Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: In 2010, the Nevada Wolf Pack was a team to be reckoned with in the Western Athletic Conference, finishing an astounding 13-1 overall and 7-1 in league play for the second year in a row.
Fast forward to 2011 and head coach Chris Ault had to reload a bit, having lost some key figures on both sides of the ball, so a drop-off was to be expected, but that still doesn't explain how and why the squad barely finished above .500 after 13 games.
Right out of the gate the squad was run over by nationally-ranked Oregon, 69-20, and while the following week brought a lackluster 17-14 win over San Jose State, the Pack found itself a mere 1-3 after four games thanks to losses against Texas Tech and Boise State. Certainly, playing the first four games of the season on the road accounted for some of the team's uninspired play, but also trying to find the right fit at quarterback after so many prosperous seasons behind the leadership and athleticism of Colin Kaepernick had something to do with it as well.
Ault, who is in his third different term as the Nevada head coach and has a record of 226-103-1 to show for his efforts dating back to 1976, got his team on track for the big battle against UNLV for Silver State bragging rights as well as the Fremont Cannon, whipping up on the Rebels in the home opener by a score of 37-0. That was the beginning of a five-game win streak for Nevada, albeit against opponents who were sub par and/or on their way down in the ranks of WAC action. Two weeks into the month of November, the Pack was 6-3 and a perfect 4-0 in league play which meant they had the potential to close the season strong, but then came consecutive defeats versus Louisiana Tech and Utah State, both by just four points, dropping them to just a single game over .500 with a meeting versus Idaho left on the regular season slate. The clash with the Vandals in early December was barely a challenge at all as Nevada delivered one of its most lopsided wins in history with a 56-3 romp at home.
An invitation to the Hawaii Bowl was in order, the third such trip to Honolulu in the postseason for the program since 2005, but the squad was eventually taken out by nationally-ranked Souther Miss on Christmas Eve in a 24-17 final. Although he played sparingly in several games while Ault figured out the best mode of attack on offense, Cody Fajardo still managed to generate more than 2,400 yards of total offense, threw for 6 TDs and ran for 11 more as he was named the WAC Freshman of the Year on a team that ranked first in the conference and sixth in the nation in total offense with more than 500 yards per outing.
OFFENSE: As was the case last year when he was on the field, the offense for the Pack will again revolve around the exploits of Fajardo, just as they did years before behind the efforts of Kaepernick. Fajardo is one of two players in the MWC being recognized this year by the Davey O'Brien National Selection Committee.
Operating the now famous "Pistol Offense", Fajardo has proven that he can do as much with his arm as he can with his legs, something that took Kaepernick a few seasons to put into motion. Unfortunately for Fajardo, one luxury that he enjoyed teaming with last season is no longer as option as Rishard Matthews (91 receptions, 1,364 yards, 8 TDs) has moved on.
In fact, Shane Anderson (40 receptions, 526 yards) is also gone, which means there isn't a single returning player from last year who even had 30 catches. Aaron Bradley comes the closest after logging 28 receptions for 336 yards and 3 TDs, but he is still very young and has much to prove.
Possibly adding a new wrinkle to the offense will be new offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich who comes over from rival Hawaii where, having been a quarterback himself for the Warriors, directed a passing attack like none other in the nation.
"With the production of our offense, there was a lot of interest in this job from around the country," coach Ault said of the hiring. "Although I interviewed other candidates, Nick is the only one I offered this opportunity to. He has a good idea of our football tradition and I am confident his background and experience will add another element to our offense."
Perhaps even a bigger issue for the offense is at running back where Nevada, which has been a top-flight rushing squad for several years now, has lost both Lampford Mark and Mike Ball who combined for more than 1,600 yards and 13 TDs a season ago. Fajardo is actually the top returning rusher for the Pack, but he can't be the only one expected to lug the ball up and down the field this year.
The depth chart lists a number of options coming out of the backfield, specifically Stefphon Jefferson, Nick Hale, Tony Knight and Kendall Brock, the last two still being extremely raw due to their youth.
DEFENSE: Losing the top two tacklers from last year, Brandon Marshall and James-Michael Johnson, is one thing, but the Wolf Pack also lost one of the more dominant defenders from the WAC in recent years in Brett Roy. An all- conference performer who had few peers, Roy rolled up 66 tackles a season ago, an amazing 18.5 of those coming behind the line of scrimmage. Of the unit's 24 sacks, 10 came from Roy so now someone else has to step up and become the big man on defense for the Pack.
Perhaps the two most aggressive performers on the defensive side of the ball coming back settle in the secondary in cornerback Khalid Wooten and strong safety Duke Williams. Wooten was second on the team in interceptions with 4 and was the only player on the unit with more than just a single forced fumble as he recorded 3 for Nevada. Williams, the top returning tackler who put up 83 stops, is also capable of covering down field as he broke up 6 passes.
However, even with that pairing in the secondary the Pack has to make up for the loss of Isaiah Frey who along had 5 picks and an astounding 15 pass breakups.
Jeremiah Green is the lone returning linebacker, but he is someone who is more than capable of playing the passing lanes as he proved last season when he tallied 3 interceptions and 7 pass breakups.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A blow to the kicking game has been the loss of Jake Hurst, a punter who averaged 41.5 yards per attempt and land 24 of his 57 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Junior Chase Tenpenny has been penciled in as the replacement for Hurst.
In terms of a placekicker, Allen Hardison is back to reprise the role that saw him knock through 8-of-11 field goal attempts, with a long of 48 yards. However, Hardison also had a pair of kicks blocked and that's something that should be a concern moving forward.
Not only was Matthews a clutch receiver for the Pack, he was also the top punt returner who scored on one of his 23 attempts. Without Matthews lining up, the Pack now turns to Wooten to handle those responsibilities. Wooten is also the backup on kickoff returns behind Kendall Brock who averaged a solid 21.6 yards per return in 2011.
OUTLOOK: Right out of the gate the Wolf Pack gets tested in non-conference play with a trip to California, but if recent history is any indication Nevada should be more than ready for the meeting after crushing the Golden Bears by a score of 52-31 two seasons ago.
Following a couple of home dates versus South Florida and Northwestern State, the Pack heads to Hawaii which is never an easy place to play, although trips to Texas State, UNLV and New Mexico further down the line should make up for the exhausting flight to Honolulu.
Picked to finish second in the conference standings, Nevada has its biggest test in the final game of the year when it entertains Boise State on the first of December. Bragging rights in the MWC and a more high-profile bowl game could be on the line that late in the season and if that's the case, the Pack will be in dire straits.