Joe Santoro: Tough to ‘Grit’ Pack so far
Special to the Nevada Appeal
Jay Norvell promised to usher in a new era of Nevada Wolf Pack football.
We had no idea this is what he meant.
The Wolf Pack is now losing games because of its offense. Imagine that. The earth is now flat, the sun rises in the west and the Chicago Cubs are the defending World Series champs. The Wolf Pack football world as we knew it no longer exists. Who knew Norvell’s catchy little phrase “Nevada Grit” stood for Get Rid of Important Touchdowns?
“I’m not pleased with the way we look offensively,” said Norvell after a 37-24 loss on Saturday night, Sept. 9, to the Toledo Rockets in the home opener at Mackay Stadium. “Our defense gave us a chance to be in the game.”
Defense good. Offense bad. What’s next? The Pack is going to change its colors to silver and red? Welcome to the 2017 Nevada Wolf Pack football season.
The offense is the main reason why the Wolf Pack is 0-2 this morning for the first time since 2009. Norvell was hired because of his decades of experience tutoring offensive players in Power Five conferences and the NFL. He then stuck his hand into Division III and plucked out offensive guru Matt Mumme, he of the Air Raid offense high wire act masterminded by his father Hal. Norvell and Mumme then promptly went out and got a quarterback from Alabama.
Well, two weeks into their first season at Nevada, Norvell is still searching for his first victory and any offensive rhythm, continuity, consistency, momentum and production he can find. The quarterback from Alabama (David Cornwell) has yet to get off the sideline and take off his baseball cap. And the Air Raid continues to treat the first down marker as some sort of invisible fence that will shock anyone in silver and blue who dares to cross it.
“We’re not there yet,” said Norvell of his offense.
We could have told him that. You see, we know offense in Nevada and, well, this isn’t it. Wolf Pack fans were weaned on amazing offense, starting with Rabbitt Bradshaw in the early 1920s, continuing with Stan Heath and Marion Motley in the 1940s, Frank Hawkins in the 1970s, Chris Vargas in the 1990s and the innovative pistol offense with Colin Kaepernick in the first decade of this century. And there were many others in between Bradshaw and Kaepernick who kept the tradition alive. What we wouldn’t give for a Zack Threadgill bomb to Nate Burleson, a Mike Maxwell-to-Alex Van Dyke toss or a David Neill-to-Trevor Insley air show right about now.
So don’t tell us what the Air Raid is going to do. Go out and show us. This, after all, isn’t McMurry, Davidson or LaGrange College.
Norvell, though, likened his offense on Saturday to a gas tank filled with water. It actually more resembles an electric car whose battery can’t hold a charge for more than a mile or two.
“We’re still learning, still getting on the same page,” said Ty Gangi, the quarterback from the Brian Polian era who’s running the show.
Polian’s idea of offensive ingenuity was running James Butler to the left instead of to the right. Who knew we would be reminiscing about those glory days so soon? Not even Polian, after all, had to try to win games with an offense as frustrating and self destructive as the one Norvell and Mumme have run out there the first two weeks.
The Wolf Pack offense has been more Air Afraid than Air Raid so far. It has had the ball for all of 40 minutes and 51 seconds in its two games combined. The Wolf Pack is last in Division I-A in average time of possession at 20:26 a game. The Pack had the ball for 21:05 at Northwestern in a season-opening 31-20 loss and promised improvement. Nevada then went out on Saturday, Sept. 9, against Toledo, a Mid-American Conference team that couldn’t tackle a traffic cone a year ago, and controlled the ball for all of 19:46.
This Pack offense is simply killing this Pack defense right now. The defense can barely get to the sideline, take off its helmet, wipe its brow of sweat and slurp some water before it has to get back out on the field. By the end of the game you half expect the Pack defense to hobble out on the field with both arms in a sling, its knees bandaged and bloodied and its jersey shredded.
The Pack offense has had the ball so far this season for all of 124 plays (63 against Northwestern, 61 against Toledo). In the two games combined, the Pack has had just two drives of more than three minutes long. No less than 18 of the Pack’s 24 drives have lasted less than two minutes long.
Maybe there was some merit to the James Butler right, James Butler left, James Butler up the middle game plan after all. The Pack under Polian, it must now be pointed out, had just one game in four seasons when its offense had the ball for under 23 minutes. The Air Afraid attack has yet to even get to 22.
“We will improve,” Norvell said. “Learning a new offense takes time.”
Mumme talked this summer of an offense that wanted 80 or so plays a game. Must be that Division III math. In Division I-A, 80 plays so far looks an awful lot like 60.
You could argue the Wolf Pack has played a tough schedule so far and that just getting out of the games alive was the main goal. Well, forget the fact Northwestern is a mediocre Big Ten team and Toledo plays in the MAC, which is the Midwest version of the Mountain West. We’ll assume, for argument’s sake, Northwestern and Toledo are the same as Alabama and Ohio State. We would also like to point out the Pack had the ball for 86 plays and 33:53 against UCLA in 2013, 105 plays and 39:10 against Arizona in 2012, 79 plays and 35:48 against Arizona in 2014 and 62 plays and 33:01 against Florida State in 2013.
Dating back to 2000, the Wolf Pack’s shortest average time of possession for an entire season is 28:11 in 2000, the first year of the Chris Tormey era. Since 2000, the Pack has had just three games with a time of possession shorter than 21:05 (the high this year at Northwestern). That was 19:11 against SMU in 2003, 19:22 against Northwestern in 2007 and 19:51 against New Mexico last year.
Toledo and Northwestern, in case you’re wondering if the Pack games this year have been shortened to 10-minute quarters, had the ball for a combined 175 plays. and more than 79 minutes. Of course, the Pack defense could have made a play now and then to get off the field on its own. But, don’t forget, it’s difficult to make a play on defense when your arms are in a sling, your knees are bandaged and bloodied and you’re limping out onto the field dragging an oxygen tank.
“I’m disappointed, a little frustrated,” Gangi said.
Imagine how the smallest (18,617) crowd for a Wolf Pack home opener since 2010 felt on Saturday. But Wolf Pack fans have clearly taken a wait-and-see approach with the Norvell era. They’ve been promised great things by new regimes in the past, after all, and we all know how that worked out. Polian’s home debut, don’t forget, was greeted by 27,052 fans and that was for a Division I-AA opponent (UC Davis). So Pack fans are waiting for something to really get excited about. And we’re all still waiting for the Air Raid offense to show up.
And so is Norvell. Make no mistake, this type of offense that shoots itself in both feet repeatedly, is not what he’s used to. Norvell’s teams in the past have had quarterbacks like Sam Bradford and Landry Jones (Oklahoma), Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts) and Rich Gannon (Oakland Raiders). But he’s also watched a bunch of guys you probably haven’t heard of, like Joe Dailey and Zac Taylor (Nebraska), Ben Olson (UCLA), Jerrod Heard (Texas), Darrell Bevell, Tony Lowery and Jay Macias (Wisconsin) and Todd Doxzon (Iowa State). And they’ve all moved the ball and scored points.
You see, it’s not really about the name or whether or not a guy has Alabama on his resume. It’s about the offense. And Norvell believes in his offense. And his patience is being tested.
“I’m disappointed in our offensive execution,” said Norvell, who hinted he might play more than one quarterback this week against Idaho State. “Our receivers got to beat their man and the quarterback has to hit the open guy.”
Make no mistake, Gangi is talented enough to run this offense. He’s a wonderful athlete. Norvell wouldn’t send him out on the field if he wasn’t. He knows what a quarterback should look like.
So what’s the problem? Why is the Wolf Pack offense leaving a ton of yards, first downs and touchdowns on the table each week? Freshman wide receiver McLane Mannix looks like he could run past Usain Bolt. The running game looks solid. The offensive line seems improved. So it might be only a matter of time before it clicks and explodes. This week against Division I-AA Idaho State would be a good place to start.
If not, well, be Air Afraid.
“We just have to be consistent,” Gangi said. “We have a lot to build off of. Now we just have to get rolling.”