By Neil Patrick Healy
What if? We should have! We shouldn’t have! These phrases encapsulate the 2015 football season. The up-and-down regular season has come to a much-needed end for the Wolf Pack after a demoralizing 31-14 loss to the San Diego State Aztecs last Saturday. The game was embarrassing offensively, especially in the running game. An offense that has two 1,000-yard rushers managed to eke out 35 total rushing yards and three turnovers. On defense it wasn’t much better, as Aztec running back Donnel Pumphrey spearheaded the ground game with 154 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. Despite having two quarterbacks throw a combined 12 passes for 88 yards, SDSU tallied 408 yards on offense and made the Nevada run defense look pedestrian at best. Standing at 6-6, Nevada still has the opportunity to appear in a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 seasons and have a chance to finish with a winning record. Let’s reflect on some of the highs and lows of the season and what we’ve learned.
Winning in overtime against San José State 37-34 on senior day and clinching a bowl berth tops the list of feel-good moments. Quarterback Tyler Stewart led a game-tying drive toward the end of the fourth quarter and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Jarred Gipson.
The obvious answer is losing to UNLV and relinquishing the cannon. The running back combo Don Jackson and James Butler combined for 80 yards, Stewart completed 46 percent of his passes, and the Pack will have to wait until next season to win back the cannon. Other options were losing to Wyoming 28-21 and giving the Cowboys their first win of the season or you can pick giving up a 27-7 lead against Utah State to lose 31-27. You could even pick head coach Brian Polian getting flagged for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Arizona and getting fined $10,000. In a 6-6 season, there are many options to choose from.
It is obviously safety Dameon Baber. A fat “duh” should come after this pick because the true freshman was outstanding in his first season with the Pack. In his debut for Nevada in the fourth game against Buffalo, Baber totaled 10 tackles with two interceptions and he continued his stellar play to the very end of the season. His season totals are 58 tackles with six interceptions and he will be look to lead a young defense in 2016.
The hype coming into the season was that the front seven of the Pack’s defense was the best in the conference. Whether is was too high of expectations or just a flat miss, the front seven didn’t live up to the hype. The unit showed flashes of potential, but got exposed far too many times for the team to win games. Nevada finished 93rd in the nation in total run defense, gave up an average 188.8 yards a game on the ground and had seven players run for over 100 yards against them. With NFL caliber talent like Ian Seau and Rykeem Yates on the defensive line and standouts like Matthew Lyons and Jordan Dobrich as your linebackers, the unit should yield better results.
The pass defense was surprisingly better this season than in the past. For a program that is historically known for having struggles in the defensive backfield, the unit in 2015 performed above expectations by finishing 44th in the nation in pass defense. Yes, there were games where the unit was exposed (Wyoming comes to mind), but there is reason for optimism. With young players like Baber to build around, the trend of a bad secondary may eventually come to an end.
STOCK ON THE RISE
Running back James Butler looks to be the next great Nevada running back. Butler has compiled 1,156 yards rushing, 6.3 yards per carry, eight touchdowns and seven games with over 100 yards rushing with a bowl game remaining in his sophomore season. With Don Jackson gone next season, Butler will be looked to as the main workhorse in the backfield.
Despite not being quite as dominant as many had hoped, Nevada’s front seven still remained a solid unit. The problem now is that all seven starters are seniors. How is the coaching staff going to replace seven starters on defense? Is it a reload situation with standout freshman defensive linemen Korey Rush and Malik Reed or does the unit take a step back?
Is Tyler Stewart’s starting job secure? He is the favorite, but I don’t think he has the position locked in. Coming into the season the job was dead even between Stewart and redshirt freshman Hunter Fralick. Yes, Stewart had his moments against San José State and New Mexico, but he is a quarterback that completed less than 60 percent of his passes in seven games. If Fralick comes out during spring practice and continues to show the potential he did in the offseason, Polian will have to give him a good look.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NeilTheJuiceMan.