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Joe Santoro: The Pack has caught the Broncos

Boise State tight end Kurt Rafdal (87) is knocked off his feet by Nevada defensive back JoJuan Claiborne after a reception Oct. 2, 2021, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Steve Conner)

Boise State tight end Kurt Rafdal (87) is knocked off his feet by Nevada defensive back JoJuan Claiborne after a reception Oct. 2, 2021, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Steve Conner)

The Nevada football team’s 41-31 victory at Boise State Saturday was more meaningful for the Wolf Pack than simply an emotional triumph over a long-time rival.
The Pack, after all, in 2010 beat Boise State and it basically changed nothing. Boise State was still the dominant program and proved it by beating the Pack six more times in a row. Boise still had more quality players, better coaches, more money and fan support.
That, it seems, all changed on Saturday afternoon. The Pack has caught the Broncos. As of right now, the Pack has even passed the Broncos but that could change next season if a certain head coach and his quarterback leave town. But, for now, and for the first time since 1998, the Pack is looking down on Boise State. That is why Saturday’s victory is the most meaningful for the Pack in the 50-year-history of the Boise State rivalry. Boise State’s domination, that lasted from 1999 until Saturday, is finally over. Saturday’s win wasn’t a fluky, mystical, one-night only magical mystery tour like 2010. This was meaningful.
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The Wolf Pack clearly had the best head coach on the sidelines on Boise’s blue turf. And that certainly hasn’t happened in a very long time in this rivalry. Jay Norvell is, without question, a better head coach than Boise State’s Andy Avalos right now.
When was the last time the Pack had the better head coach in this rivalry? You might have to go back to the mid-1980s with the Wolf Pack’s Chris Ault and the Broncos’ Lyle Setencich. Ault beat Setencich, a solid assistant but merely a mediocre-at-best head coach, three-of-four times from 1983-86. But that might be it as far as the Pack’s head coaching superiority over the Broncos.
Boise’s Tony Knap was 4-1 against the Pack’s Jerry Scattini from 1971-75. Jim Criner was 5-1 against Ault from 1976-82.
Skip Hall was just 3-3 against Ault from 1976-92 but clearly out-coached Ault twice in 1990, winning 30-14 in Boise in the regular season and losing in the playoffs at Mackay in three overtimes, 59-52, in a game (much like 2010) that still doesn’t make sense.
Pokey Allen lost to the Pack’s Jeff Horton in 1993 simply because Horton had quarterback Chris Vargas and Boise didn’t. Allen, though, beat Ault in 1994 and didn’t coach in a 1996 loss to the Pack’s Jeff Horton because he was battling cancer.
Tisdel and the Pack clearly had the better team in 1997 (Houston Nutt) and 1998 (Dirk Koetter) when Boise was making the jump to Division I-A (starting in 1996). But nobody would ever classify Tisdel as a better coach than either Nutt or Koetter. Koetter would go on to be the head coach at Arkansas and Mississippi and Koetter later took over the Arizona State program and has been an offensive coordinator in the NFL for the past 14 years. Tisdel was fired at Nevada after 1999 and went back to becoming a junior college coach.
And then, starting in 1999, the Broncos always had the better head coach with Koetter, Dan Hawkins, Chris Petersen and Bryan Harsin right through 2018, the last time the two teams met before Saturday. Yes, Chris Petersen was better than Ault from 2006-12, winning 6-of-7 against the older Chris. But that is all over. For now.
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The two teams, though, might meet again this December in the Mountain West title game on Dec. 4, possibly at Mackay Stadium. It will be only the second season (with 1990) in the long-time rivalry to feature two games.
The Wolf Pack is clearly the better team (Boise can’t run the ball at all because of an awful offensive line) but Boise State might have an easier path to the championship game. The Broncos’ Mountain Division is a mess right now. Air Force (4-1) might be the Mountain’s best team but they still think it is 1963. Wyoming is 4-0 but hasn’t beaten anybody with a pulse. Utah State is 3-2 but got whipped by Boise State two weeks ago. And New Mexico (2-3) and Colorado State (1-3) likely won’t even become bowl eligible.
The Mountain Division champ might show up on Dec. 4 with as many as three league losses. The Pack, though, still has to play at San Diego State (4-0), Fresno State (4-2) and Colorado State and must play always-bothersome Hawaii (3-3), defending league champion San Jose State (3-2) and a desperate UNLV team, which will be playing its bowl game at Mackay on Oct. 29.
The next eight weeks is when Norvell will actually earn the Mountain West Coach of the Year award (and maybe an offer from a Power Five team).
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It’s just the Pack’s luck that now, after nearly a decade of struggle, the Pack will finally be the king of the Mountain West just as the conference is about to crumble. Air Force and Colorado State are rumored to join the American Athletic Conference. Boise State and San Diego State are supposedly winking at the Big 12 and Pac-12.
If Boise State and San Diego State leave, well, it will be a disaster for Mountain West football (and basketball) and for the Wolf Pack. The conference, which already struggles to find even a glimmer of national attention, would be a college football ghost town.
But Air Force and Colorado State leaving might make the conference better. It might force the league to finally realign itself and take advantage of its top rivalries.
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If Air Force and Colorado State abandon the Mountain West, it will be time to toss out the silly “Mountain” and “West” names for the divisions and realign. Put Boise State, Nevada, UNLV, San Jose State and Fresno State in one division and San Diego State, Utah State, Wyoming, New Mexico and Hawaii in the other.
Yes, we understand our realignment plan is from a Nevada perspective but it’s about time the Mountain West does something in the best interests of Nevada.
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Former Wolf Pack (2012-15) offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich is having a difficult time at Washington State on and off the field. Rolovich is just 3-6 in two years at Washington State and even lost to Utah State to start this season. He was just 28-27 after four years at Hawaii but could have coached there forever because he is beloved on the island. But he left for a $3 million-a-year deal with Washington State, replacing Mike Leach.
Winning games, though, is only half of Rolovich’s troubles right now. The state of Washington requires all of its state employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. Rolovich said back in July that he would not get a COVID-19 vaccination and now is being very vague on the subject. He could be fired Oct. 18 without a vaccination but could also save his job with an exemption for medical or religious reasons, which is likely what will happen.
Rolovich has his reasons for doing whatever he chooses to do on this subject. He's smart enough to not simply throw away a $3 million-a-year gig for coaching football. But one thing is certain. All of the talk about his vaccine concerns are taking attention away from the fact that his Cougars are just 2-3 this season. He might get fired in a year or two with or without a vaccine or exemption.

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