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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Nevada

A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Nevada... What's Changed: Jeff Rowe started 36 of the Wolf Pack's last 37 games at quarterback, and won more than 60 percent of them, as opposed to Nick Graziano, who in addition to possibly being a former roommate of mine (it was Nick G-something-o) has started zero. The redshirt sophomore's only tossed a few balls around in garbage time. The one chance Graziano had to get in some significant time last year, when Rowe missed the San Jose State game, outgoing senior Travis Moore was tapped to lead the win instead.

One item of note that may be of some solace to UNR partisans re: the new quarterback: the Pack were only 3-9 when Rowe started against teams .500 or better, all three by a combined 14 points in 2005 against Louisiana Tech, late-fading Fresno State and Central Florida in overtime.

What's the Same: Not coincidentally, the real offensive star of the SJSU game - notable as Nevada's only win over another winning team - was Robert Hubbard, who had a career-high 33 carries and 161 yards in Rowe's absence and finished his senior season one carry shy of 1,000 yards. New back this fall, same story.

The gratuitous semi-colon of football formations: Chris Ault's "Pistol."
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The quick-hit running game out of the "pistol" formation is fundamentally misdirection because of the quarterback's deceptive, Wing T-style play-fakes and despite its overall, option-free balance uses the lone back very much like an old wishbone fullback - because his alignment is so close to the quarterback, he gets the ball more quickly than a typical I-form tailback but has the same distance to the line, allowing time for the same counters, cuts, trapping and pulling, etc. I don't know that this innovation is worth any sort of hype as a full-fledged system. It was only significantly above average against the dregs of the conference - I-AA-worthy underlings New Mexico State, Idaho, Utah State and Louisiana Tech along with San Jose State all gave up between 200 and 235 yards to UNR backs, who averaged almost a full yard more per carry against all losing teams - but even with a lack of a big play threat was remarkably consistent across the board, actually falling within a five-carry, 30-yard window of its season averages (39 carries, 171 yards) seven times and never suffering any real outlying highs or lows. This has been a noticeable trend since Ault re-assumed the head job in 2004 - like all good mid-major offenses, a result of scheme and execution moreso than talent, which recruiting rankings show isn't remarkable here by any measure. Great white tailback hope Luke Lippincott had 355 yards and seven touchdowns in one three-game span and ought to be about as good, four and five yards at a time, as his immediate predecessors.

Middle Men: The emerging theme here since Ault's return to the sideline from the administrative offices is that Nevada admirably handles its business against weaker teams but struggles against winners - see Rowe's career record above, and also this telling statistic: Nevada played only two games out of 14 in 2006 decided by one score or less. The Pack lost by a touchdown at Hawaii in October and by a single point against depressingly low-octane Miami in the Humanitarian MPC Computers Bowl, and otherwise were either comfortable winners against lousy opponents or reliable victims to the fellow bowl-bound.

UNR won its eight games by an average of four touchdowns against teams with a combined final record of 28-69. Again, only one, highly suspect San Jose State, was a winner overall. In five losses, Nevada was downed by an average 16 points against teams that finished 42-33, the only loser of which was disappointing, 4-8 Fresno State. It's a proud, reliable citizen of the middle class, and likely to remain there as long as coaching remains competent and half the schedule is filled out by Utah State, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, UNLV and the like.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: It's difficult, says the Reno Gazette-Journal's Dan Hinxman, to overstate the importance of what Nick Graziano and the offense did in the Silver and Blue scrimmage last month:'s not so much the touchdowns -- the offense had four of them in the 12-series scrimmage -- that were important. It was simply the way Graziano took charge.

He did everything superbly, and he did it against a defense that will likely be one of the best, if not the best, in the Western Athletic Conference next fall. The front seven on the Pack defense has the makings of one of the best in the West.
Ault balked at the notion that Graziano, the only quarterback on the team who has college experience, might have created some separation in the quarterback battle, adding that that's not a concern of his during the spring. But it was hard not to notice how well Graziano performed in every situation -- calling the correct audible; throwing with precision from the pocket, on the run and under pressure; avoiding a strong rush; and picking the right times to scramble. He also ran the play-action pass fluidly and continued to demonstrate the two qualities that got him noticed in limited playing time last season -- toughness and mobility.

That's a lot of superlative presupposition: the quaterback will be great because he performed "superbly" against "one of the best" defenses in a very wide swatch of geography, though at least two of the plays Hinxman points to as evidence of Graziano's solids sound more like defensive breakdowns:

* In the first series, Graziano rolled out to the right on a play-action, getting much of the defense going the wrong way, then hit wide receiver Marko Mitchell on a 23-yard pass. Eight plays later, Graziano rolled out right again and all but walked into the end zone from 7 yards out.
* Graziano scored the third touchdown on a 13-yard run after sidestepping blitzing safety Uche Anyanwu.

Let us hope for Graziano and Nevada's sake all WAC defenses are such easily-fooled, tackle-missing saps. (Actually, we can be pretty sure already half of them, at minimum, are).

In other rosy-colored news, Chris Ault is impressed with his team's conditioning, and things are looking up as well for Travis Branzell, in camp with the New York Jets - not that he wants anyone to notice.

Nevada on YouTube: In case you mistakenly convinced yourself there had better times to be had last New Year's Eve than watching the MPC Computers Bowl, here's part of what you missed, courtesy of Pack tight end Anthony Pudewell in his final game:

The original call (incomplete) was inexplicably upheld after replay, for the record, which may have cost the Pack the game. Nevada settled for a field goal here, and another one later, and lost 21-20.

See Also: Parts One ("Aw shit!...Dude you got it, you got all of it!"), Two ("Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!") and Three ("Dude, they have mace.") of a free-for-all at last year's Nevada-UNLV game ... And traditional dancing by the university's Japanese Student Action Network at its annual cultural festival in 2005.

Chris Ault has built a close-knit family. A little too close, perhaps.
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Best-Case: An opening upset at Nebraska, though not impossible, is well outside the realm of plausible optimism, but the Pack could be 4-1 entering the defining WAC game of the season, at Boise State, which despite the latter's blowout win in Reno last November and subsequent New Year's dramatics is more manageable. The final six after that are all winnable, to say the least - outside of the Cornhuskers, Broncos and visiting Hawaii, Nevada is a likely favorite in every other game. If it goes on beating those it's supposed to beat and upsets one of the presumptive league frontrunners, UNR could hit ten wins for the first time since it left the Championship Subdivision in 1992.

Worst-Case: New quarterbacks are never to be taken for granted (see Fresno State, for the nearest available example), nor, for any WAC team, is a trip into Big Ten country, even if the trip is to Northwestern. A 2-4 start through the first couple of WAC games (against destined-to-be-better Fresno State and at Boise) is about as likely as 4-1. Given continued success against the awful bottom half of the conference, the Thanksgiving weekend visit to San Jose State should be at worst a rubber match for 6-6 and tentative eligibility for the New Mexico Bowl.

Non-Binding Forecast: This schedule has six virtually automatic wins and eight very likely ones, so there should be a third straight bowl game waiting in December. But, aside from Nebraska, there are probably also two losses waiting in-conference among Boise State, Fresno State and Hawaii. The latter two both come to Reno, and Nevada will have to beat them both or pull the extrememly unlikely upset on the blue turf to have any shot at the WAC championship - that barring, of course, a slip elsewhere. This team should be very satisfied with a 9-3 regular season, and I'd posit 8-4 is more likely.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

2006 Record
8-5 (5-3 WAC, T-Third)
Past Five Years
33-28 (24-16 WAC)
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (5 Offense, 7 Defense)
Best Player
On one hand, outside linebacker Ezra Butler was enough of an edge rusher to get in on nine sacks and to lead the WAC with 17.5 tackles for loss. On the other, he was enough of a ballhawk to also pace a defense with two other first team all-WACkers in solo and total tackles. Also a former Revolutionary War vet and eleventh governor of Vermont as well as distinguished Canadien wood tycoon of the Gilded Age.
Bizarre Tradition
The winner of the annual rivalry match-up with UNLV players for trophy described as a "mountain howitzer," the Fremont Cannon. The gun is so named because it’s a replica of one that allegedly accompanied future abolitionist pioneer John C. Fremont on his expedition through Oregon, Nevada and California in 1843-44, but the schools didn’t begin playing for the recreation until well over a century later, in 1970. It goes back and forth between the schools (a hassle to get onto planes) and is fired every time its current owner scores against the other at home. Casualties have remained at a minimum, though diagnoses of tinnitus have increased on campus seventy-fold.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Do not even dare to think of refering to the "Wolf Pack" as the "Wolfpack," the more leisyrely spacing and capitalization being the only manner of differentiating Nevada’s band of anthropomorphic feral canines from those of North Carolina State, as detailed here. I kinda like "Sagebrushers," myself.
March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia