Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack football can spoil UNLV’s season
Special to the Sun
Sports fodder for a Friday morning … Beating UNLV is always special for the Nevada Wolf Pack football team. It’s not often you get to wheel a 500-pound trophy off the field for winning a football game. But Saturday’s game at Mackay Stadium has an extra special incentive for the Pack. UNLV needs a victory to get to six wins and a bowl invitation this year. The Rebels have only been to four bowls in their sad program’s history and the last thing the Pack wants is to see them celebrating invite number five this Saturday and taking the Fremont Cannon home. A win on Saturday, spoiling UNLV’s chances for a bowl game and reminding the rebels that they are the second-best team in a two-team state, would make this the sweetest Wolf Pack win in this rivalry since coach Chris Ault beat former Pack coach Jeff Horton in a fight-filled affair at Mackay Stadium in 1995.
Jay Norvell needs to stop being the Wolf Pack defense’s own worst enemy. The Wolf Pack football head coach did it again in last Saturday’s 42-23 loss at San Diego State. The Wolf Pack was up 17-14 with about three minutes to go in the first half, facing a 4th-and-2 at the Aztecs’ 48-yard line. Instead of playing it safe and protecting the lead, Norvell decided to go with a trick play, a pass by wide receiver Andrew Celis that fell incomplete. The Aztecs, now motivated and reinvigorated to be working with a short field with 2:58 to go, scored eight plays later to take a 21-17 lead into halftime. Norvell’s decision to risk putting his defense in jeopardy with a gadget play (that he uses over and over and over) instead of punting and pushing the Aztecs back toward their own end zone, turned the game around. Managing a game — see the Pack’s silly decisions to punt and kick off down the middle to San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny — has been Norvell’s steepest learning curve in his first year as head coach.
There will likely come a time in future seasons when the Pack offense is so good that going for a 4th-and-2 anywhere on the field is not such a big risk. But this season, with this defense, has not been that time. This defense needed to be protected and coddled this year, especially against good teams. Norvell, instead, has constantly put this fragile defense in high-pressure, stressful situations with needless aggressiveness on offense. He wouldn’t want his precious offense to be in bad field position. Why go out of your way to do it to the defense? The time for going for a fourth down last Saturday, for example, would have been on the Pack’s first drive when Norvell chose to kick a 23-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. The Pack was facing a 4th-and-goal at the 6. Why not go for it then? You make it, you set the tone for the entire game. You miss it, no big deal. Nobody gets hurt. The Aztecs are at their own 6-yard line.
Penny made the Wolf Pack look slow and timid all night long. He returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns and ran for 222 yards and two more scores. His 429 all-purpose yards in the game are the most by any player in the country this year. He’s the first player in NCAA FBS history with a punt return TD, kickoff return TD and two rushing touchdowns in a game. “I was told all week that I’m bigger than those guys and they don’t want to tackle me,” Penny said of the Pack. The truth hurts. That quote should motivate every Wolf Pack special teams and defensive player and coach for the rest of their careers.
You could make the argument that Ty Gangi is turning in one of the 10 best seasons ever for a Wolf Pack quarterback. His 23 touchdown passes this year are already 10th in Wolf Pack history. His 2,480 yards are just 369 behind Colin Kaepernick’s 2,849 in 2008 for 10th place. Gangi needs 520 yards on Saturday (anything is possible against UNLV) to become the first Pack quarterback since Kaepernick (3,022 in 2010) to pass for 3,000 yards in a season. Keep in mind that Gangi missed two complete games this year while Norvell was botching up the quarterback position. Cody Fajardo’s best season, for example, was 2,786 yards in 2012. Gangi could eclipse that this weekend.
Next year Gangi will put his name all over the Pack record book as the Pack offense hits the ground throwing. He just might be the best quarterback in the Mountain West next year. We should see a preview of all that on Saturday.
Are we now witnessing the greatest era of Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball? The Wolf Pack teams that went to four consecutive NCAA tournaments from 2004-07 still own that distinction but it might be only a matter of time before this era pushes it off the pedestal. The Pack is 5-0 this year and has won 38 of its last 46 games dating back to the CBI tournament in March 2016. Coach Eric Musselman, who is the best kept secret in all of coaching, is an eye-opening 32-4 at Lawlor Events Center in his Pack career. The last time the Pack lost two games anywhere in a row was in March 2016. There are no me-first stars on this team, just a bunch of talented, hard-working players who are an extension of their talented, hard-working coach. Enjoy the winning, Wolf Pack fans. It doesn’t come around often up on north Virginia Street. And don’t take it for granted.
Don’t look now, but the Wolf Pack-UNLV men’s basketball rivalry might heat up again this year. The Wolf Pack destroyed the Rebels twice last year and, well, it was like kicking a three-legged dog. That was the worst Rebels team in the history of UNLV basketball. Those days might be over already. The Rebels are now 4-0 and are scoring an average of 98 points a game. They are led by 7-foot freshman center Brandon McCoy, who is averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds a game. Rebel coach Marvin Menzies, who had to scramble just to find five healthy bodies to put on the court at one time last year, has rebuilt the Rebel roster in just one off-season. The Pack-UNLV rivalry is better when both teams are good.
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