led by Elijah Cooks and Romeo Doubs, which might be the best Pack duo at wide receiver since Trevor Insley and Geoff Noisy in the late 1990s. The running backs (Toa Taua, Devonte Lee) are talented and tough. The Strong-Lee-Taua-Cooks-Doubs offense could be the best in the Mountain West. The Pack offense averaged just 21 points a game in 2019. Don’t be shocked if this team flirts with 35 points a game in 2020.

6. If the offense was so bad in 2019, then why were all of the big changes on the coaching staff made on defense?

Norvell got rid of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel as well as Mike Chamoures (safeties) and David Lockwood (secondary) after last season and didn’t even let them coach through the bowl game. The defense played as well as could be expected in 2019. It also developed stars in lineman Dom Peterson, linebacker Gabe Sewell and cornerback Daniel Brown. The defense was the reason for the Pack’s best win of the year at San Diego State. Yes, the Pack defense got shredded by Oregon and Hawaii but Oregon and Hawaii will do that to a defense. The offense also didn’t show up against Oregon and Hawaii, by the way. It also curled up in the fetal position against Utah State and Wyoming and for the most part against powerful Weber State. And it only made brief appearances against New Mexico and San Diego State. Did we mention that Norvell took the play calling duties away from offensive coordinator Matt Mumme in the middle of the season? That was probably Casteel’s fault, too.

7. Is this the year Northern Nevada finally rediscovers Wolf Pack football?

Mackay Stadium has been as lively as a Walmart parking lot on Christmas morning the last four years. Does Northern Nevada care enough about Wolf Pack football anymore to sit through four-hour games in 35 degrees in the dead of night to watch a program that barely wins half its games against boring opponents? Of course not. We have other things to do in Northern Nevada. This isn’t Boise. Just 16,683 fans showed up for the UNLV game this year. Just 17,359 showed up at Mackay in 2017 for the UNLV game. Pack fans, it seems, care as little for the UNLV game now as the Pack coaches and players. The Pack averaged just 16,180 fans a game in 2019. Norvell’s average crowd the past three years has been 16,694. Polian was fired after averaging 18,501 in 2016. If Norvell does not get a second contract at Nevada, it will likely be because of a lack of fans in the seats.

8. Is UNLV football about to leave the Wolf Pack in the Nevada dust?

We all know about UNLV’s four victories in the last seven years over the Pack. That is enough of an eye-opener to make Pack fans nervous. And angry. But those four wins in seven games might just be the start of UNLV’s domination over the Pack. Don’t forget that those four victories were accomplished by a former Division I-AA (Bobby Hauck) and high school (Tony Sanchez) coach. Well, UNLV just hired a real coach (Marcus Arroyo) with a real Division I resume (Oregon, Oklahoma State, Cal, to name just a few). The Rebels are now moving into a state-of-the-art stadium in the fall. The Rebels also practice in a $35 million facility that protects them from those brutal 60-degree practice sessions. The Pack can offer recruits an Awful Awful burger and four or five years of practice on a frozen field and snow in 25 degrees. The Rebels have gotten serious about football. The Pack needs to get serious, too, before it’s too late.

9. Has men’s basketball made football a second class citizen at Nevada?

There’s no question that men’s basketball is the favorite son at Nevada now. The four years of hoops coach and salesman Eric Musselman breathed life into the entire university. The Pack won big under Musselman, it filled Lawlor Events Center night after night and gave the school never-ending national exposure. And even when Musselman left last spring, Knuth made sure all of the hardcourt good times (and dollars) continued by luring a proven coach like Alford to town with a crazy 10-year deal. But it makes sense. Men’s basketball can go to the NCAA tournament and play for a national title. Football is stuck in the meaningless abyss of mid-major football with nothing realistically to play for except a Mountain West title and a trip to a bowl game that nobody truly cares about. Nevada is a basketball school now. It used to be a football school. The basketball team has the Ramon Sessions Basketball Performance Center. The football team doesn’t have a Colin Kaepernick Football Performance Center, despite the fact that the Wolf Pack football program has desperately needed an indoor practice facility ever since it made the move to Division I-A in 1992.

10. Will Wolf Pack football ever become the new Boise State?

Boise State has won 10 or more games in 17 of the last 21 seasons. It has lost three or fewer games in 17 of the last 21 seasons. It has won three of the last six Mountain West championships. It has been ranked in the Top 25 in 13 of the last 18 years. Boise hardly ever loses a game at home. It has won three Fiesta Bowls. The Pack’s shining moment has been a trip to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Boise passed the Pack by in 1999 and it has been two decades of blue turf domination, save for one brief miracle at Mackay on Nov. 26, 2010. Starting with 1999, the Pack has lost three or fewer games in a season just once. It has won 10 or more games just once. It has been ranked in the Top 25 once. All those things, by the way, happened in just one year (2010). The rest of the time has been a ton of 7-6 yawn seasons. The difference between Boise State and Nevada since 1999? Coaching and leadership from the athletic department. But keep the faith, Pack fans. It’s good to have a role model. Boise State, after all, is the reason to remain a Wolf Pack football fan. Football is about rivalries. Beating Boise State, even once every two decades, is worth the wait.


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