By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: For Nevada head coach Chris Ault, there was a lot of promise for him and his team heading into the 2009 campaign, but after just a few weeks it was clear that the squad needed to re-evaluate where it was headed.
The Wolf Pack began the season with a 35-0 shutout loss on the road at Notre
Dame and followed that up with a 35-20 setback at Colorado State two weeks
later. The team's first home game of the season resulted in a 31-21 defeat at
the hands of the Missouri Tigers and by that point Nevada was ranked 116th in
the country in scoring and 120th in pass efficiency defense. The biggest
problem was having far too many turnovers and a defense that, after being
forced back onto the field, was unable to slow opponents down in order to keep
the offense and quarterback Colin Kaepernick within striking distance. But
then the team's fortunes changed dramatically, beginning with a ridiculous
63-28 victory over UNLV in the annual battle for the Fremont Cannon. Tied at
21-21 at the break, Nevada came out in the second half and proceeded to pound
the ball down the throats of the Rebels and in the end the Pack had three
players with at least 170 yards rushing, the team coming up with a staggering
559 yards and seven TDs on the ground, compared to a mere 70 yards rushing for
UNLV. That battering gave the Pack the confidence they needed to run all over
their next seven opponents and generate an impressive eight-game win streak
heading into the regular-season finale against the beast of the Western
Athletic Conference, the Boise State Broncos.
Against the BCS-busting Broncos, Nevada hung tough but eventually slipped in a
44-33 decision. On a positive note, it was one of the better efforts that
Boise State had to fight off all season long, but it still kept Nevada from
capturing the conference title. Nevertheless, the strong run after the weak
start was more than enough to get the Wolf Pack into the postseason, although
the invitation to the Hawaii Bowl pitting coach Ault against SMU and former
Hawaii head coach June Jones who used his return to Honolulu to return Nevada
to where it was during the first month of 2009, delivering a 45-10 assault on
Even though the season ended on a sour note for Nevada, finishing at 8-5 with
a mark of 7-1 in league play, there was still plenty to cheer about as the
program finished first in the nation in rushing offense (344.9 ypg), second in
total offense (505.6 ypg) and sixth in scoring (38.2 ppg), even while book-
ending a successful run with a pair of contests that saw the Pack generate a
combined 10 points. Running back Vai Taua was named First Team All-WAC, while
Kaepernick was named to the Second Team. Even though he was overlooked for
postseason recognition, Luke Lippincott (1,034 yards) joined both Kaepernick
(1,183) and Taua (1,345) to form the first trio of players to rush for at
least 1,000 yards in the same season in NCAA history.
OFFENSE: "We've been a good offensive team and will be a good offensive team,"
coach Ault claims. "Kaep(ernick) returning...I know you can see his
athleticism and his physicality, but what he really brings to the team is his
competitiveness and his leadership. As I've told him, 'You know Kaep, you're
the heart of the offense, there's no question about that, that's not going to
change what we do...You're the heart of the football team, but those arteries,
they've got to start being as productive with you in the passing game.' We
will continue to run the ball first, we are a running team," but clearly coach
Ault recognizes that the Pack has to also develop a more refined passing
attack as well.
The running attack that comes along with the Pistol Offense is a given under
Ault, but what the coach wants to see is the development of Kaepernick's
passing and how well he is able to better balance the offense. Make no
mistake, this is a run-first offense, but in order to make it even more
productive Kaepernick needs to show opponents that they have to fear his arm
Kaepernick, who became the 10th quarterback in NCAA history to gain at least
1,000 yards rushing in back-to-back seasons, actually had quite a bit of
success throwing the ball in 2009 with almost 59 percent completions and 20
touchdowns, against just six interceptions. What will make his success rate
even better this year is having as many as three returning receivers to choose
from when he looks to heave the ball down the field.
Chris Wellington, Tray Session and Brandon Wimberly all have experience
accepting passes from their athletic quarterback, the latter leading the team
a year ago with 53 catches for 733 yards and six touchdowns, even though he
was the most inexperienced of the set.
Not to be lost in the shuffle is Vai Taua who not only led the team in rushing
with 1,345 yards, but he also made himself available as a reliable safety
valve coming out of the backfield as a receiver and could cause even more
damage this year.
DEFENSE: "Our defense...has been very, very inconsistent," coach Ault says of
his unit in recent years. "We haven't had that consistency, that confidence
that you've got to play with to have a championship and it's put a heck of a
lot of pressure on the offense...Nevada football, where we have to go and
where we have to make the biggest jump is on that side of the ball."
Not only has coach Ault brought in defensive coordinator Andy Buh, he has also
locked up Mike Bradeson as his new coach for the safeties as well. The other
positive for the Pack is that Dontay Moch is back and ready to again wreak
havoc on opposing offenses.
"Dontay being the leader of that group (experienced returning players) and has
to be the leader, by not only by the way he plays but by his vocal command of
the English language so to speak...and he did a nice job last year of leading
that group," coach Ault concedes.
But as great as Moch has been and can be, he will need a lot more help on this
side of the ball if the Wolf Pack are going to dig themselves out of the
basement when it comes to pass defense. Last season the team ranked 119th in
the country by allowing 297.8 ypg, their efficiency rating of 158.5 putting
them 118th out of 120 FBS programs. Three opponents threw for more than 400
yards against Nevada in 2009 and if it weren't for the mere 77 yards through
the air by New Mexico State the numbers would be even more lopsided.
Isaiah Frey, responsible for just 29 tackles in 12 games last year, is listed
as the only returning starter in the secondary, which means there will be
plenty of growing pains in that group until they get settled in.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game was a lost art in Reno last season as Ricky
Drake made six of the mere nine field goals that he attempted. It wasn't until
the fifth game of the season against Louisiana Tech that he made his first
conversion and in six of the team's 13 games he never even stepped on the
field to make an attempt, so that tells you how highly the Wolf Pack regard
their offense. Drake will be back again to make an attempt when the offense
sputters, but he might be on the field even less than he was last year for
field goals. Punter Brad Langley, who averaged 41.1 yards per kick, is also
back for another go around, but like Drake, he too might be seen very little
if Kaepernick is able to the run the offense the way he sees fit. Mike Ball
will again be tasked with handling kickoff returns, something he did to the
tune of almost 25 yards per opportunity in 2009.
OUTLOOK: For the first time since 1991 the Wolf Pack open the season with
three consecutive home dates, and every one of them could land in the win
column. Victories over Eastern Washington and Colorado State are expected and
putting up a win over California to cap the run is not out of the realm of
possibility. Also a plus for Nevada this time around is the fact that it has
seven home games to toy with, the most since it joined the rest of the
Football Bowl Subdivision.
The non-conference schedule does include trips to BYU and UNLV, but the
Cougars are a beatable team and the Rebels are under new management, so both
of those could go into the win column. Perhaps the first real test for the
Pack will come in the middle of November when it tangles with Fresno State on
the road. The Bulldogs are always a tough matchup no matter where they might
be with personnel and experience. The marquee game will be the late November
home meeting with Boise State, with all indications being that that encounter
could decide the WAC champion and have serious postseason implications.