Mission accomplished. Red alert over. The sun will indeed come up tomorrow. Come in off the ledge, Nevada Wolf Pack football fans. You can now breathe freely again.
It certainly wasn’t pretty. At times it was like watching two three-legged dogs battle over a rotten piece of hamburger left over from the Fourth of July barbecue. But the Wolf Pack’s 31-24 victory over the New Mexico Lobos last Saturday stabilized it’s rollercoaster season.
“It’s been a few weeks since we were able to celebrate in our locker room,” Pack linebacker Albert Rosette said.
It had been 35 days, to be exact. It was the longest stretch without a victory for the Wolf Pack in the middle of a season since a 42-day drought from Sept 22 to Nov. 3, 2001.
“It’s been tough,” Pack coach Chris Ault said.
It could have gotten a whole lot tougher without the win in Albuquerque.
The feeling after the win over the Lobos was sort of like falling out of 50th floor window in a nightmare and waking up before you hit the sidewalk. You’re all sweaty, dazed and confused. But a feeling of relief comes over you like you wouldn’t believe.
So, yes, the nightmare is indeed over for the Pack.
The Wolf Pack’s season was in a free fall heading into the New Mexico game. Losses to San Diego State, Air Force and Fresno State — two of them at Mackay Stadium — brought back a lot of unspoken pre-2010 memories. A season that began with so much optimism — first season in the Mountain West and a season-opening win at California — was turning into a train wreck of a Kim Kardashian marriage.
Had the Wolf Pack not beaten New Mexico, it was more than likely they would have ended their season with six consecutive losses (including an undeserved bowl game). No Pack football season since coach Frank Taylor handed out the leather helmets in the first season in 1896 has ever ended with as many as six consecutive losses.
Not even Ault and all of his here’s-something-to-play-for fake championship games during a season — the Pack has another “championship game” with Boise State on Dec. 1 according to Norman Vincent Peale Ault — could have put a positive spin on six season-ending losses.
The Wolf Pack season before the win over the Lobos was like watching a documentary on Titanic’s maiden voyage. It started with smiles and laughter and champagne bottles breaking open on the hull and was ending with the women and children in lifeboats.
And not everyone, make no mistake, would have deserved to climb aboard a lifeboat. Six punches to the gut to end the season would have meant that Ault would have gone into one of his off-season panic modes, where assistant coaches start updating their resume and are afraid to make eye contact with him in the halls of Cashell Fieldhouse. They might have had to rename it Cash-Out Fieldhouse with assistants leaving in the dark of night.
It probably wouldn’t have happened since they are all loyal Ault foot soldiers, but Ault would have been pressured to load up the Fremont Cannon and fire it into the offices of his defensive coaching staff. Again, it likely wouldn’t have happened because the defensive assistants — Mike Bradeson, Ken Wilson, Barry Sacks and James Ward — have become as much of a fixture around Mackay Stadium as plastic grass, empty seats and cannon fire.
Bradeson, Wilson, Sacks and Ward have been at Nevada for a combined 44 seasons. That’s one year more than Ault’s 28-year coaching resume combined with the 15-year tenure of the entire five-man offensive staff.
So if you were hoping to find a new defensive staff on the sidelines and up in the press box next season, well, you’d have better luck hoping for the San Francisco Giants to replace to Reno Aces in downtown Reno next year.
It just wasn’t going to happen even with a six-game slide to end the year. Well, let’s just say it likely wouldn’t have ended by Ault’s sword, at least. Defensive coaches, after all, have been known to leave town by their own volition. But when Ault finds a loyal assistant — something that is as rare as monsoon season in northern Nevada — he doesn’t get rid of them, no matter how badly their players play.
And now, thanks to the win over New Mexico, he doesn’t have to do anything with his coach-cutting sword. And he doesn’t have to figure out a way to justify bringing back a defensive staff that couldn’t figure out a way to stop anyone for the final two months of the year.
“Our defensive coaches had a terrific defensive game plan (against New Mexico),” Ault said.
He has uttered that statement repeatedly since the final gun of the New Mexico game. And that, of course, is not an accident. How difficult is it, after all, to figure out a game plan against a team that has one offensive play? But that doesn’t matter now. All you have to know is that when Ault praises his defensive assistants he’s sending a message to the community, to the players and, most importantly, to his defensive staff.
“Defensively, in particular the second half, we played well,” Ault said.
The Pack’s problems on defense are by no means repaired. This is still a cover-your-eyes and keep-your-fingers-crossed defense, one of the worst since Ault first took over the program in 1976. You can’t look at it for very long for fear of going blind.
So, yes, you can argue that Ault should fire the cannon at his defensive staff this off-season no matter what happens in the final two games. By not doing anything he might simply be delaying the inevitable. He might be assuring yet another frustrating, hide-your-eyes, pistol offense wasting season again next year.
New Mexico, after all, still ran for 352 yards. And that is not a good football team, folks, no matter how much Ault wants you to believe otherwise. Has he ever admitted the Wolf Pack beat a bad team? And this is a program that plays about a half dozen bad teams every single year. The Lobos are a one-dimensional football team — they throw the ball as often as the 1896 Wolf Pack — that lost by 28 points to the UNLV Rebels this year. Their three Division I-A victims — Hawaii, Texas State and New Mexico State — have five combined victories.
But that doesn’t matter if you are a team desperate to celebrate in your locker room after a game like the Wolf Pack was on Saturday morning. When you haven’t won a football game in 35 days, well, you’re not throwing any victory back into the lake no matter how small and frail.
They certainly don’t deserve any long-term contract extensions but the members of the defensive staff also doesn’t deserve to lose their jobs. This is a young defense that can’t seem to do the simplest things. That’s not a lack of coaching. It’s a lack of football talent and instinct on the part of the players.
“There was a lot of pressure on the players,” said Ault of the Lobo game.
Notice he didn’t mention the pressure on the coaches.
Any head coach in the nation would love to have experienced, devoted, hard-working assistants like Bradeson, Sacks, Wilson or Ward. There might not be a true coordinator in the lot — that remains to be seen — but together they can come up with a solid game plan every weekend.
“That group knows football,” Ault said recently.
Don’t overlook the fact that this defense lost a ton of talent over the last two years, playmakers like Dontay Moch, Brett Roy, Brandon Marshall, James-Michael Johnson, Isaiah Frey, Doyle Miller and Kaelin Burnett. Nobody in silver and blue will ever admit it but this defense is in a serious rebuilding mode right now and the reconstruction will continue at least through next year after another talented crop of seniors leaves after this year (namely Albert Rosette, Duke Williams, Khalid Wooten and Jeremiah Green).
But thanks to win over the Lobos nothing drastic has to take place after the bowl game.
The reality of this season, though, is that the New Mexico victory will be long forgotten come this Saturday when Boise State comes to town. And that’s a shame. The mere presence of the orange and blue Broncos in Reno, after all, tends to wipe out the memory of most Pack fans, sort of like waving one of those Men In Black gadgets in front of their faces to make them forget any alien sightings.
The win over the Lobo aliens, though, should be remembered because it saved this Pack season from disaster. The Pack is now assured of a winning season of at least 7-6. And don’t be shocked if this team is 9-4 by season’s end, completing one of its greatest — albeit confusing and frustrating– seasons since it entered Division I-A in 1992.
Boise is very beatable this year. The unimaginative Lobos nearly beat them two months ago. And it’s likely the Pack will play a limping Pac-12 team on life support that is embarrassed to be in Albuquerque in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 15.
A decade or two from now we might look back on the 2012 season and call it one of Ault’s greatest masterpieces. We could be looking at a 9-4 season that ended with a three-game winning streak and included wins over Cal, Boise and another one in a bowl. (Sounds like 2010, doesn’t it?) Just four (1984, 1989, 2005, 2010) of Ault’s 27 previous teams can say they won their last three games. And don’t forget that two of the losses were by one single, pull-your-hair-out point.
And if that happens they can thank the win over New Mexico for making it all possible.