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So now what does Nevada do for an encore? More importantly, can it be motivated to keep the production going after an epic 2010 and with all the focus on 2012?
Head coach: Chris Ault
27th year: 219-97-1
Off. 18, Def. 14, ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 13
Ten Best Nevada Players
1. WR/PR Rishard Matthews, Sr.
2. DT Brett Roy, Sr.
3. OG Chris Barker, Jr.
4. LB James-Michael Johnson, Sr.
5. CB Isaiah Frey, Sr.
6. RB Mike Ball, Jr.
7. S Duke Williams, Soph.
8. C Jeff Meads, Sr.
9. QB Tyler Lantrip, Sr.
10. LB Brandon Marshall, Sr.
Sept. 3 OPEN DATE
Sept. 10 at Oregon
Sept. 17 at San Jose State
Sept. 24 at Texas Tech
Oct. 1 at Boise State
Oct. 8 UNLV
Oct. 15 New Mexico
Oct. 22 Fresno State
Oct. 29 at New Mexico State
Nov. 5 OPEN DATE
Nov. 12 Hawaii
Nov. 19 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 26 at Utah State
Dec. 3 Idaho
The Wolf Pack lost 27-21 at Hawaii last season, and that turned out to be the only blemish on the record or what might have been the best year in head coach Chris Ault’s Hall of Fame career. The team went 13-1, won the WAC title, beat California early, Boise State in a classic, and Boston College in the bowl, and everything worked for an offense that finished fourth in the nation in yards, third in rushing, and hung up 34 points or more in every game but three.
There’s plenty of talent returning to come up with a good year, and possibly a WAC title season, but does it matter? Would beating Fresno State and Hawaii to come up with a conference title get the job done for a program that saw what life was like on top of a 13-1 record? Will not having Boise State around to deal with take away some of the edge? The Broncos are now looking to take over the Mountain West, and Nevada this year has to try to keep from thinking about what life will be like in a bigger league.
The WAC is a dead conference walking. In a span of a few years, the conference will go from having Boise State, Nevada, Hawaii, and Fresno State, to welcoming in Texas State and UT San Antonio. The fun is about to be had with the move to the Mountain West, and this year needs to be all about preparing and improving for when the lights go on. Of course, no one’s throwing away 2011, but an 8-4 season and a bowl win will be yawned at on a national scale – unless there’s an upset over an Oregon or Boise State – while the chance for really big things comes next season.
Nevada has to decide what it wants to try to be. Is last year the springboard to becoming a TCU/Boise State-like player, or was it the culmination of years of strong seasons? Nevada isn’t good enough to get to a BCS game this year just by winning the WAC, but winning the Mountain West next season, and beyond, would put the program in play for truly big things.
This year’s team needs to replace QB Colin Kaepernick, RB Vai Taua, TE Virgil Green, OG John Bender, and DE Dontay Moch; five special players who made a good squad special.
Tyler Lantrip will get a long look at the starting quarterback job, and while he can run, he’s a passer who’ll change around the offense a bit. Mike Ball and Lampford Mark should combine to keep the ground game rolling, while three good linemen are back to pave the way. The receiving corps gets an all-star back in Rishard Matthews to work around, but the departure of Green, and the likely loss of Brandon Wimberly for the year after suffering a gunshot wound, will be a problem for an attack that was so balanced last year.
The defense needs to find a steady pass rusher on the outside, but everything else is in place. The tackles are strong and active, the linebacking corps should be tremendous, and three starters are back in a secondary that improved by leaps and bounds. But again, like in most key areas on the team, most of the top players are seniors. The Wolf Pack has to uncover playmakers who’ll be ready to handle the big league next year.
No, 2011 Nevada won’t be 2010 Nevada. But if everything works right, 2012 Nevada can be the team Wolf Pack fans enjoyed last year, and it could still win the WAC.
What to watch for on offense: The backfield. How do you replace an all-timer of a quarterback like Colin Kaepernick and a 1,000-yard rushing machine like Vai Taua? Nevada has to try to get the running game cranked up again without its stars, but the combination of Mike Ball and Lampford Mark should bring some flash and put up big numbers if the Pistol offense works like it’s supposed to. The big question is Tyler Lantrip, the likely starting quarterback with good speed and a live passing arm. The offense might not be as explosive or as dangerous as it was in past seasons, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be among the best in the WAC.
What to watch for on defense: Who’s going to get to the quarterback? From Kevin Basped to Dontay Moch, the Wolf Pack has had some superior pass rushers flow through the program over the last few seasons. After coming up with a tremendous season of getting into the backfield, helped by returning star tackle Brett Roy, the line has to replace Moch and his 8.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss, and running mate, Ryan Coulson, who cranked out 2.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Albert Rosette and Brock Hekking can move, and they need to take advantage of the experience inside to hit the quarterback on a regular basis. The secondary might be fine, but it needs all the help it can get so it doesn’t regress.
The team will be far better if … Antony Martinez can hit a kick of any sort of significance. The Wolf Pack played in just two close games, and there weren’t any field goal attempts in the 35-34 win over Fresno State, and there was a 35-yard miss, to go along with two chippies, in the 34-31 overtime win over Boise State. Martinez missed four kicks inside the 35-yard line and didn’t hit a field goal longer than 36 yards. This year’s offense is going to need more help from the kicking game, and more games will be close. Martinez will be the difference one way or another in at least three games.
The schedule: The Wolf Pack lost just one game last year, but it could be 1-3 in a hiccup. The season doesn’t start until September 10th, and the first home game isn’t until October 8th against UNLV, while there’s a nice stretch of seven home games in the final nine, with the two road games as easy as they come at New Mexico State and Utah State, starting out the year with road games at Oregon, Texas Tech, and Boise State, with a trip to San Jose State thrown into the equation, a brutal stretch for a rebuilding team. Even so, Fresno State, Louisiana Tech, and Hawaii have to come to Reno, so even though the start might be tough, there’s no excuse to not win the WAC.
Best offensive player: Senior WR Rishard Matthews. The running game will get plenty of big numbers out of Mike Ball and Lampford Mark, and QB Tyler Lantrip needs to have a big season, but Matthews is the star to work the passing game around and he’ll need the ball in his hands as often as possible. A breakout star from the JUCO ranks, he led the team with 56 catches for 879 yards and five scores, while serving as a top punt returner. Now he’ll be used as a runner, receiver, and top special teamer as the team’s most explosive playmaker.
Best defensive player: Senior DT Brett Roy. Linebacker James-Michael Johnson will lead the team in tackles again, and corner Isaiah Frey could be the best defensive back in the WAC, but the key should be Roy as one of the league’s best interior pass rushers. He didn’t get enough all-star credit despite making 50 tackles with eight sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss, but that will change. For a team that needs to find pass rushers, he’ll play an even bigger role.
Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Tyler Lantrip. It wasn’t just that Colin Kaepernick was special last year; it’s that he took his game to another level. He was always a good runner, and he was always a decent enough passer to get by, but he kicked it in last year with 3,022 yards after throwing for 2,052 yards in 2009. Mobile, clutch, and talented enough to be picked as Jim Harbaugh’s franchise quarterback at San Francisco, he’s not immediately replaceable. Lantrip will have to try. The 6-4, 220-pound veteran has waited his turn for years, and he should be a statistical star with good running skills and a live enough arm to push the passing game down the field.
The season will be a success if … Nevada wins the WAC. The focus needs to be on improving for 2012 when the big move to the Mountain West comes, but along the way there’s no excuse to not win the WAC with all the big games at home. Louisiana Tech, Fresno State, Hawaii, and Idaho should be the other top teams in the league, and they all come to Reno. The conference road dates are at New Mexico State, San Jose State, and Utah State … whoopee.
Key game: Oct. 22 vs. Fresno State. The Bulldogs aren’t loaded, but they’re good enough to win the WAC if they can get by Nevada in what might be the WAC game of the year. If Nevada pulls it off, then it should be smooth sailing with two weeks off to prepare for the back-to-back dates against Hawaii and Louisiana Tech. Lose to Fresno, and there won’t be any margin for error the rest of the way.
2010 Fun Stats:
- Fourth Down Conversions: Nevada 18-of-24 (75%) – Opponents 7-of-22 (32%)
- Rushing Yards: Nevada 4,091 – Opponents 1,684
- Sacks: Nevada 35 for 219 yards – Opponents 12 for 71 yards
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