Joe Santoro: Truth is, Nevada Wolf Pack found light switch
Special to the Sun
Jay Norvell was telling the truth all along.
The Nevada Wolf Pack’s 54-year-old rookie head coach, we now know, is a man of his word. Unlike some coaches who just tell you what you want to hear, Norvell will tell you what he believes. And he has always believed in his Wolf Pack offense.
“With this offense, one day the light switch will just turn on,” Norvell has said on more than one occasion this year.
He said it during the season-opening five-game losing streak when the Pack failed to score more than 28 points in any one game. He said it when the Pack only scored a combined 28 consolation pity points in blowout losses to Washington State and Fresno State. He said it when the Pack scored just 28 points against a bad FCS team (Idaho State) at home.
And we, quite frankly, stopped listening.
Well, that light switch is now stuck in the on position. It was turned on two games ago in a 35-21 victory over Hawaii at Mackay Stadium and stayed on throughout a hold-your-breath 44-42 loss at Colorado State this past Saturday. Wolf Pack football is now fun and interesting again and it’s all because Norvell never lost faith.
“I wrote on my game plan today, ‘Stay calm and be positive,'” Norvell said late Saturday night.
We haven’t checked, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see those same words printed on Norvell’s birth certificate. Calm and positive, with a little patience thrown in for good measure, is what Norvell, we’re learning, is all about. It’s also what turned this Wolf Pack football season around.
“You have to be encouraged by a lot of things that happened,” Norvell said.
Consider us encouraged. The last time we were so encouraged after a Wolf Pack loss was mid-way through the 2007 season. The Wolf Pack had just lost to Boise State 69-67 exactly 10 years ago to the day (Oct. 14, 2007) on the road in one of the wildest games in college football history. It was the birth of one of the greatest quarterbacks (Colin Kaepernick) in college football history and the national emergence of one of the greatest offenses (The Pistol) in college football history. And it was the beginning of arguably the greatest era of Wolf Pack football history.
That monumental evening in Boise is what came to mind this past weekend with a new quarterback, new offense and new coaching staff. It was a great game that ended in a tough loss. A ton of scoring. The Pack offense was doing things it hadn’t done in quite a while. And it was all because Norvell continued to believe in what he was doing when most rookie head coaches, especially a 54-year-old rookie who left the comfort and stability of a Power Five assistant job, might have started to panic.
Just two weeks ago, when the Pack was 0-5 and looked like a guy in a golf cart who had somehow wandered into the Indianapolis 500, Norvell had no answers. His team, ever since halftime of the season opener, wasn’t getting better. It was getting obliterated. His flashy recruit (quarterback David Cornwell) had quit the team. Forget about winning games, Norvell could barely settle on his starting quarterback from week to week.
He talked about light switches, getting his players and coaches to love each other and he reminded us every week how well his team was practicing. He sounded like he was camp director of a summer football clinic for 12-year-olds. It was blah, blah, blah followed by cliché, cliché, cliché. And loss, loss, loss.
Well, we should have known Norvell doesn’t speak in cliches. He speaks in truths.
“There were a lot of special things the kids did out there (against Colorado State),” Norvell said.
The most special thing we saw was Norvell and his eclectic, out-of-the-box coaching staff out-coach an opposing staff for an entire game. Remember, this was a staff who allowed Idaho State to march into Mackay and steal a victory. It was slammed in the face by Washington State and Fresno State. It couldn’t teach a quarterback to run its own offense or a wide receiver to run the correct route three plays in a row. And we won’t even mention the defense which still has huge issues.
We saw a coaching staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball, come together against Colorado State.
The Pack brilliantly used trick plays (passes by a running back and a field goal holder) to stun the Rams. Offensive coordinator Matt Mumme called an amazing game, attacking the Rams deep down the middle through the air. It was the best job by a Pack coaching staff since head coach Chris Ault’s staff in his coaching farewell against Arizona in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl (yes, that, too, was a Pack loss, 49-48).
Quarterback Ty Gangi, who normally plays the position as if he had just drawn up the plays in the dirt, was cool, calm, collected and cunning thanks to Mumme’s game plan. For the first time in his Pack career (we saw hints of it against Hawaii), Gangi looked coached. He seemed to be making plays because of his coaching and not just on his wonderful athletic ability. Gangi completed 23-of-40 passes to 10 different receivers for 428 yards and threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers. It was the most passing yards by a Pack quarterback since David Neill had 474 against San Jose State on Nov. 10, 2001.
We saw an offense, a quarterback, wide receivers and a coaching staff come to life on Saturday. We saw what could be a brilliant new era of Wolf Pack football come to life. The last time we could say the same thing was against Boise State exactly 10 years ago.
“Our kids are starting to take ownership of this offense,” Norvell said.
It happened just as he said it would happen.
The Pack, though, fell behind 14-0 in Fort Collins just five minutes into the game and looked on its way to another blowout pounding. It was an awful beginning to a season already full of awful moments. But Norvell remembered what he wrote on his game plan about staying calm and remaining positive.
Maybe it was because of the confidence gained by beating Hawaii the previous week. Maybe it was because this team had finally gotten tired of being everyone’s favorite Homecoming opponent on the road. Or maybe it was because someone finally did flip on that light switch.
But, whatever the reason, the Pack calmly began punching back with confidence, trick plays and a never-ending belief in what they believe in. “We had a bunch of guys with the look in their eye down to the last snap that we were going to win,” Norvell said.
Again, it sounds like it was plucked right out of the Coaching Cliché Handbook. But, we know now, it was just another truth out of the Book of Jay.
The Wolf Pack led 42-31 late in the third quarter after outscoring the Rams 42-17 since midway through the first quarter. It was the Pack’s best two-quarter performance against a good team on the road since they blitzed BYU in the second half in 2014 for a 35-28 victory. Those 42 points in just under 30 minutes of football is what the new Air Raid is all about. Explosive and relentless. A beautiful thing to watch.
“I think we can score enough to win a lot of games,” Norvell said.
Picture a light switch being turned on in the middle of the night in the kitchen and watching all the cockroaches running for safety. Those cockroaches on Saturday were the Colorado State defense.
You can bet the rest of the Mountain West cockroaches are equally frightened after what took place on that chilly Saturday night in Fort Collins. That light switch, you see, wasn’t supposed to be turned on this season. The Pack seemed destined to fumble for that switch in the dark all season long as everyone in silver and blue simply learned to love each other.
Well, the Pack switch is on and everyone else (namely Boise State on Nov. 4 and San Diego State on Nov. 18) should be worried.
“I really believe something special is going to happen to this team,” Norvell said.
Jay the Truth Teller has spoken.