Wolf Pack backup quarterback A.J. Bianco has accounted for Nevada’s only touchdown pass so far this season.
Is the Nevada Wolf Pack football team on a path towards a quarterback change? Pack head coach Ken Wilson, who normally says nothing of value in press conferences, said this week that he will play the quarterback that gives his team the best chance to win. He didn’t say Brendon Lewis, who has started all four games this year, is the unquestioned starting quarterback. He didn’t say the team believes in Lewis. He didn’t say the program is committed to Lewis as the long-time answer at quarterback. He simply said there is an open competition for the position and that he feels very good about the quarterbacks on the roster. That, of course, is likely just Wilson’s continuous attempt at throwing out one meaningless, overused cliché after another — you know, like he learned as a loyal linebackers coach. But it does lead one to believe that Lewis is simply keeping the position warm as a safe, stress-free option to run a lifeless offense until someone with more upside is ready to take over. That someone might be redshirt freshman A.J. Bianco, who has made three brief appearances this year. Bianco is 13-of-20 for 216 yards and a touchdown. It is the only Pack touchdown pass of the season, by the way. Much of Bianco’s action has come in garbage time when the opposition is already celebrating its victory. But the Pack offense does seem a bit more unpredictable and more lively with Bianco on the field. Lewis’ strength is that he likely won’t make a mistake to lose a game, though he has shown a tendency to drop the ball and throw it to the opposition. But Wilson’s eyes seem to light up when he talks about Bianco. The words of praise for Bianco flow from Wilson’s old linebacker coach’s mouth. Bianco, Wilson says, is not afraid of anything, plays with the confidence of a senior and is a natural leader. Keeping him on the bench on a losing team, behind a low-ceiling quarterback like Lewis, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But not making sense, and not having a legitimate plan, is how a team loses 14 games in a row.
Shane Illingworth, who played in a half dozen games and is still the last starting quarterback at Nevada to actually win a game (against Texas State in Game 2 last season), can’t even get on the field this year. Illingworth, who came to the Pack before last season from Oklahoma State, started five games last year. The 6-foot-6, 235-pounder completed 84-of-145 passes for 761 yards and two touchdowns. Lewis, who came to the Pack from Colorado, is 66-of-107 for 550 yards and no touchdowns. Lewis’ numbers are not any better than Illingworth’s, a guy who couldn’t beat out Nate Cox last year for the starting job or a freshman (Bianco) this year for the backup job. So, no, we are not crying out, “Shane, come back!” Lewis is OK if, of course, you just want to be OK at quarterback. He’s playing mainly because he can move his feet enough to get out of danger, something Illingworth can’t do. But Lewis running with the ball is not like the pistol days with Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo, two guys who could get to the end zone at any time and from any spot on the field. Lewis can’t even get to the first down marker most of the time. Lewis is likely good enough to beat awful teams, like New Mexico and Hawaii. That seems to be the Pack goal this year, to simply beat awful teams and keep the score respectable the other weeks. But why not start to develop Bianco fulltime if you think he has a bright future? Is he going to stay on the bench for the next two years behind Lewis?
Wilson’s lack of experience on offense (he is a career linebackers coach) has been apparent since he took the job as head coach. It seems like he couldn’t care less who plays quarterback as long as that guy doesn’t make mistakes. The Wolf Pack shouldn’t have wasted a single snap on a guy like Nate Cox last year. You don’t build a program with a sixth-year career backup in his last season. So last year was wasted as far as the quarterback position was concerned. Playing Lewis kind of has the same feel to it. Why did the Pack even go out and get Lewis this past offseason when they already had a Power Five reject like Illingworth on the roster, let alone a freshman like Bianco that they supposedly like? How many scholarships do they need to give to mediocre quarterbacks? How about a defensive lineman who knows how to get to the quarterback? A defensive back who can cover someone? Lewis is more efficient than Cox and Illingworth, but it just seems like the Pack’s goal is to simply tread water with him at quarterback. Forget about building an elite defense at Nevada. That requires a ton of NIL money to pay for such things as speed, size and dynamic players. That’s why the Pack needs a head coach who can think outside of the box on offense. Wilson is content to stay in the box and hide on offense.
The Pack now has to win six of eight Mountain West games in order to qualify for a bowl game invite. Can a program that has lost 14 games in a row turn it around overnight and win six of eight league games? Before you answer that, remember that the Mountain West is full of inept football teams this year. Some can’t score points, others can’t stop anybody. And nobody knows how most of the teams will play week to week. Six wins in eight games, though, seems like a monumental task for this program right now. So maybe it’s time for all of us to adopt the Ken Wilson theory of football, that each practice and each game is simply another opportunity to improve and grow. You know, like history class. Don’t worry about winning games. The Ken Wilson Football Camp doesn’t put that type of pressure on anyone.
The Pack, though, should be able to squeeze three or four victories out of the final eight games. The Pack, after all, doesn’t even have to play Boise State and Air Force this year, two of the more competent programs in the Mountain West. Three of the Pack wins could come in a row, over New Mexico, Hawaii and Utah State in late October and early November. Imagine that. Three Pack wins in a row. That’s the beauty of the Mountain West. But winning games is dangerous. It will raise expectations, put pressure on the players and coaching staff to continue to win and totally obliterate the pressure-free atmosphere at the Ken Wilson Football Camp. You know, it will be like Nevada football used to be with all of those nasty things like expectations, winning and accountability surrounding the program. Nevada might also steal a win or two over UNLV and San Diego State before that three-game stretch against the Mountain West marshmallows. And then things might really get crazy. The final two games against Colorado State and Wyoming are also winnable, especially if the five previous games go as planned. Colorado State can’t stop anybody and Wyoming can’t score. So, yes, don’t give up hope yet. The Ken Wilson Football Camp might finally get interesting.
We are, of course, experiencing the worst stretch of football in Wolf Pack history. The 14 losses in a row is the longest stretch without a victory in the program’s existence. It’s the longest losing streak currently in the nation. The Pack is now, officially, the laughingstock of college football. It might all come to a head and explode on Oct. 14 when UNLV comes to Mackay Stadium with a red Fremont Cannon. The UNLV game is the only game that truly matters to a lot of Pack fans. Nobody gets too depressed when the Pack loses to USC and Kansas. Nobody even seems to care when the Pack loses to Idaho and Texas State. But UNLV is different. It is personal. If the Pack loses to UNLV and the poor cannon goes back home to Las Vegas looking like a seedy showroom curtain, well, that’s when the public outcry and concern could explode. The reality of this season is that the UNLV game is all Pack fans have left to look forward to. If Wilson beats UNLV on Oct. 14, his coaching clock will stop ticking until next year. The Pack can go 1-11 this year and many Pack fans will be OK with that because, after all, the cannon will be painted blue. That’s how low the Pack bar has been set.