The Nevada Wolf Pack and the Colorado State Rams were rightly upset last December.
This October, they’re frustrated for a very different reason.
Ten months ago, the announcements of the bowl matchups left Nevada and Colorado State in a terrible position. Somehow, the first-ever Arizona Bowl couldn’t produce teams from separate conferences. The Wolf Pack and the Rams share the terrain of the Mountain West, so their bowl game — which is supposed to provide an exotic opponent, ideally from a Power Five conference — lost a large measure of its flavor.
That, however, was a good problem to have.
The 2016 versions of the Pack and the Rams will have to work extremely hard just to have the chance to play in another bowl. Their seasons are headed in the wrong direction, and to a certain extent, the same problem — much worse than the identity of a bowl-game opponent — is the source of misery in Reno and Fort Collins.
Simply stated, Nevada and Colorado State don’t know how to take a punch.
Start with Nevada. The Wolf Pack were leading Purdue, 14-3, late in the second quarter of a Week 4 game in West Lafayette, Indiana. Nevada couldn’t score consistently against Notre Dame’s defense a few weeks earlier (managing only 10 points). At the time, no one could have known how ugly that performance would become. Nevertheless, the Wolf Pack’s defense was quietly putting Purdue to bed. One more solid, steady half would have put Nevada at 3-1 heading into October, a season very much on course, warts and all.
It might be too much to ask Nevada to beat Iowa or Minnesota, but Purdue is a Big Ten team Brian Polian’s side should subdue. Nearly halfway home, everything was on schedule, but then the roof fell in.
Nevada was shut out in the second half, surrendering 21 straight points to the Boilermakers without any reply on offense. Purdue, for the record, showed how formidable it is(n’t) the following week by getting trounced at Maryland, 50-7. Failing to take care of the Boilers left Nevada steamed, but the only thing the Pack could have done about it was to get it right the following week in Honolulu against Hawaii.
Nevada’s response couldn’t have been worse.
The Wolf Pack drifted through island time against the Rainbow Warriors, falling behind 38-3 before notching two meaningless garbage-time touchdowns. The larger reality of what’s happened to Polian’s pupils is inescapable: In over five full quarters bridging the second half of the Purdue contest with the first three quarters of the Hawaii debacle, Nevada scored a total of three points.
We documented Hawaii’s improvement here, but Nevada has no excuse for being outclassed to that degree. It is reasonable to say that the Purdue loss beat Nevada twice. It is more precise to say that the Purdue failure took all the energy out of the locker room. Polian faces a major task in trying to rebuild it.
Nevada must play Utah State and San Diego State later this season. If the Pack lose both of those games, they’ll be able to afford only one other loss if they want to make a bowl. That’s a slim margin for error in Reno.
The Pack have to learn how to absorb adversity and not let it affect them.
What’s happening to Nevada is mirrored by the events surrounding (and overwhelming) Colorado State.
The Rams did not produce an appalling road loss to a Big Ten team in Week 4 (September 24), but CSU nevertheless absorbed a defeat in the Midwest to a Power Five opponent, Minnesota. The Rams were seeking a transformative moment, but instead came up short.
Like Nevada, they allowed the event to carry into the next week instead of using it as a teachable moment.
Colorado State suggested that it might have learned the right lessons from its loss at Minnesota. The Rams jumped on Wyoming this past Saturday for a 14-3 lead. However, the team which quickly crumbled in its season opener against Colorado seemed stricken as soon as Wyoming began to play better. What was a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter became a 38-17 deficit before the end of the third quarter.
Colorado State now wakes up to a world in which it has three losses, with San Diego State, Boise State and Air Force still on the schedule. The Rams are already up against the wall as far as bowl eligibility is concerned. Head coach Mike Bobo — a former SEC coordinator who moved to the Mountain West to be a head coach — is definitely not tracing the same path Jim McElwain carved after leaving Alabama for Fort Collins.
Let’s offer a joint summary of these teams:
Nevada and CSU had both blown 14-3 second-quarter leads within a week of each other. Nevada did so against a team it ought to have defeated; Colorado State withered at home in a rivalry game. (The Rams play Wyoming for the Bronze Boot every year.) Both games — while different on a number of levels — shared the same reality of impotence in the face of an opponent’s surge. They both left a very bitter taste for these two teams, which were thrown into the same bowl 10 months ago.
It’s not as though Colorado State and Nevada are the only teams to be utterly incapable of stemming the tide once negative momentum snowballs against them. Ole Miss, Pitt, Oregon, and several other teams are equally vulnerable to a roundhouse punch from an opponent. Nevertheless, learning how to display backbone within the whirl and furor of competition is something every team has to cultivate if it’s going to be reasonably successful.
The bowl of bitterness Nevada and Colorado State share needs to be emptied. The Wolf Pack and the Rams need to feed a more optimistic self which lurks within… but has not yet been accessed.