By Neil Patrick Healy
Through the first six games, the offense has been up and down. With strong rushing performances against UC Davis, Buffalo, New Mexico and even parts of the Texas A&M game, the unit as a whole still has some questions marks. Save for Jerico Richardson’s last two games, there has not been a legitimate number-one receiver for Tyler Stewart to throw to. The offensive line is still a major concern, as offensive guards Joey Anglemire, Jeremy Macauley and Adam Khouri are inactive due to injury. The offensive front was already thin and the lack of depth and experience hurts the Pack’s grade in this category. Nevada has also given up a turnover taken back for a touchdown in two straight games.
HOW TO IMPROVE:
Keep establishing the run with running backs Don Jackson and James Butler, so quarterback Tyler Stewart is in a position to take advantage of the play-action pass. The offense also needs to start using tight end Jarred Gipson more effectively in the second half of the season to compensate for a lack of a consistent number-three receiver. It wouldn’t hurt to boost that 38 percent third down conversion rate either.
Yes, I know the defensive unit gave up 44 points to both Arizona and Texas A&M. Just hear me out, OK? The defense came under fire after those two games, but since then they have really stepped up their play. The Buffalo game was the test this defense needed and freshman safety Dameon Baber came up with his second interception of his career debut to seal the win. Save for the first half of the UNLV game, the unit has played solid football since then. Linebackers Matthew Lyons and Jordan Dobrich both recorded 12-tackle performances in the last two games (Lyons against UNLV and Dobrich against New Mexico) and shut down the Lobos’ triple option attack and held them to 3.6 yards per carry.
HOW TO IMPROVE:
The defensive backfield has to play consistently to keep Nevada in games. The emergence of Baber has helped, but there are still too many big throws completed downfield that hurt this unit’s grade. Am I expecting the Legion of Boom? Of course not, but Nevada is currently ranked No. 95 in passing defense and that isn’t going to help close out games against teams like Fresno State who like to air it out.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
So far the unit has pretty much done its job. Kicker Brett Zuzo get’s an A+ individually, as he is a perfect 7-for-7 in field goals and 19-for-19 in PAT attempts. Alex Boy has had a consistent season so far, as he is averaging 42 yards per punt and hit a career-long 68-yard punt against Texas A&M. That being said, the Pack has had their its share of worries on special teams. A high snap over Boy’s head against Arizona put the Wildcats deep inside Nevada territory and a punt that went off Elijah Mitchell led to a fumble recovered by New Mexico on Nevada’s 25-yard line. It’s the little mistakes kept this team from getting an A.
HOW TO IMPROVE:
While both kick return and punt return averages are respectable (22 and 13.2 yards per return, respectively), the Pack lacks that home run threat in the return game that can flip field position and put the offense on the opponent’s side of the 50. Other than that, keep the mistakes to a minimum, and special teams should get an A next time around.
Game plans coming into each game have been solid, and the coaching staff doesn’t usually put its first-year starting quarterback in tough spots. The coaching staff made the move to put Baber in the starting safety spot, which looks to be working beautifully so far, as the true freshman has three interceptions in his first three games including a two-pick and 10-tackle performance against Buffalo. The coaches also found a way to stop the triple option, which had been giving the Pack nightmares every time they faced Air Force.
The two games that the coaches would get failing grades for would be Arizona and UNLV. In the game that lost Nevada the cannon, the Pack averaged a meager 2.48 yards per carry and Stewart was forced to throw the ball 44 times, which led to the offense becoming one-dimensional and eventually cost Nevada the game. In the Arizona game, head coach Brian Polian was flagged for two unsportsmanlike penalties and was fined $10,000 a couple of days later.
There are some bright spots, but the coaching staff has left a lot to de desired.
HOW TO IMPROVE:
Polian has been keeping his cool for the most part since getting fined, so the main critique is something cited in the offense’s grade as well. Jarred Gipson has to become more involved in the passing game. It’s true that he is part of the blocking scheme for the running game, but without a legit number-three receiver and with Hasaan Henderson having a hard time staying 100 percent, Gipson can provide that security blanket that Stewart can look to when the play breaks down. One of the most important, and underrated, positions in football is a tight end that can makes plays in the passing game. He snagged his second touchdown of the season against New Mexico last Saturday, but he has only eight catches all season.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at neil@ sagebrush.unr.edu or on Twitter @NeilTheJuiceMan.