Nevada: Beyond the Box Score Preseason Defensive Preview

Yesterday we took a look at the Nevada offense, and signs pointed to a pretty stout unit, moving from stout to dangerous if a big-time receiving threat emerges.  Today we'll look at the defense--can they make the stops necessary to get Nevada a big win over a BCS school?

Defense

Overall Stats

S&P+: 101.8 (#61)
Success Rate+: 115.2 (#15)
PPP+: 89.3 (#88)

Standard Downs S&P+: 101.1 (#57)
Passing Downs S&P+: 95.1 (#78)

Redzone S&P+: 99.7 (#61)

Q1 S&P+: 103.6 (#49)
Q2 S&P+: 105.63 (#51)
Q3 S&P+: 95.7 (#73)
Q4 S&P+: 98.8 (#62)

1st Down S&P+: 97.7 (#70)
2nd Down S&P+: 105.1 (#47)
3rd Down S&P+: 96.4 (#71)

Rushing Stats

Rushing S&P+: 106.9 (#45)
Rushing SR+: 124.5 (#7)
Rushing PPP+: 89.2 (#89)

Standard Downs: 120.9 (#17)
Passing Downs: 94.0 (#71)

Redzone: 124.2 (#17)

Line Yards+: 125.3 (#7)

Passing Stats

Passing S&P+: 99.2 (#63)
Passing SR+: 109.8 (#26)
Passing PPP+: 89.7 (#82)

Standard Downs: 91.7 (#88)
Passing Downs: 95.9 (#74)

Redzone: 89.8 (#83)

Adj. Sack Rate: 6.5% (#45)

It doesn't take long to decipher what the strengths and weaknesses of the Nevada defense were in 2008.  Good success rates suggest lots of stops near the line of scrimmage, which suggests strong line play.  Poor Points Per Play (PPP) rates suggest lots of big plays given up, which suggests poor "last line of defense" play in the secondary.  The Wolfpack defense was strikingly good in terms of efficiency (success rates) and strikingly bad limiting offenses' explosiveness (PPP).  Few teams have wider splits than UNR's #15 overall Success Rate+ ranking and #88 overall PPP+ ranking, and it carried over to rushing and passing stats as well.

If Nevada wants to break into the big-time, they must limit the big play better than they did in 2008.  I mean, just think about how many long plays came out of the Missouri-Nevada game.  They allowed eleven plays of 19 yards or more.

  • Derrick Washington 59-yard TD run
  • Jeremy Maclin 80-yard TD reception
  • Jared Perry 27-yard TD reception
  • Chase Coffman 22-yard reception
  • Jared Perry 33-yard reception
  • Jeremy Maclin 49-yard TD reception
  • Tommy Saunders 29-yard reception
  • Chase Coffman 32-yard TD reception
  • Tommy Saunders 24-yard reception
  • Chase Coffman 48-yard reception
  • De'Vion Moore 19-yard run

There is a strong core of talent in this defense, but most of it resides in the defensive line, and potentially the front seven.  The LB corps is inexperienced but aggressive, and the secondary, while experienced, needs to improve at preventing a 15-yard play from turning into a 50-yard play.

Defensive Line

Basped was a beast in 2008, with 18.5 tackles for loss.  His DL mate Dontay Mach added another 17.5.

2008 Unit Ranking: #30 in the nation (#2 in the WAC)

Projected Depth Chart
DE Kevin Basped (6'6, 240, Jr.)
DE Dontay Mach (6'1, 245, Jr.)
DT Nate Agaiava (6'2, 285, Sr.)
DT Chris Slack (6'5, 270, Sr.)
DT Mike Andrews (6'3, 275, So.)
DE Daniel Agaiava (6'3, 275, Sr.)
DE Ryan Coulson (6'3, 255, Jr.)
DT Zack Madonick (6'1, 285, So.)

In Missouri's first rush of last year's Nevada game, Derrick Washington went for 59 yards and a touchdown.  The rest of the game, Mizzou RBs carried the ball 20 times...for 59 yards.  The stats were skewed because of D-Wash's gorgeous early run, but Nevada held Mizzou to a 31% rushing success rate for the game*, and I'll be honest: for 2009, alarms start sounding in my head anytime I think of the Mizzou rushing attack grounding to a halt and the Tigers having to rely on Blaine Gabbert and the passing game.  Now, make no mistake: I'm not saying I think Gabbert can't throw for a ton of yards this year and have himself a strong sophomore season--what I'm saying is, the threat of the run needs to be there.  Without it, the pressure mounts on young #11.  This will be BG's first true road game, and it'll come on national television on a Friday night.  Missouri needs to run well, and honestly it's not certain that they'll be able to here.

* It should be noted that Washington was not 100%--he suffered a minor injury in the SEMO game the week before.  But still...Nevada shut the Mizzou running game down after carry #1.

To say the defensive line is the strength of the Nevada defense is a major understatement.  As sophomores, ends Kevin Basped and Dontay Mach combined for 36 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks last year.  They both return, as do backups Daniel Agaiava and Ryan Coulson, who combined for another three TFLs in limited time.  Now, it should be noted that Nevada registered no sacks on Chase Daniel last year, not even a QB hurry.  Basped did manage 1.5 TFLs, but Chase Daniel was not touched all game, and while Daniel and his senior pocket presence are gone in 2009, the Mizzou offensive line should be as good or better.

Linebackers

James-Michael Johnson is UNR's only returning LB starter.

2008 Unit Ranking: #65 in the nation (#4 in the WAC)

Projected Depth Chart
James-Michael Johnson (6'2, 220, So.)
Brandon Marshall (6'1, 230, So.)
Mike Bethea (6'3, 245, Sr.)
Kevin Grimes (6'0, 190, Jr.)
Jared Silva-Purcell (5'11, 220, Jr.)
Adam Liranzo (6'4, 220, Jr.)

In Nevada's attacking defense, James-Michael Johnson was relatively all-or-nothing.  As a redshirt freshman last year, Johnson made 48 tackles...12.5 of which went for a loss, a pretty insanely high big-play rate there.  He is now the anchor of the LB corps, so he will have to pretty consistently make plays of all kinds--both big plays and preventative ones.  Gone is rock solid Jonathan Mauga, and into the starting lineup (probably) move Brandon Marshall (8.5 of 33 tackles went for loss, another high %) and big Mike Bethea.  Looking at the stats, you pretty quickly see that Nevada's LBs play quite close to the line of scrimmage, which is great for defending the run...and not so much defending the pass.  It puts a lot of pressure on the secondary, and in 2008, the secondary didn't respond too well.  What about 2009?

Secondary

Jonathon Amaya had four interceptions in 2008.

2008 Unit Ranking: #72 in the nation (#3 in the WAC)

Projected Depth Chart
CB Antoine Thompson (6'1, 195, Sr.)
S Jonathon Amaya (6'2, 190, Sr.)
CB Isaiah Frey (6'0, 190, So.)
S Mo Harvey (6'3, 210, Sr.)
S Cameron Bayne (6'1, 180, Sr.)
CB Thaddeus Brown (5'11, 175, RSFr.)
S Marlon Johnson (5'11, 185, RSFr.)
CB Khalid Wooten (6'0, 195, RSFr.)

The good news for Nevada is, their safeties are ball hawks.  Jonathon Amaya had four picks in 2008, and Mo Harvey added three from a backup role.  The bad news is, as I've already repeatedly mentioned, when they didn't make the big play, they were giving up one.  Amaya and #1 CB Antoine Thompson are both seniors, as are Harvey and likely backup CB Cameron Bayne.  There is experience here, but pressure will be on sophomore Isaiah Frey and a batch of redshirt freshmen trying to break their way into the rotation.  Nevada clearly wants to attack with their front seven, meaning they need skill, smarts and speed from the secondary (but really, who doesn't?).  Their smarts will improve with experience, but...speed?  They apparently need some.

Special Teams

2008 Unit Ranking: #78 Net Punting, #65 Punt Returns, #64 Kick Returns

Projected Starters
K Ricky Drake (6'0, 190, Jr.)
P Brad Langley (6'0, 200, Sr.) - 34.5 net in 2008
KR Brandon Fragger (5'9, 195, Sr.) - 18.2 avg in 2008
PR Antoine Thompson (6'1, 195, Sr.) - 4.9 avg in 2008

Missouri has its own replacements to make in the special teams unit, but they might have an opportunity to win the field position battle against a Nevada unit that is a combination of mediocre and inexperienced.  Brad Langley's a decent punter, but they don't return a dangerous return man (though one might materialize, I guess), and they'll feature a new kicker, who might or might not be good (you never really know in advance).  In a game full of interesting matchups--Nevada seemingly having the advantage on the ground, Missouri in the air--things could swing on special teams play, and neither unit has a distinct advantage here.

Summary

The nightmare scenario for Missouri is pretty easy to put together.  With Nevada's front seven close to the line of scrimmage, Derrick Washington doesn't find much running room, and Nevada forces Mizzou into quite a few passing downs, where their rush ends harass Blaine Gabbert and force rushed throws...picked off by Nevada's ball-hawking safeties.  That's really the formula Nevada will try to follow all year, and they should succeed at it more often than not.  Last year, Missouri compensated for this in front of a home crowd by going deep early and often. 

It's encouraging to be reminded of how well Jared Perry played against them last year, but while Blaine Gabbert has a stronger arm than Chase Daniel, he won't have Jeremy Maclin burning down the sidelines this year.  If Danario Alexander is 100% healthy (I think we should probably take an "It could happen, but let's not completely count on it until it does" approach), and if Jerrell Jackson continues to develop, the deep ball might be Missouri's best friend again in Reno.  But it wouldn't surprise me if Mizzou goes to the horizontal passing game a lot.  Guys like Jackson and Perry are agile enough to pick up 5-7 yards a pop that way, and stretching the field out like that could a) make Nevada react instead of attack, and b) open up the middle for D-Wash.  But then again, I'm not a coach, so we'll see what happens.

While Illinois is probably the most purely talented team Missouri will face in non-conference play, it appears that Nevada matches up better thanks to the running game.  An experienced backfield and offensive line could take advantage of a talented-but-green Missouri front four; meanwhile, Nevada might be able to make Missouri one-dimensional on offense, leveraging them into passing downs...never a positive thing with a young QB in his first road game.  If Missouri and Nevada played ten times, I'd still pick Missouri to win more often than they lose, but this is a one-time-only thing, and if Missouri's flat, or if Nevada starts strong (remember, their offense got better with each progressing quarter in 2008), Missouri's in trouble.

---

Projections on Friday.

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