By Neil Patrick Healy
As you’re reading this column, the Fremont Cannon sits in the Sahara-like tacky neon wasteland known as Las Vegas. The Rebels have won and the cannon is once again painted Rebel red. This thought is probably eating away at your soul and Nevada head coach Brian Polian is probably throwing his headset against his office floor as he tries to hold back tears.
It began to rain down on the Wolf Pack (literally and figuratively) after the 23-17 loss and the symbolism in that moment was oh-too perfect. The silver linings aren’t there because no one had a good game. Nevada is getting the standing eight count right now, and if they don’t shake off this monumental blow, the season that had promise will be lost.
The ugly truth is that Nevada looked terrible against the Rebels. Receivers couldn’t get open, running backs couldn’t find holes, passes were dropped, assignments were missed, tackles were broken and the end result was a heart wrenching loss that leaves the Pack sitting at 2-3 still trying to figure out who they are. Like any trauma victim, Nevada must accept what happened in order to recover, but in order to accept what happened, one must know how it happened.
The offense gets picked on first today, as they looked awful from start to finish. The backfield of Don Jackson and James Butler that had shown so much promise against Texas A&M and Buffalo took a big hard flop last Saturday. The two of them combined for 80 yards off 23 carries.
In case you’re not a math person, that’s 3.47 yards-per-carry. In a word, that is bad. In two words, that is very bad.
Combine that with quarterback Tyler Stewart’s below average performance (20-for-44, 202 yards, one touchdown and one interception returned for a touchdown).This puts a lot of blame on his shoulders. Poor field position played a key role as well, as former Nevada walk-on and current UNLV punter Logan Yunker pinned the Pack inside the 10-yard line three times and inside the five twice.
Defense, you only get chastised for one half because you actually played a good game in the second half. After allowing UNLV to run wild in the first half, the only points allowed by the defense were in the form of a field goal where the Rebel drive started on Nevada’s 33-yard line. (Note that UNLV scored a touchdown off of a Tyler Stewart interception returned for a touchdown. Not the defense’s fault.) Senior linebacker Matthew Lyons got 12 tackles and freshman safety Dameon Baber made his third interception in just his second game.
So what’s next? Well, the Pack has to make adjustments. For instance, why is one of Nevada’s best offensive weapons in tight end Jared Gipson only getting involved in the offense by recovering a fumble? With the lack of an effective No. 3 wide receiver, the Nevada offense needs to get the ball in Gipson’s hands. He was on the Mackey Award watch list in the preseason for a reason.
The next steps are yet to be determined. Will Nevada move forward from this heartbreaking loss or will they fold under the scrutiny? This team is still trying to find its identity and there is still much to play for. The West Division is wide open because most teams are sitting where Nevada is at and are still finding themselves.
The upcoming five-game stretch is relatively smooth sailing for the Pack. Games against New Mexico, at Wyoming, Hawaii, at Fresno State and closing out the home schedule with San Jose State can be what the Pack needs to regain some confidence. All of those games are winnable and that would have Nevada sitting at 7-3 going into the homestretch of the season. There is still a lot on the line for Polian’s team, but will they use this adversity as fuel or will they crumble under the emotional turmoil that accompanies a loss like the one Nevada was a part of?
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SagebrushSports.