By Neil Patrick Healy
Round up the usual suspects, because there are still questions surrounding the Nevada secondary. Unfortunately for head coach Brian Polian, there isn’t much time to figure out the solution because Nevada hosts the 22-ranked Arizona Wildcats and their lethal passing attack this Saturday. If the Wolf Pack hopes to pull the upset, the defensive backs need to step up.
As most Wolf Pack fans know, having concerns in the secondary is far from unfamiliar territory. Last season Nevada was ranked 114 in pass defense and gave up 271 yards-per-game. Since 2004 (as far as ESPN keeps track), Nevada has ranked in the top 50 in pass defense only twice (49 in 2004 and 42 in 2006) and has finished below the top 100 five times (101 in 2005, 120 in 2008 and 2009, 112 in 2010 and 114 in 2014.) Yes, passing defense stats can be skewed. For example, last season New Mexico State was ranked fifth in the nation in passing defense, but ranked 127 in rush defense (second last in front of good ol’ UNLV) and finished with a dreadful 2-10 record. Stats can be skewed, but they can’t be skewed consistently and Nevada has consistently struggled in defending the pass.
The secondary came into this season with four new starters, including two redshirt freshmen. According to Polian, their debut against UC Davis was promising, but also inconclusive.
“Those young defensive backs didn’t get tested [against UC Davis],” Polian said. “I can’t remember many throws down the field. The last two-minute drive they dumped the pass to the tailback about six times in a row on the check-down. I don’t know if that was by design or if our guys were doing a good job covering down the field. I won’t know how well the young DBs played until we look at the tape, but certainly there was nothing glaring.”
Due to the high-completion passes being thrown, the defensive backs were able to put their tackling abilities on display.
“I thought they tackled pretty well,” Polian said. “I can’t remember anytime anyone whiffed and they came up and threw their bodies around, so there were some encouraging things.”
Redshirt freshman Asauni Rufus in particular stood out. Rufus led all tacklers in the game with 12 and seven solo tackles, but this secondary is making a huge jump in weight class. Arizona’s style of play will spread the ball through the air and challenge Nevada down the field.
“It’s going to be different next week,” Polian said. “We’re basically playing basketball on grass, so the DBs better grow up in a hurry.”
Arizona’s quarterback Anu Solo- mon is poised for another big year. In the season opener against Texas San Antonio, Solomon went 22-for-36 for 226 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. Styles make fights and the styles of these two teams do not bode well for Nevada. The fate of the Arizona game, and the season, rests on the shoulders of the secondary. If they can take their coach’s advice and grow into themselves then the hype around Nevada’s defense will be legitimate. If they don’t the secondary’s trouble will be business as usual.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NeilTheJuiceMan.