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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 53: Nevada

The pistol was popularized by Samuel Colt, but it took Chris Ault to get it uppercase. As in Pistol, the offense created by the Nevada coach as a way to marry the spread philosophy grabbing hold of the F.B.S. in the mid-2000s with a downhill running game. It’s been a match made in heaven: Nevada has made six straight bowl games since the offense was implemented in 2005, and last fall — behind the arms and legs of Colin Kaepernick, Nevada’s Ault .45 — had the finest season in school history. Others have taken notice, from the F.B.S. to the N.F.L., and this is an innovation that shows no sign of letting up. Is it possible that when all is said and done, Ault will be known more for his standing as the Father of the Pistol than for his Hall of Fame career leading the Wolf Pack?


Reno, Nev.

Wolf Pack

Returning starters
12 (5 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 45

2010 record
(13-1, 7-1)

Last year’s

No. 10

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 10
    at Oregon
  • Sept. 17
    at San Jose St.
  • Sept. 24
    at Texas Tech
  • Oct. 1
    at Boise St.
  • Oct. 8
  • Oct. 15
    New Mexico
  • Oct. 22
    Fresno St.
  • Oct. 29
    at N.M.S.U.
  • Nov. 12
  • Nov. 19
    Louisiana Tech
  • Nov. 26
    at Utah St.
  • Dec. 3

Last year’s prediction

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. 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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The most successful season in program history. That might have been the case even before Nevada knocked off Boise State in one of the year’s most memorable games, though it was that win that both gave the Wolf Pack their defining moment and let the rest of the country know that yes, this team was for real. Only one loss, a six-point setback at Hawaii. Thirteen wins, with the Boise State victory standing out above all others. I knew Nevada would be good; I didn’t think this good, though perhaps I should have. The Wolf Pack brought back Colin Kaepernick, who exceeded all expectations with the finest of his four seasons in the starting lineup. Nevada had a stable of talented running backs and a stout offensive line. Most importantly, Nevada had a defense that was worthy of sharing the field with this prolific offense: the Wolf Pack allowed 21.4 points per game, a program-low since 2006. This offense plus an improved defense equals 13-1, more or less.

High point The win over Boise State. Yes, it came about partly thanks to Boise’s own special teams gaffes, but regardless of its circumstances the victory stands as perhaps the greatest moment in program history.

Low point A 27-21 loss to Hawaii on Oct. 16. In a season devoid of any other setback, let alone many other moments of competition, this is a clear choice as Nevada’s low point. Had Nevada finished 13-0, would the Wolf Pack have earned a B.C.S. berth? I would have hoped so.

Tidbit One year after opening with three straight games in Reno, the Wolf Pack open the 2011 season with four consecutive road games: Oregon, San Jose State, Texas Tech and Boise State. This is the second time in program history that Nevada has opened with four straight on the road, joining the Joe Sheeketski-led 1949 team, which opened at Cincinnati, Portland, Saint Mary’s and Pacific. The Wolf Pack have opened with three straight on the road three times: 1950, 1955 and 1958.

Tidbit (rushing edition) Nevada has been held under 100 yards rushing in a single game only three times over the last five years: to 77 yards by Nebraska in 2007, 73 by New Mexico in 2007 and 90 by Miami (Fla.) in 2006. The Wolf Pack have been held to less than 115 yards only eight times over the last five years: Boston College in 2010; Maryland and Louisiana Tech in 2008; Boise State and Hawaii in 2006; and the aforementioned trio. Nevada has been held under 135 yards only nine times since 2006, with Hawaii last fall joining the teams already listed.

Former players in the N.F.L.

10 S Jonathon Amaya (Miami), WR Nate Burleson (Detroit), LB Ezra Butler (New Orleans), OG Harvey Dahl (Atlanta), TE Virgil Green (San Francisco), QB Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco), LB Josh Mauga (New York Jets), LB Dontay Moch (Cincinnati), OG Tony Moll (Baltimore), CB Paul Pratt (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

Movies filmed in Reno, Nev.
1. “Magnolia,” 1999.
2. “Hard Eight,” 1996.
3. ”The Cooler,” 2003.
4. ”Kingpin,” 1996.
5. “The Pledge,” 2001.


Chris Ault (Nevada ‘68), 221-97-1 over 26 seasons at Nevada. After more than a quarter-century with the Wolf Pack, Ault had his finest season yet in 2010. Thirteen wins, a school record; a win over Boise State; a high national ranking; a record-setting offense — last year had it all, and stands as the most successful in program history. What Ault has done since returning to the sidelines seven years ago is, yet again, make Nevada a strong, consistent winner. The Wolf Pack are 56-34 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 F.B.S. 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 and 2010. All together, Ault has posted six seasons of 11 or more wins, 14 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 six straight bowl games, might be his most impressive yet. If last season did nothing else, it finally gave Ault his spot on the national stage.

Players to watch

For one fall Saturday in 2009, Mike Ball was the best running back in college football. And then he was gone, buried on the depth chart, stymied by knee injuries, missing in action. But for one day, Ball showed what he could do: 15 carries, 184 yards, 5 scores. Yeah, against U.N.L.V., but still. Ball is one of two leading contenders looking to step in for Vai Taua, Nevada’s three-time 1,000-yard back; the other, Lampford Mark, rushed for 425 yards on a team-best 7.6 yards per carry last fall. Between Ball and Mark, Nevada has two hungry, experienced backs with perhaps two healthy knees – combined.

One back is going to rush for 1,000 yards. It would be hard not to rush for 1,000 yards in this offense, to be honest. If not Ball or Mark, Nevada could also turn the job over to junior Nick Hale or sophomore Stefphon Jefferson, though neither bring a solid amount of playing experience into 2011. Of course, a Nevada back nearly always carries the bags for a year or two before taking on a major role. The Wolf Pack also added a few freshmen backs in Ault’s recent recruiting class, but I don’t see them making an impact in 2011.

I hate these parts: Brandon Wimberly’s football career is over, sadly, after he suffered a “life-changing” gunshot wound to the abdomen on June 18. Rishard Matthews will lead way at receiver after breaking through in a big way last fall, when he led the Wolf Pack in receptions (55) and receiving yards (873) while tying since-graduated tight end Virgil Green for the team lead in touchdown grabs with five. With Nevada’s change at quarterback, which I’ll touch on below, Matthews is set for another big season; he’ll be counted on even more, in fact.

Thanks to a strong spring, senior Shane Anderson grabbed a starting spot alongside Matthews. That still leaves one hole in Nevada’s three-receiver set: I can’t imagine the job won’t go to senior Tray Session, who made 17 catches for 313 yards last fall after making 30 grabs for 368 yards in 2009. He’s not the only option, however. Sophomore L.J. Washington is fully healthy after missing last season with an A.C.L. injury; he broke into the mix as a true freshman in 2009. There’s also a pair of redshirt freshmen in Lemar Durant and Aaron Bradley, not to mention the former Utah transfer Corbin Louks, who has bounced from quarterback to defensive back to receiver over the last three years.

Four linemen with solid starting experience return up front: center Jeff Meads, right guard Chris Barker and tackles Steve Haley and Jeff Nady. The latter pair split time at left tackle last fall – Nady started nine games, Haley four – due to Haley’s battle with injuries; now healthy, the blind side should belong to Haley. But Nady could move out to right tackle, I suppose, which would give the Wolf Pack four experienced starters, with 62 career starts among the quartet. Most belong to Barker, who’s one of the WAC’s best. There would still be a hole at left guard, one Nevada could fill with senior Jordan Mudge, a one-game starter last fall.

Manny Diaz did a nice job. So did Geoff Collins. But did any first-year defensive coordinator have a bigger impact in 2010 than Nevada’s Andy Buh? Not that the Wolf Pack were great: they were just good, maybe a bit better than average, but that’s all the defense needed to be, thanks to one of the nation’s most potent scoring attacks. And when taken against some of the defenses we’ve seen in recent years, this defense was a juggernaut. What will Buh do for an encore?

His first order of business will be maintaining a healthy pass rush without Dontay Moch, the reigning WAC Defensive Player of the Year. The Wolf Pack lost his opposite number in Ryan Coulson, who worked very much in the shadows but did a fine job in the starting lineup. Will converted linebacker Kaelin Burnett (30 tackles, 3 sacks) play in 2011? He’s looking forward to it, but there is that pesky broken pelvis to deal with: Burnett has said he’s working to recover from that painful injury, one he suffered in the late spring, and he’ll step in for Moch if healthy.

Tackles Brett Roy (50 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 8 sacks) and Zach Madonick (28, 1.5 for loss) return along the interior, shifting the strength of Nevada’s inside from end. Roy is a player, though he’ll need to replicate last season’s totals without Moch drawing attention away off the edge. He’s good enough to do so, and should make a larger impact – due to the blockers he’ll draw – even if he doesn’t lead the team in sacks. Someone does need to step up and get pressure on the quarterback, and if it’s not Burnett it might be another converted linebacker, junior Albert Rosette, or incoming freshman Rykeem Yates, who was a huge get for this program.

The Wolf Pack are in good shape at linebacker. Two starters are back in the fold, most notably all-WAC candidate James-Michael Johnson, last year’s leading tackler. He’ll be a steadying force in the middle, as he was a year ago, while Brandon Marshall (63 tackles, 8 for loss, 2 interceptions) returns on the strong side. Nevada will miss Kevin Grimes on the weak side, but the Wolf Pack can turn the job over to former JUCO transfer DeAndre Boughton, who made 23 tackles in a reserve role during his first year on campus.

The pass defense gave up some yards in 2010, but the secondary as a whole underwent an overnight transformation: from 33 touchdowns allowed in 2009 to just 15 last fall, which is an astounding improvement. Only cornerback Doyle Miller must be replaced off last year’s group; the Wolf Pack return seven of the eight defensive backs on last season’s end-of-year depth chart. But there is a hole in Miller’s spot, as Nevada looks to find a starter to place opposite Isaiah Frey (52 tackles, 1 interception).

Secondary coach James Ward – who did a remarkable job in 2010 – won’t have to look far to find Miller’s replacement. He could turn to two pretty experienced cornerbacks in juniors Thaddeus Brown and Khalid Wooten: each had at least one marquee moment last fall, and the Wolf Pack should feel secure in the team’s depth at the position. All four meaningful safeties are also back in the fold, led by junior free safety Marlon Johnson (58 tackles, 2 interception). While Dean Faddis was Nevada’s starting strong safety to open 2010, it was Duke Williams (74 tackles) who ended the year as the starter and a key component in this new-look pass defense. At worst, Faddis is a key reserve.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Tyler Lantrip, come on down. Should there be a question mark at the end of that sentence? Lantrip is the Ault-identified heir apparent to Kaepernick, and if that statement alone doesn’t send a Nevada fan into palpitations, he or she might want to check for a pulse. Lantrip is no Kaepernick — no one is — but one area where he might be an improvement is as a thrower. It’ll be interesting: Lantrip has been described as more of a pocket passer than a dual-threat option, and while he has shown some things with his legs during his limited game snaps it’s clear that the senior would win this starting job on the strength of his arm. Is the fact that Lantrip pass-first a cause for concern, especially with the strides the Pistol took with Kaepernick at quarterback? Not quite: I think back to Jeff Rowe, Nevada’s first Pistol quarterback, and recall that he was not overly formidable as a runner, to put it mildly. In nothing else, it may be exciting to see what paths this offense takes with a more prototypical quarterback taking snaps. But Nevada might opt for a more Kaepernick-like quarterback, meaning a player who would be more dangerous with his legs than his arm. That would be sophomore Mason Magleby, who played one series a year ago — and ran for 31 yards on his lone carry. Or Nevada could look for a balance between a passer and a runner: that would be redshirt freshman Cody Fajardo. His time is coming; for now, I shudder at the idea of a redshirt freshman in the starting lineup for Nevada’s brutal four-game start. I shudder at the idea of anyone other than Kaepernick starting during that road streak, in fact. Nevada’s going with Lantrip, but I think Ault will get Magleby into the mix in spots as a change of pace, and I also think Ault will play Fajardo as he looks towards the move to the Mountain West and beyond.

Game(s) to watch

Games against Hawaii and Fresno State will decide the season, but you can’t blame yourself for looking the schedule and circling Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State instead. I’d be shocked if the Wolf Pack win one of those three, let alone two or three, and it’s important that Ault and his team focus instead on winning the WAC. Take advantage of one year free of Boise State, Nevada— in the conference standings, at least.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It’s only natural to expect Nevada to take a pretty sizable slide off of last season’s finish. It’s only natural for Nevada to take a step back from last fall, seeing that the Wolf Pack won 13 games in 2010. That’s not happening in 2010. Nor is a 10-win season, in my mind, if only because Nevada is going to have a heck of a time exiting a season-opening road trip with less than three losses. Just think about what was lost: Kaepernick, Taua, Moch, Wimberly Caulson, Miller – the former threesome looms larger than the rest, but the Wolf Pack do have several more complimentary shoes to fill. Is Nevada going to suffer a massive slide to, say, six wins? Not on your life. The offense is still going to roll, as it has since Ault invented the Pistol back in 2005. There are plenty of options at running back and receiver, and while Kaepernick will be sorely missed, the quarterback situation isn’t terrible. Even the defense will be fine, perhaps better than fine if Nevada can maintain its ability to get to the quarterback. But that’s a huge issue: the secondary’s big step forward was done with help from the pass rush, and I wonder if the defensive backfield can keep up its 2010 play without Moch causing havoc off the edge. Is Nevada going to win the WAC? It’s pretty easy to see that happening. Is Nevada going to win eight games? That’s a safe bet. Still, this team isn’t quite as good as last year’s version. But you knew that already. The WAC title comes down to Hawaii and the Wolf Pack.

Dream season Nevada opens 3-1, losing only to Oregon, and sweeps its WAC slate to finish 11-1.

Nightmare season The Wolf Pack are going bowling, but just barely: 6-6, 6-2 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, 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 it’s a little troubling to see that the front page of that site still features a story about Nevada leaving to join the Mountain West. As always, if I’m missing somebody, let me know about it below.

Word Count

Through 68 teams 199,881

Up Next

Who is No. 52? Tomorrow’s program plays its home games at a stadium that shares its name with a famous Scottish Presbyterian figure from the 17th century.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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  1. Charlie says:

    That would be Alexander Peden and Peden Stadium, home of the Ohio Bobcats.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Yup…now it’s time for Ohio University. The MAC will be all done on the countdown tomorrow, the Sun Belt is the other conference that has had every team spoken for. Only 1 team left in the WAC (Hawai’i), and I have a feeling they are on deck pretty soon.

    Really surprised Washington hasn’t been up yet. That team is going to take a sizeable step back due to losing their best player on both offense and defense.

  3. I don’t know how you do it. I just discovered this site but if you’re other previews are even half as detailed and on the mark as this one, you need to be paid. A lot. I will not find a more thoughtful, in depth analysis on any site regardless of the amount of resources, size of staff, or press credentials granted.

  4. michael says:

    I’m with you on Washington, Eksynyt; UNR would ruin them, and teams already listed such as Navy, Cincy, NIU, probably even Baylor, Ole Miss, and Fresno State would all be home favorites and around +3 in Seattle.

    But for me, the team I am really incredulous about not having been featured long ago is UC Berkeley. Off of 5-7 last season with a tougher schedule in ’11, huge questions at QB, playing all their home games in a baseball stadium, and a lot of losses on both sides of the ball, I’m very curious to see how Myerberg has them higher than 60 to say nothing of higher than 53.

    I don’t see how they could be in the top half of anyone’s preseason list, and am interested to see how their being among the top-50ish (or better) is argued.

  5. Dontel says:

    I noticed the top 10 QB’s Under the Spotlight sidebar and realized that my alma mater, the South Carolina Fighting Gamecocks, takes on 40% of that list: Tyler Wilson, Barrett Trotter, Tajh Boyd, and Kriss Proctor. Only one of these QB’s we face on the road (Wilson). Barring any major injuries, South Carolina has the potential to have a very special season.

  6. bowman says:

    becoming concerned; everything okay with you? #53 (nevada) showed up early sunday; here it is late monday (edt), and no #52 as of yet. here’s hoping all is well with you and yours…..

  7. MStateDawg says:

    What’s going on with the countdown? I thought it was a daily thing.

  8. Paul Myerberg says:

    Back at it tomorrow, everyone. Had to go down into the D.C. area for a few days. Ohio falls tomorrow morning at No. 52.

  9. bugs says:

    How come Tyler Lantrip isn’t shoehorned somewhere in your “UNDER A SPOTLIGHT: Ten quarterbacks under the microscope as first-year starters in 2011.” section?

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