No. 45: Nevada
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 20, 2010
Oct. 3. Nevada is 0-3, inept on offense and struggling defensively. The latter was expected: Nevada has allowed at least 370 points — 371 last fall, in fact — in five of the last six seasons. But the offense? This offense? Then came Oct. 3. Luke Lippincott runs one in from 12 yards out in the first quarter. Mike Ball follows suit six minutes later. Ball does it again in the second quarter. And in the third (twice). And in the fourth, this one an 89-yard scamper. The Wolf Pack throw for two scores, one from Lippincott to quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Sixty minutes later, it’s Nevada 63, U.N.L.V. 28, and all is right in the world.
15 (9 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 2
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 9
San Jose St.
- Oct. 16
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 6
- Nov. 13
at Fresno State
- Nov. 20
New Mexico St.
- Nov. 26
- Dec. 4
at Louisiana Tech
Last year’s prediction
The Wolf Pack is going to score a ton of points. The only issue, yet again, is the defense. In Nevada’s favor, the line, especially at end, is tremendous. I’m hopeful that this unit will put together a better performance than it has over the past two seasons. Still, it won’t be enough to upend Boise State, the clear favorite to reclaim its WAC crown. But Nevada will be good, and extremely fun to watch. I have the Wolf Pack finishing 8-4, with six wins in conference play. That’s good for second in a top-heavy WAC.
In a nutshell It wasn’t pretty through September. Not pretty at all: Nevada left the month 0-3, scoring 41 combined points in those three defeats. Thanks goodness for October. And November, for that matter. Over the next eight weeks, few teams were as potent offensively as the Wolf Pack: 8-0, with Nevada averaging roughly 52 points per game. The hot stretch allowed the Wolf Pack to both earn bowl eligibility and land another shot at unseating Boise State for the WAC crown. About the last point: it didn’t go so well. As has been the case in recent years, the Wolf Pack were a spirited bunch, but not talented enough to handle the Broncos. An inevitable hangover followed — Nevada’s bowl performance was not good — but it’s hard to forget how well the Wolf Pack played over that eight-game span.
High point Eight straight wins from Oct. 3 – Nov. 21. With the exception of a three-point win over Utah State (made closer by a meaningless fourth quarter score from the Aggies), no team came within 10 points of the Wolf Pack. Fresno State, winners of eight games and the third-best team in the WAC, lost by 28 in Reno.
Low point The loss to Boise State, made more painful last fall by the fact that each team entered the season finale holding 7-0 marks in WAC play. The latest defeat to the Broncos, by 44-33, must have taken quite a bit out of Nevada’s sails, as the Wolf Pack showed little evidence of the team it was for much of the 2009 season in a 45-10 blowout loss to S.M.U. in the Hawaii Bowl.
Tidbit Nevada’s successful run since Chris Ault returned to the sidelines in 2004 has been wildly overshadowed by Boise State’s supremacy of both the head-to-head series and the conference as a whole. This should come as no surprise. Boise has gone 10-0 against the Wolf Pack since 1999 (three Nevada coaches ago), a win streak that has seen the Broncos never score less than 38 and score more than 50 four times (1999, 2003-4, 2007). However, Nevada has hung closer with Boise over the last three seasons: by two points in 2007, seven in 2008 and 11 last fall.
Former players in the N.F.L.
12 S Jonathon Amaya (Miami), LB Kevin Basped (New York Jets), WR Nate Burleson (Detroit), LB Ezra Butler (New York Jets), OG Harvey Dahl (Atlanta), FB Jerome Johnson (New York Giants), LB Josh Mauga (New York Jets), WR Marko Mitchell (Minnesota), OT Tony Moll (Baltimore), CB Paul Pratt (Detroit), QB Jeff Rowe (New England), S Antoine Thompson (St. Louis).
Arbitrary top five list
Movies about gambling
1. “The Color of Money,” 1986.
2. “The Good Thief,” 2003.
3. “The Sting,” 1973.
4. “Casino,” 1995.
5. “Hard Eight,” 1996.
Chris Ault (Nevada ‘68), 206-96-1 over 25 seasons at Nevada. Last season’s eight-win finish was good enough to propel the Wolf Pack to their fifth consecutive bowl game, a program record. Five straight bowl trips, yes. Nevada still has been unable to vault past Boise State to take the conference title. The program can take solace in the fact that no team, minus Hawaii in 2008, has outplayed the Broncos in WAC play. What Ault has done is, yet again, make Nevada a strong, consistent winner. The Wolf Pack are 43-33 since 2004, when Ault returned as the program’s head coach, after posting a sour 19-39 mark from 1999-2003. One of two active coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame — joining Penn State’s Joe Paterno — Ault’s presence as both a coach and athletic director has been a constant at the university for more than 30 years. Ault has served three separate coaching stints with the Wolf Pack: 1976-92, 1994-95 and 2004–present. Each stretch on the sideline has been successful: three Big Sky championships (1986, 1990-91), five co-championships or outright Big West titles (1992, 1994-97) and a WAC co-championship in 2005. All together, Ault has spoted five seasons of 11 or more wins, 13 with at least eight and only three losing seasons. Like Troy’s Larry Blakeney, he has led the Nevada program from Division II to Division I-AA to the F.B.S., experiencing success at each level. His latest stint in Reno, which has seen the Wolf Pack in five straight bowl games, might be his most impressive yet. It would be nice to see the Wolf Pack take the WAC, of course, but the program should be very happy with its current status: eight wins a year, give or take, and the team most capable of upending Boise State in a given season.
Players to watch
To say the offense is explosive is selling it short, but my limited vocabulary lacks the proper superlative to explain just how potent this attack will be in 2010. Leading the way, yet again, is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As I wrote earlier this month, that players like Kaepernick — not necessarily Kaepernick himself, though he’s splendid — are not valued as Heisman contenders is an indictment of the voting process. You can pencil the senior in for 2,000 yards passing and another 1,000 yards rushing, as he’s done in each of the last two seasons; no other player in college football history has done so twice, let alone three times, as Kaepernick, barring injury, will achieve in 2010. So what if he’s more an athlete than a quarterback, more a runner than a passer; he’s unstoppable, pure and simple, and simply a headache for defensive coordinators in the WAC.
Kaepernick is the first cog in the running game. The second is senior running back Vai Taua, a first-team all-WAC selection a year ago. If anything, Taua’s junior season was even more impressive than his breakout 2008 campaign: he rushed for 1,345 yards and 10 scores on a jaw-dropping 7.8 yards per carry despite missing three games, the last due to academic difficulties. Now healthy, worry-free on the academic front and raring to go, Taua — without Luke Lippincott — is a threat for 1,600 yards.
As an outsider, one of the most puzzling themes from last season’s Wolf Pack was the ascension, then demotion of then-freshman running back Mike Ball. Against U.N.L.V., as I touched on in the opening, Ball was unstoppable: 184 yards rushing with 5 scores. Then — poof — he was gone, landing only seven more carries the rest of the year. With Lippincott’s departure, Ball is in line to earn significant action in 2010, potentially serving as the next Nevada 1,000-yard back. Courtney Randall, who floats in and out of the running back rotation, will also be in the mix.
The entire receiver corps returns. Its led by sophomore Brandon Wimberly, who went from Nevada’s scout team player of the year in 2008 to leading pass-catcher last fall, leading the Wolf Pack in receptions (53), receiving yards (755) and touchdowns (6). Joining him in the starting lineup is senior Chris Wellington (24 catches for 327 yards) and junior Tray Session (30 for 368). Nevada also has a talented red-zone option in senior tight end Virgil Green — he made five touchdown grabs — a reigning second-team all-conference choice. So, to recap: Kaepernick under center; Taua and Ball in the backfield; four choices at receiver. Few teams are as stacked at the offensive skill positions.
The offensive line gets lost in the shuffle, as one would expect. There will be some holes to fill up front in 2010, as Nevada lost the services of all-WAC linemen Alonzo Durham, Kenneth Ackerman and Mike Gallett, though the latter was suspended for the final eight games of last season. Look for some shuffling up front to replace this trio. Junior Steve Haley, for instance, will move from the right side — where he started in Gallett’s stead to end last season — to left tackle. He’ll have big shoes to fill in stepping in for Durham. Junior Jeff Meade, an interior reserve last fall, will replace Ackerman at center. That leaves one spot open for debate: right tackle, where Haley spent last season. The job should fall to senior Jose Acuna, a one-game starter in 2009. Finally, the remaining two returning starters. It’s a solid guard duo: senior John Bender and sophomore Chris Barker. Both will challenge for all-WAC accolades in 2010.
First, the good news: Nevada has a new defensive coordinator. Andy Buh, most recently of Stanford, takes over for Nigel Burton, whose units struggled mightily over each of the last three seasons. It’s a clear upgrade; returns from the spring were overwhelmingly positive, though one should always take such news with a grain of salt. What will Buh have to work with? A good amount of talent in the front seven. As for the secondary? Well, it’s a work in progress. It’s always a work in progress.
For all it’s struggles, the Nevada defense featured last season’s WAC Defensive Player of the Year. Along with departed starter Kevin Basped, end Dontay Moch gave the Wolf Pack a fearsome one-two punch on the edge. As a junior, Moch made 61 tackles (20 for loss) and 6.5 sacks; he and Basped combined for 16 sacks on the year. Look for more of the same, even if Moch lands even more attention from opposing offensive lines. Replacing Basped will be key, of course, but Nevada has the luxury of inserting senior Ryan Coulson into the starting lineup. He was a part-time starter last fall, splitting time with Basped, and chipped in with 25 tackles (4.5 for loss) and 2.5 sacks.
Similar to the situation at end, Nevada returns one, loses one starter on the interior of the line. The returning starter is junior Zack Madonick, who stepped into the rotation nicely last fall after earning little starting time as a freshman. Junior Brett Roy seems to be the logical pick to replace Nate Agalava in the lineup alongside Madonick. He’ll make the move inside after spending time at end in 2009. There are several JUCO additions, as well as rising redshirt freshman, ready to earn significant time at end and on the interior.
I’m intrigued as how James-Michael Johnson will fare at middle linebacker. The junior spent last season on the strong side, making 58 tackles (11.5 for loss) en route to second-team all-WAC accolades. At 240 pounds, Johnson has the size to stand up against the run in the middle. Of course, he stood up fine in that regard on the strong side in 2009. Keep an eye on his production. With Johnson changing positions, Nevada will transition fellow junior Brandon Marshall over to his open spot from the weak side. Like Johnson, Marshall did a nice job getting into the backfield last fall (61 tackles, 9.5 for loss). The shuffling allowed JUCO transfer DeAndre Boughton to step into the starting lineup on the weak side. He was on campus in time to participate in spring drills, giving him a rapid taste of what to expect on the F.B.S. level.
Position battles to watch
Secondary Oh, for a capable pass defense. How bad was it for Nevada a season ago? Opponents averaged just shy of 300 yards passing per game — second-worst in the country — while tossing 33 touchdowns. If anything, the secondary was worse than those totals indicate: teams averaged nine years per attempt — a first down nearly every quarterback drop. Simply awful. And awful despite featuring two capable safeties, both lost to graduation: free safety Jonathan Amaya was a second-team all-WAC pick. Both cornerback do return in 2010, which might be a good thing. Isaiah Frey and and Doyle Miller, the latter a former JUCO transfer, combined to make 17 starts a year ago. The name projected to replace Amaya at free safety may be a familiar one: it’s Corbin Louks, formerly of Utah, formerly a quarterback. Now a junior, Louks does not lack for athletic ability, as his season under center with the Utes clearly illustrated. He does lack experience on defense, however, and expecting him to immediately duplicate Amaya’s numbers might be asking too much. What about at strong safety? The job will go to sophomore Duke Williams, who got his feet wet in a reserve role last fall. Louks can run; Williams can hit. Could they help lead a revival in the defensive backfield? Again, as with the rest of the defense, don’t underestimate the importance of a new voice on the coaching staff.
Game(s) to watch
Boise State. This one comes at home. Not that home-field has made any difference to the Wolf Pack, but every bit helps. That game will decide the WAC championship. Nevada’s non-conference slate includes marquee matchups with B.Y.U. and California. The Wolf Pack will have their way with most of their schedule, but it’s an interesting schedule nonetheless.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Say hello to the team most likely to upend Boise State in WAC play. And the team most likely to blow out the scoreboard lights. If nothing else, Nevada will be a joy to watch. How the Wolf Pack fare against some of the premier opponents on their schedule is one of the major themes of this college football season, in my opinion. We all know Nevada is a lock for eight wins: two guaranteed in non-conference, at worst six against WAC opposition. What about against California? B.Y.U.? Those games are where the season hinges. Win one, and a Top 25 run may be in the cards; win both, and the Wolf Pack may very well enter the game against Boise State with an undefeated season on the line. This team is capable of that much. Having said that, I’m not confident in that scenario coming to pass. Begin with the Golden Bears: Nevada is very, very good, but the team annually struggles against B.C.S. competition, particularly those at least somewhat accustomed to defending the spread. In that same vein, B.Y.U.’s physical defense will present a major test to the Pistol attack. So that’s where I stand: likely three, perhaps four losses in the regular season. Unfortunately, not many of the nine — perhaps 10 — wins will be much to write home about. But enough doom and gloom. Watch Nevada to see Kaepernick, the vastly underrated quarterback, play one last time. Stand agog at the Pistol at work. Cover your eyes when the opposition drops back to pass. And enjoy yourself: the Wolf Pack are a pleasure to watch. And they’re very good, too.
Dream season An upset win over Boise State to end November allows Nevada to finish 12-1, undefeated in WAC play, and firmly inside the top 20.
Nightmare season There are too many weaklings on this schedule for Nevada to win fewer than six games. So let’s go with that: 6-7, 4-4 in the WAC.
In case you were wondering
Where do Nevada fans congregate? I have plenty of respect for the fans over at Silver and Blue Sports, who actively campaigned for inclusion on this list during last summer’s Countdown. So click on the link, even if you’re not a fan. If you are, you’ll find a place for solid Nevada chatter. Wolf Pack Chat is another option, though you have little reason to leave Silver and Blue Sports, in my opinion. As always, if I’m missing somebody, let me know about it below.
Who is No. 44? Our next program had as many double-digit loss seasons, nine, as four-win seasons from 1984-2008.
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Tags: Chris Ault, Nevada
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