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After four games in 2009, Missouri could be 4-0, and they could be 2-2 (or, technically, worse). While Illinois is clearly the biggest name on the non-conference slate, the most interestingly challenging opponent will likely be Nevada. Never mind that it's a road game, far away, on a Friday night. And never mind how hypnotically good Colin Kaepernick looks for a handful of plays each game. Football is about matchups, and Nevada appears to match up quite well with a Missouri team full of different strengths and weaknesses than last year's squad. Let's take a look.
Record: 7-6 (5-3 in WAC)
S&P+: 215.11 (#36)
Scoring Margin: 489-420 (+69)
Conference Scoring Margin: 320-234 (+86)
Wins (S&P+ Ranking in parentheses): Fresno State (#61), Louisiana Tech (#86), UNLV (#88), Utah State (#99), San Jose State (#101), Idaho (#119), Grambling State (N/A)
Losses: Boise State (#7), Missouri (#10), Texas Tech (#15), Maryland (#52), Hawaii (#53), New Mexico State (#111)
So...how good was Nevada in 2008? They played Texas Tech tough in Reno, and they almost completed a dramatic comeback in falling short to Boise State by a touchdown. They made mincemeat of a series of bad teams, and they looked alright against Maryland...
...but they didn't actually beat anybody good. Yes, Fresno State and Louisiana Tech were both bowl teams, and UNLV beat Arizona State, but none of those teams were in the upper half of the final S&P+ rankings. They ended up 2-4 versus teams with winning records and 5-2 versus teams that finished .500 or worse. And...New Mexico State? Really? At home? This was a team with star power in Colin Kaepernick and, to a lesser extent, Vai Taua and Marko Mitchell, and pretty strong lineplay as well; but the back seven--the LBs and DBs--let this team down considerably. For that matter, so did only recovering 15 of 46 fumbles. Luck could be on their side in 2009, but experienced defenders need to bring it.
Head Coach: Chris Ault
Record at Nevada: 198-90-1
Pythagorean Record Since 2004: +0.29 wins (+0.6/year)
I like the first line of Chris Ault's NevadaWolfpack.com bio: "Simply put, Chris Ault is University of Nevada football." In 24 seasons as coach of the Wolfpack (over three stints), Ault has managed 198 wins and a .687 win percentage. In the last 24 seasons of Nevada football without Ault leading the way (1961-75, 1993, 1996-2003), they've managed 116 wins and a .470 win percentage. If Kansas State fans want hope for the second Bill Snyder Administration, look to Ault's time in Reno (and not John Robinson's time at USC and UNLV, or Bill Walsh's second stay in Palo Alto).
Nevada has been to four straight bowls, and while they haven't beaten many big-name opponents (UNR hasn't actually beaten a BCS-conference team finishing with a winning record since their move to 1-A in 1992--really, a blemish on Ault's record), they win. And there's absolutely no question that Ault will have his boys ready to rock and roll on a Friday night, especially against a team that beat them by 52 points last year. It offers the perfect "hornet's nest" type of situation, in which a young BCS-conference team is ambushed by an experienced, angry non-BCS host.
S&P+*: 113.3 (#30)
Standard Downs** S&P+: 107.8 (#44)
Redzone S&P+: 112.8 (#33)
Q1 S&P+: 107.1 (#53)
1st Down S&P+: 113.6 (#30)
Rushing S&P+: 127.6 (#8)
Standard Downs: 120.5 (#12)
Redzone: 124.32 (#20)
Line Yards+: 116.3 (#15)
Passing S&P+: 99.6 (#63)
Standard Downs: 90.7 (#87)
Redzone: 92.9 (#73)
Adj. Sack Rate***: 4.4% (#30)
* The general S&P+ stat used is really the "Close-Game S&P+" stat you know and love. The definition of "close game" has been expanded (Close game = within 24 points in Q1, 21 in Q2, and 16 or less, i.e. two possessions, in the second half). So what that means is that junk time yards/points are not included in these numbers, nor should they be.
** "Standard Downs" = what used to be "Non-Passing Downs". Passing Downs are defined as follows: Second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, fourth-and-5 or more. Anything less than that—any first down, second-and-7 or less, third-and-4 or less, fourth-and-4 or less—are considered Standard Downs because running and passing are more-or-less equal options.
*** Adjusted Sack Rate is a new creation. It simply looks at the average of the Standard Downs and Passing Downs sack rates. As you'll see, combined with Line Yards+, this will give you a pretty good read of O-line performance.
As you would figure from the stereotypical good running team that plays 4,500 feet above sea level, the 'Pack improved offensively as the game wore on, getting better in each progressive quarter. Overall, they hovered around 50th in the country in the first half, and about 24th in the second. They were solid in the red zone, solid on first downs, and great on third downs with the Kaepernick rushing threat, but they did have some distinct weaknesses. Marko Mitchell was a good WR, but the numbers suggest that Nevada's passing game didn't scare many people.
If the Wolfpack are going to become a team with "BCS buster" potential in 2009, Kaepernick has to find a good weapon to keep defenses honest in non-passing situations. Yes, he's great outside the pocket, and Nevada had some nice Passing Downs success thanks to the "Will he run or throw?" conundrum, but he can't do that every play, and UNR will need to figure out how to better avoid Passing Downs if they want to succeed at a very high level.
2008 Unit Ranking: #16 in the nation (#2 in the WAC)
Projected Depth Chart
Colin Kaepernick (6'6, 215, Jr.)
Tyler Lantrip (6'4, 220, So.)
Luke Collis (6'3, 210, So.)
One of the funnier moments of 2008 came when The Beef and I met with rptgwb and Uribe Auction (and, of course, MCboomofdoom) after last year's Mizzou-Nevada game to prepare for the postgame podcast. The first thing any of us could talk about was how amazing Colin Kaepernick was at the play-fake. When you expect him to run the ball at pretty much all times, and he still fools you when he keeps it, you know he's got a good fake going. Combine that with the fact that his legs are about six feet long and he reaches full speed in about two steps, and you've got one of the scarier runners from the quarterback position in college football. In fact, looking at Points Over Expected (POE--a figure we will become much more familiar with later on), he was the #1 rushing QB in college football last year.
Kaepernick's rushing ability, combined with his skill on passing downs, made Nevada's offense a major threat to score at pretty much any moment in 2008. But they didn't score at any moment. Why? Because they weren't the best at staying out of Passing Downs. It doesn't matter how good you are in Passing Downs--your odds are still better in Standard Downs, and the more Passing Downs you face, the more likely you are to fail even if you pull off a few great drive-saving plays. The Standard Downs success must improve.
Kaepernick missed spring practices while rehabbing a minor ankle injury. Backups Tyler Lantrip and Luke Collis both improved tremendously as the spring progressed, and both should be competent should anything happen to #10. That said, it's safe to say that neither can run (or play-fake) like Kaepernick, and if Nevada's beating Mizzou, it's probably not going to be with Lantrip or Collis on the field.
2008 Unit Ranking: #38 in the nation (#3 in the WAC)
Projected Depth Chart
Vai Taua (5'10, 225, Jr.)
Luke Lippincott (6'2, 215, Sr.)
Brandon Fragger (5'9, 195, Sr.)
Few teams in the country are more experienced at running back than the Wolfpack will be in 2009. Vai Taua rushed for 1,521 yards in 2008 (6.4 per carry) as a sophomore, and he will return as the #1 guy. But meanwhile, #2 man Luke Lippincott was recently granted medical hardship year and will return in 2009 having rushed for 1,420 yards in 2007 before being sidelined with a knee injury. They have 633 career carries, pretty good for a 1-2 combination. Then, #3 man Brandon Fragger brings an extra 800 career rushing yards (and 22 receptions) to the table. Combined with Kaepernick's rushing prowess, this turns into a super-powered backfield; for comparison, Missouri fans should think of the Corby-Olivo-Blackwell-West combination of the late-1990s. All four runners have the potential to average over six yards a pop.
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends
2008 Unit Ranking: #32 in the nation (#3 in the WAC)
Projected WR Depth Chart
Chris Wellington (6'1, 185, Jr.)
Brandon Wimberly (6'3, 195, RSFr.)
Tray Session (6'3, 175, So.)
Maurice Patterson (6'3, 200, Jr.)
Malcolm Shepherd (6'3, 210, Jr.)
Dwayne Sanders (5'10, 175, Sr.)
L.J. Washington (6'0, 195, Fr.)
Arthur King (6'1, 195, Sr.)
Shane Anderson (6'1, 205, So.)
Projected TE Depth Chart
Virgil Green (6'5, 225, Jr.)
Kevin Bohr (6'3, 240, Sr.)
Talaiasi Puloka (6'4, 240, Sr.)
If Mizzou can shut down the run, they should be in good shape in the desert on the last Friday of September. As inexperienced as Mizzou's secondary may end up, with a new CB starter opposite Carl Gettis, a sophomore leader in Kenji Jackson, and at least potentially a new starting safety in Jarrell Harrison (if he overtakes Hardy Ricks...and I hope he does), Nevada's receiving corps is equally inexperienced. Removing the 115 catches, 1,761 yards, and 12 touchdowns that Marko Mitchell and Mike McCoy brought to the table last year, all that's left is Chris Wellington (42 for 632 and 6 TDs), TE Virgil Green (13 for 136, 1 TD), and Arthur King (10 for 96). The Wolfpack have a lot of hope pinned to redshirt freshman Brandon Wimberley, who had a wonderful year on the scout team and looked good in the spring. If he and Wellington can approximate Mitchell and McCoy, the Nevada passing attack may be good enough to keep defenses from keying on the run.
Really, though, Wellington and Wimberly need to be better than Mitchell and McCoy. Again, Nevada's Standard Downs passing attack was simply not good enough to take out the big boys (Texas Tech, Missouri, Boise State) on the schedule last year. For the Wolfpack to take out Notre Dame or Missouri, they're going to need some extreme reliability from one of these guys. The sky's the limit if Wimberly turns out to be the real deal, though.
2008 Unit Ranking: #8 in the nation (#1 in the WAC)
Projected Depth Chart
T Alonzo Durham (6'4, 285, Sr.)
T Mike Gallett (6'6, 295, Jr.)
G John Bender (6'8, 325, Jr.)
C Kenneth Ackerman (6'4, 280, Sr.)
G Chris Barker (6'4, 315, RSFr.)
G Aminiasi Silatolu (6'4, 295, Jr.)
T Steve Haley (6'5, 305, So.)
C Jeff Meads (6'3, 290, So.)
G Steve Werner (6'5, 310, RSFr.)
T Jose Acuna (6'6, 308, Jr.)
Missouri's defense got a lot of crap last year, and a lot of it was completely deserved. But they faced a murderous set of offenses in 2008, and few had better offensive lines than Nevada did. For them to hold Taua and Fragger to just 76 yards on 20 carries was extremely impressive, as was Mizzou's holding the overall UNR attack to just a 0.713 S&P. Unfortunately for Mizzou, their own defensive line is a lot less experienced in 2009, while Nevada's offensive line should be as good or better. Their 62 returning career starts rank them third in the WAC, and they've got 2-3 all-conference candidates in Alonzo Durham, Mike Gallett, and gigantic John Bender. We're all high on the threesome of Jacquies Smith, Aldon Smith, and Brian Coulter; well, Durham and Gallett will make up one of the better pairs of tackles Mizzou will face this year.
We'll discuss Nevada's defense tomorrow, and there are plenty of concerns and holes there. But this offense is extremely experienced, and while their inconsistency on Standard Downs is a concern for them (and an opportunity for Missouri), Nevada's going to score some points. The defense isn't great, but they'll have some leeway in that their offense will be putting up plenty of scores in the 30s and 40s in 2009. Chris Ault is renowned as one of the most innovative offensive minds in college football, and he will have one of the nation's best running attacks at his disposal, but if they're going to not only beat Missouri but challenge Boise State for a potential BCS slot, a go-to receiver will need to emerge, and, let's face it, Kaepernick's passing will need to improve. He's not a terrible passer by any means, and the threat of his legs give him leeway, but he is not the most efficient passer in the world, and hopefully Mizzou can force the Wolfpack into plenty of Passing Downs situations.