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Nevada: Beyond the Box Score Preview

You had to wait an extra day for it, but you have to wait a day less for the actual game, so that balances out, right?

Image via the Reno Gazette-Journal


Nevada: 2009 Beyond the Box Score Preseason Offensive Preview

A BTBS look at the Nevada Offense

Close S&P: 0.802 (National Rank: 52nd)
Close Success Rate: 52.5% (14th)
Close PPP: 0.28 (97th)

Rushing Success Rate: 57.9% (7th)
Rushing PPP: 0.35 (37th)
Rushing S&P: 0.929 (14th)

Passing Success Rate: 43.5% (39th)
Passing PPP: 0.16 (115th)
Passing S&P: 0.592 (102nd)

Standard Downs S&P: 0.942 (37th)
SD Rushing S&P: 0.974 (16th)
SD Passing S&P: 0.324 (96th)

Passing Downs S&P: 0.509 (92nd)
PD Rushing S&P: 0.531 (64th)
PD Passing S&P: 0.506 (97th)

Red Zone S&P: 0.609 (116th)

Q1 S&P: 0.916 (36th)
Q2 S&P: 0.655 (89th)
Q3 S&P: 0.911 (35th)
Q4 S&P: 0.882 (27th)

1st Down S&P: 1.024 (12th)
2nd Down S&P: 0.664 (88th)
3rd Down S&P: 0.678 (77th)

Line Yards/Carry: 3.41 (22nd)
Standard Downs Sack Rate: 7.5% (108th)
Passing Downs Sack Rate: 0.0% (1st)

(Here's your reminder that these are not "+" numbers, meaning they are not adjusted for strength of schedule.  It's pretty hard to do that when a team's only played two games. This is important to remember when looking at the UNR defense especially, and in all it's a reminder that these numbers should not be taken 100% at face value.  That said, these are per-play measures, so they will still tell you infinitely more than simply "Team A is averaging ___ yards per game," or something like that.)

Even if you don't have a clue about S&P and don't care to have a clue, a quick perusal of these rankings paints a pretty quick, clear picture of Nevada and where it has struggled.  We've all heard about how poorly Nevada has played this year, but in reality they've only performed poorly in certain circumstances.  In Standard Downs (1st downs, 2nd-and-5 or less, 3rd-and-3 or less), the Wolf Pack rushing attack has been just about as good as it was supposed to be.  At least, they've been as efficient as they were supposed to be.  It appears that teams are reining them in pretty well, and with a pretty pathetic passing attack, it makes sense why.  If defenses don't have to even acknowledge the passing game, they can gang up on the run.

And really, that has been the major issue for Nevada this year.  Maybe Colin Kaepernick is trying too hard to make plays, maybe the play-calling has been poor...bottom line is, two games into the season Nevada has no passing threat whatsoever.  Getting back home and relaxing a bit (if it's possible to relax in what has become a pretty anti-Ault atmosphere) could help, but at this exact moment they've proven nothing.


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.

Colin Kaepernick: 37-for-61 passing, 400 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT, 6.6 yards per pass, 108.0 QB Rating.  Also, 17 carries, 63 yards, long: 17.

The Standard Downs success has not improved.  That said, it hasn't really regressed either--Nevada's Standard Downs S&P has fallen from 0.966 to 0.942, which is relatively negligible in the end.  The problem is, the Passing Downs that were a bit of an issue are a complete and total debacle this year.  Their Passing Downs production has fallen 32% thus far, and in 61 overall pass attempts, Kaepernick has thrown one touchdown pass and four interceptions.  As Missouri fans learned with Brad Smith, if opponents aren't scared of the pass, they can shadow the run a bit more, and though Kaepernick is still capable of making plays with the defense focused on him, he's simply not going to make as many plays.

Should the Passing Downs struggles be blamed on Kaepernick?  The receivers?  The coach?  I haven't seen a single second of either Nevada game, so obviously I don't know for sure.  I do know that Nevada left about 17 points off the board against Notre Dame and blew multiple scoring opportunities, which means that a) they did in fact create scoring opportunities, and b) they (Kaepernick included) shot themselves in the foot eventually.  I also know that Kaep's completion percentage has gone up, meaning there might be an issue with receivers not being able to actually make a tackler miss and get downfield.  Obviously we'll see tonight what was the cause and the struggles will be sustained now that they're back at home.


Running Back

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.

Vai Taua: 32 carries, 209 yards, 6.5 per carry, two touchdowns, plus five catches, 42 yards.
Luke Lippincott: 9 carries, 52 yards, 5.8 per carry

Clearly they've been holding up their end of the bargain.  Again, Nevada has been relatively efficient in terms of moving the ball on Standard Downs.  It's what happens when the RBs are stopped for a short gain that is the problem.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

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.

WR Tray Session (So.): 12 catches, 137 yards, 11.4 per catch.
WR Brandon Wimberly (RSFr.): 9 catches, 140 yards, 15.6 per catch, 1 TD.
WR Chris Wellington (Jr.): 6 catches, 49 yards
TE Virgil Green (Jr.): 6 catches, 37 yards

Aaaaand that's it.  Only four WR/TEs have caught passes thus far, suggesting little depth, and only one of the four is averaging more than 11.5 yards per catch, suggesting little explosivness.  Again, it's early, and one good game could completely change perceptions (just look at Florida State, described as "on fire" on an ESPN commercial this morning, when seven days ago they were on the ropes after almost losing to Jacksonville State...perceptions change in milliseconds), but for now this unit has done nothing to alleviate the major concern for this offense heading into 2009, which was that nobody would be able to replace Marko Mitchell as the go-to, big-play threat.  Wimberly may be well on his way, but it's still early in his first season on the field.  An even bigger problem, though, is apparently depth.

Offensive Line

For [Mizzou] 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.

The O-line appears to be holding up its end of the bargain, at least to an extent.  With a running quarterback, it's impossible to glean much from Sack Rates.  Have they protected Kaepernick really well on Passing Downs (leading to 0 sacks), or is Kaepernick either evading the rush or making throws too quickly?  Are defenders backing off and trying to contain Kaepernick instead of coming straight at him?  Is an awful Standard Downs sack rate the sign of poor protection, or is Kaepernick staying in the pocket far too long, looking to make a play?  The OL has done well in run-blocking, and I thought they'd be pretty good heading into the season, so I'm going to assume that they've at least been decent in the first two games.  Either way, I'm a lot more comfortable with Missouri's defensive line and a little less sold on Nevada's offensive line.  At worst, I think this matchup ends up being a draw.



Nevada: 2009 Beyond the Box Score Preseason Defensive Preview

A BTBS look at the Nevada Defense

Close S&P: 1.066 (117th)
Close Success Rate: 52.4% (116th)
Close PPP: 0.54 (118th)

Rushing Success Rate: 53.3% (111th)
Rushing PPP: 0.30 (80th)
Rushing S&P: 0.830 (106th)

Passing Success Rate: 51.4% (114th)
Passing PPP: 0.84 (119th)
Passing S&P: 1.353 (120th)

Standard Downs S&P: 0.969 (108th)
SD Rushing S&P: 0.839 (95th)
SD Passing S&P: 1.244 (114th)

Passing Downs S&P: 1.011 (117th)
PD Rushing S&P: 0.531 (69th)
PD Passing S&P: 1.672 (120th)

Red Zone S&P: 1.537 (119th)

Q1 S&P: 1.028 (115th)
Q2 S&P: 1.002 (107th)
Q3 S&P: 1.033 (112th)
Q4 S&P: 0.862 (97th)

1st Down S&P: 1.010 (115th)
2nd Down S&P: 0.993 (111th)
3rd Down S&P: 0.924 (106th)

Line Yards/Carry: 2.95 (78th)
Standard Downs Sack Rate: 3.7% (71st)
Passing Downs Sack Rate: 6.3% (71st)

Oy.  Nevada's best ranking anywhere on this list is 71st.  Now...again...Notre Dame has a very good offense (or at least they did before Michael Floyd went down--we'll see now), so a strength-of-schedule adjustment will help the Pack here.  But still.  There's bad, and there's bad, and I think Nevada's going to get the italicization treatment.

One other disclaimer: Nevada's only played two games, so the two long passes to Michael Floyd of 70 and 88 yards could be, by themselves, skewing these numbers.  But being that we thought the secondary would be a concern heading into the season, and being that Missouri's WR corps has looked quite good for 2.5 games this year (they didn't in the first half against Bowling Green), this is still obviously a positive sign for Mizzou.

Defensive Line

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.

Kevin Basped: 2.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 pass break-up
Dontay Mach: 9.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 QB hurry

Mach's held up his end of the bargain, but Basped has been underwhelming so far.  Tackles Nate Agaiava and Zack Madonick have been serviceable, combining for 7.0 tackles and 2.0 TFL.  In all, though, Nevada mas managed just two sacks in two games.  It's no wonder the Wolf Pack is apparently considering sending the house at Gabbert instead of dropping seven into coverage like Bowling Green--they probably can't get in Gabbert's face without doing so.


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?

Mike Bethea: 12.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack
James-Michael Johnson: 11.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 QB hurry
Brandon Marshall: 8.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 pass break-ups

If there has been a strength on this defense, then the LBs would probably be it.  They are making plays just like they did last year.  Again, though, a) Nevada has managed just two sacks, and b) the secondary has been repeatedly roasted.

In all, if there's a bright spot to Nevada's defense, it's that they've racked up 13.5 tackles for loss, mostly against the run.  If Derrick Washington isn't running well, and they can stop him in the backfield enough, Missouri will be forced into Passing Downs.  In Blaine Gabbert's first true road game as a starter, Missouri wants to avoid Passing Downs at all costs.


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.

I was going to put some individual stats here,'s nothing good.  Nevada has intercepted zero passes and broken up only five (the secondary accounts for only two of them).  They're giving up 12.7 yards per pass, which is insanely high.  Take away Floyd's two bombs, and the average is 9.3, which is still terrible.  How terrible?  SMU was worst in the country in this category last year...and they gave up just 9.0 per pass.  Bad.  REALLY, REALLY bad.

In all, Nevada's only hope is what I mentioned above--stopping the run enough to force Mizzou into Passing Downs and hope for some bad decisions from Gabbert.  Having witnessed the first half of the Bowling Green game, I know that that strategy holds at least a small chance of working, but...eesh.  That secondary is just terrible.

Special Teams

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.

Punt Returns Rank: 58th
Net Punting Rank: 44th
Kickoff Returns Rank: 33rd
Opponents' Kickoff Returns Rank: 112th

Field Goals: 0-for-1
PATs: 0-for-1

So...Mike Ball (five returns, 32.8 average) is a pretty good kickoff returner.  That is at least a bit of a concern since Missouri is only 82nd in the country in Opponents' Kickoff Returns.  Other than that?  Um, not very good stuff from Nevada here.  And yes, Nevada has attempted only one PAT in two games (they went for two on their other two TDs versus Colorado State)...and they missed it.  It's been a comedy of errors for Chris Ault's Wolf Pack so far this year.


Three Keys to the Game


We discussed this on Saturday's podcast.  Looking at statistics, results, recruiting rankings, previous head-to-head matchups, whatever you like--it's pretty clear that Missouri is and has been a better football team than Nevada.  But that won't really matter tonight if Missouri is overtaken by circumstance.  You've got a young quarterback making his first out-of-state start (and for that matter, you've got a team with almost 30 frosh/sophs on the two-deep playing really far away from home for the first time).  You've got altitude.  You've got a team that has gone from simply being motivated by revenge against Missouri to being motivated by a desperate need to make something (anything) positive happen.  You've got a two-timezone trip west.  All of these things are working in Nevada's favor.

And that's all that's working in Nevada's favor at the moment.  Missouri is a solid passing team playing against a god-awful pass defense.  Their biggest concerns on defense (secondary) are neutralized by Nevada's biggest concern on offense (passing).  Nevada's whole program is on the verge of being turned on by its fanbase.  You get the feeling that if Missouri actually starts strong for once, this one will be in the bag by the second quarter.  But Missouri isn't a strong-starting team.  And they haven't encountered a situation like this before, at least much of the current personnel hasn't.  Get past the circumstances of the moment, and Missouri wins the game.  Easier said than done.

Passing Downs

I mentioned this above.  Nevada wins this game by forcing Blaine Gabbert into making mistakes he hasn't made yet.  Those will almost certainly come in Passing Downs.  Minimize the number of Passing Downs Gabbert faces, and you minimize the risk of mistakes.  That means a) good running, especially early in the game, b) no drops, and c) no penalties.  You want the Nevada crowd to get into the game, and the Nevada team to get its confidence back?  Face a lot of 3rd-and-9's and see what happens.  Again, Missouri is the better overall team here, but this is still a dangerous game because of what Missouri could do to Missouri.


Tackle well, shadow Kaepernick, don't give up big gains, and you give your young offense more margin for error.  Nevada's big-play potential just hasn't made an appearance yet this year, and they might need Missouri's help in breaking out.

Really, all three of these keys are tied with two themes: brains and fundamentals.  Don't lose your heads, don't make silly mistakes, and you probably win this game.  Or at least you force Nevada to play really well to win, and they haven't done that since early-November of last year.


I'm more nervous about what Missouri is going to do in this game than Nevada.  We've seen this situation a thousand times in college football--the underdog home team is desperate for a breakthrough win, and they probably need some help from the favored road team to get it done.  But if the favorite does them some favors early, then confidence and momentum can lead the underdog to a win.  It annoys me because if Missouri does lose this game, I know we'll see the Tim Griffin's of the world immediately breaking out the "Same Old Missouri" talk, when really a) Missouri has had about one true letdown game (Iowa State 2006) in the last 4+ seasons (I don't count OSU and KU of last year because they were both solid teams, and I don't count New Mexico in 2005 because...well, I'm pretty sure UNM was actually better than Missouri in 2005), and b) every team in the country has had at least one letdown game in that time.  Old perceptions die hard, I guess, but if Missouri loses this one, it won't so much be "same old Missouri" as "team that's simply too young not to face some setbacks."  At least, that's the situation in my own opinion.

The numbers say Missouri by 5.6 points in this one.  Honestly, I don't see that happening.  I either see Missouri winning big (17+), or Nevada winning a tight one.  But I am made the fool when I go against the stats, so we'll say Missouri wins 34-28 in this one.