Wolf Pack football: The good, bad and ugly
December 6, 2017
Jay Norvell kept his promise.
When asked last summer what his expectations were for his 2017 Nevada Wolf Pack football team, the wet-behind-the-ears head coach didn't hesitate.
"All I want is for us to be a better football team in October than we were in September and a better football team in November than we were in October," said Norvell, sounding far more cautious than confident. "That's the only thing we can control."
It would have been nice to find out if the Pack would have been better in December than it was in November but that's what happens when you finish 3-9. Football doesn't get in the way of your Christmas shopping in December when you lose three-fourths of your games from September through November.
But Norvell's wish, simplistic as it may have sounded, did indeed come true this year. His football team paced itself all season long beautifully, never setting the bar or expectations too high, and finished the season by reaching its meat-and-potatoes goal. The Wolf Pack did not win a game in September. It won one game in October. It won two games in November.
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That's what happens when you allow a coach to set the goals. They usually reach them.
"We've got something to build on," said Norvell after the Wolf Pack's season-ending 23-16 victory over UNLV on Nov. 25. "We made a lot of progress."
The phrase "a lot" might be overstating things a bit. But that's OK for now. That was just the warm and fuzzy feeling of winning the Fremont Cannon overtaking a worn-out coach at season's end.
"This is something to hang our hats on," defensive lineman Korey Rush said. "It was important to get some momentum for next year."
"We have a lot to build off," quarterback Ty Gangi said.
Again, "a lot" is a bit boastful for a team that knew it would fall short of a bowl invitation after Week 8. But, again, that's is understandable. Gangi, like everyone else up on North Virginia Street, was only trying to bask in the glow of winning the coveted cannon. If you can't sing your own praises after winning a 500-pound trophy that could defend your city from intruders, well, when can you say it?
But let's put Norvell's baby steps goal for this season aside for a moment and try to determine if the Wolf Pack made any actual, honest-to-goodness improvement. Was it change merely for the sake of change? Or is there something tangible other than some nebulous standard of improvement as the calendar flipped from September to October to November?
It's difficult to say right now. There are as many things to like about the 2017 season as there are warning signs to be afraid of. The Wolf Pack lost three games by just three points or less. It lost four games by 19 points or more. It lost to a Division I-AA team (Idaho State). It nearly beat a Big Ten team (Northwestern). The offense scored 35 or more points four times. The defense allowed 35 or more seven times.
It's almost impossible to know what to trust with this football team right now. The things that were good one week rarely showed up the following week. How do you almost win on the road at Northwestern and then lose at home just two weeks later to Idaho State? How do you go to Colorado State and almost shock the conference with a video game offense and then not even show up at Boise State two games later?
What did we learn this year? Almost nothing. Norvell, it seems, is a good coach. But is he a good head coach? He can teach his team to play pitch and catch. But can he teach it to win? His players and assistants seem to like him. But can he make them all better?
This year told us almost nothing positive along those lines. For now we'll give Norvell the benefit of the doubt and ignore the negative.
The offense seemed to hit its stride in Week 6, scoring an average of 40 points a game over three games. But then it only scored more than 23 once over the final four games. The defense was so bad all season long Norvell was scared to death to ever punt the ball away or even settle for a field goal. At times Norvell seemed determined to become more magician with trick plays than simply becoming a head coach.
"We have to get bigger defensively," Norvell said. "We have to be bigger in the defensive line and have to run better at the linebacker position."
Bigger and faster on defense usually ends up at schools that Norvell used to coach for. At Nevada a head coach needs to convince his players to ignore the stop watch or scale and stop using them as an excuse for 3-9 seasons.
A Wolf Pack football team finished a season with three or fewer victories just four times from 1969 through 2016. Two of those coaches (Jerry Scattini, Jeff Tisdel) got fired after the season. The only reason the other coach (Chris Tormey), like Norvell, didn't get fired immediately because it happened in his first two seasons at Nevada.
Brian Polian was fired last year after turning in a better season than Norvell did this year. If Norvell wins five games next year, like Polian did in 2016, he will label it a success. In truth, Norvell's first year was neither a success or failure.
It was merely a change from a year ago.
Did the Wolf Pack, as Norvell insists, improve as the season progressed? The Pack actually played better in its first two games of the season against Northwestern and Toledo than it did in its final two against San Diego State and UNLV. It played arguably its best game of the year in an exciting loss at Colorado State in the middle of the season. It then failed to show up later in the season against Boise State and San Diego State. That's not progress. That's just playing out the season.
The final game of the year against UNLV also wasn't even a work of art. The Wolf Pack was motivated, energized and determined to win the cannon at home. They were playing a bad team. What did the Pack do? They came out and muddled through the first three quarters and barely survived. Yes, we understand that the cannon is still blue this morning. If it wasn't we'd be having an entirely different conversation right now. But the Pack didn't play any better against UNLV this year at Mackay Stadium than it did in losses to the Rebels at Mackay in 2013 and 2015.
Winning doesn't always signal improvement. It just makes the beer taste better after the game.
"We told the guys it doesn't have to be perfect," Norvell said.
Again, that is another great goal for a Wolf Pack coach.
About all the Wolf Pack truly accomplished this year is change. And maybe that was the only real goal all along. The coaches changed. The uniforms and helmets changed. The offense changed. The defense changed. The clichés changed. The results — no Mountain West championship, no winning record, no bowl game — stayed about the same.
Pick any facet of this Wolf Pack football team. You will find improvement and decline from a year ago.
The Pack offense scored about a field goal more a game (28.2 this year compared to 25.4 last year) and improved 16 yards a game (382 to 398). But the offense, like most pass-happy offenses, just fills you up with a lot of empty calories. It doesn't really satisfy anyone. The Pack passing game improved and the running game declined. Those numbers, though, were merely the result of a change in philosophy rather than true improvement or decline. The Pack threw the ball 451 times this year, more than it had since the 2004 season (473), the year that prompted former coach Chris Ault to invent the run-based pistol offense. The Pack also ran the ball just 474 times this year, its fewest attempts since that 2004 transitional season.
All the Pack did this year on offense was move the chairs around the deck of the Titanic. The view of the iceberg didn't change.
This year's offense might have scored slightly more points and gained a few more yards a game than it did last year but it dropped off dramatically in a few other important areas. The Pack had 34 fewer first downs this year compared to 2016 and its success rate on third down dropped an alarming nine percent (48.8 to 39.8). The most disturbing number generated by this year's offense was time of possession. The Pack had the ball this year for just 25:44 a game. Just three teams in all of the FBS had the ball less than the Pack this year.
Those worrisome statistics — first downs, third down success rate and time of possession — almost destroyed this Pack defense. The Pack defense actually showed more improvement this year than anyone gave it credit for. The defense allowed five more points and 15 more yards a game this year compared to last year but also allowed fewer first downs (299-265) and was better on third down, allowing just a 44.3 percent success rate compared to 49.1 a year ago. The Pack defense also had more sacks than a year ago (23-13).
It was that type of year up on north Virginia Street. Some good, some bad, some ugly. It was basically just a transition year. Not a failure or a success. Change for the sake of change. We'll find out in 2018 if the change meant anything. Right now we just don't know for sure.
"We're going to have a real good team next year," wide receiver McLane Mannix said. "Almost everybody is coming back."
OK, fine. But you could have heard the same sort of comment before this past season.
The schedule is indeed slightly easier in 2018. San Diego State, Fresno State, Colorado State and Boise State all have to come to Mackay and the Pack should be able to squeeze out a few victories in a non-conference schedule that includes Portland State (0-11 this year), Vanderbilt (5-7), Oregon State (1-11) and Toledo (10-2). Improvement should take place. But, again, we thought that before this past season.
"Look at what Fresno State did this year," Norvell said. "Last year they went 1-11 and now they (were) in the (Mountain West) championship game (with nine wins). That could easily be us."
Now that's a promise worth keeping.