The Nevada Wolf Pack And Why So Glum?

LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 02: Nevada Reno Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault watches his players take on the UNLV Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium October 2 2010 in Las Vegas Nevada. Nevada Reno won 44-26. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

Chris Ault has won 219 games as head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his accomplishments during his first stint in Reno, then returned to the job, invented a new offense and, in his 26th year on the job, just enjoyed his most successful season. He has raised Nevada from an iffy 1-AA team, to a 1-AA power, to a Big West power, to a WAC power ... and he's about to oversee UNR's move to the Mountain West (assuming Conference Realignment Armageddon doesn't leave large swaths of vapor over much of college football).

So why, then, does the 64-year old Ault always look so unflinchingly, mesmerizingly miserable on the sidelines? Look at the above picture. That's him happy. When he's less than happy, the corners of his mouth tuck down, the posture rolls up, and Ault generally looks like a dour cross between Chris Cooper's character from American Beauty and Fire Marshall Bill.

Then again, as former Nevada athletic director, Ault's knowledge of the athletic program's current money troubles may be the impetus for the glum glances, eh? With an allegedly fickle fanbase and some cruel cuts in state support, it appears Nevada will have to work just to stay afloat at the Division I level; this, again, despite the fact that 2010 was an incredible year for Nevada football. It is rare that the world of college football ever actually has to acknowledge the country's money woes as a whole, but Nevada is evidently the outlier. Ault and his squad head into a more competitive conference in 2012 with, potentially, both metaphorical hands tied behind their metaphorical back. Can they survive?

And here we thought the loss of Colin Kaepernick was damaging...

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 13-1 | Adj. Record: 12-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 28
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Eastern Washington
49-24 W 33.8 - 34.3 L
11-Sep Colorado State 51-6 W 39.3 - 21.5 W
17-Sep California 52-31 W 55.1 - 38.4 W
25-Sep at BYU 27-13 W 37.6 - 19.4 W
2-Oct at UNLV 44-26 W 38.3 - 36.1 W
9-Oct San Jose State 35-13 W 39.3 - 30.9 W
16-Oct at Hawaii 21-27 L 23.3 - 24.6 L
30-Oct Utah State 56-42 W 45.2 - 38.0 W
6-Nov at Idaho 63-17 W 55.0 - 25.3 W
13-Nov at Fresno State 35-34 W 32.1 - 32.0 W
20-Nov New Mexico State 52-6 W 31.2 - 21.4 W
26-Nov Boise State 34-31 W 55.2 - 29.2 W
4-Dec at Louisiana Tech 35-17 W 37.6 - 26.7 W
9-Jan vs Boston College 20-13 W 20.5 - (-4.6) W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 41.0 8 21.4 31
Adj. Points Per Game 38.8 6 26.7 56

Yes, they played in the WAC. Yes, they got to play Cal away from Berkeley (Cal was the most schizophrenic team in the country last year, primarily because they were amazing at home and putrid away). Yes, they barely beat a mediocre Boston College team in the bowl. Yes, they ranked only 28th despite a one-loss season. Yes, that puts them a lot closer to 2007 Hawaii than most recent Boise State teams. But ... damn, was Nevada both good and extremely entertaining in 2010. Colin Kaepernick ran the Pistol offense to perfection, and though there were occasional off-games along the way -- Hawaii and Boston College, to name two -- there's no denying the fact that, as stated above, this was most likely the best season in Nevada history.

I don't really know what else to say here. There were few trends, especially on defense -- just a team that was consistently better than average. Now they have to figure out how to go about life without Kapernick, Vai Taua, Dontay Moch and, apparently, moolah.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 10 8 10
RUSHING 8 10 8 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 12 11 14 3
Standard Downs 9 6 10 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 7 8 10 9
Redzone 11 18 11
Q1 Rk 7 1st Down Rk 10
Q2 Rk 9 2nd Down Rk 13
Q3 Rk 31 3rd Down Rk 4
Q4 Rk 7

Identity isn't always important in college football -- sometimes you can win games just by being a lot more talented than everybody else. But for a team like Nevada, it can be quite a weapon, and Nevada has as strong an identity as just about anybody thanks to Chris Ault's 2005 invention of the Pistol formation. It is a legal requirement that announcers tell you all about this formation's history during the first quarter of every televised Nevada game (like telling you that Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley were roommates, or that Tim Tebow's 2008 speech was awesome), but while the story gets beaten into your brain pretty quickly, it's still an interesting one, especially considering how many teams now experiment with the formation. From the great Shakin' The Southland:

The "Pistol" formation was devised by Chris Ault at the University of Nevada and made its debut in the 2004 Wolf Pack football season.  Ault was eager to find a way to run the football despite playing in the WAC conference (notorious for its passing offense).  Ault wanted to utilize basic zone blocking techniques but wanted to get the ball to his running backs quicker with the running back accelerating towards the LOS.  Ault realized that by placing the QB in the backfield the time needed for the quarterback to get to the RB was reduced.  He did not, however, want to utilize a traditional shotgun look in which both the QB and RB were positioned 7 yards in the backfield because such a formation caused the play to develop slowly.  The Coach also wanted his back running downhill when taking the snap and consequently positioned the QB directly in front of the back (QB 4 yards behind the LOS, RB 3 yards behind the quarterback).  [...]

Ault wanted to maintain a spread look out of its new offense.  His offense also utilizes a variety of formations out of a base 3 WR, 1 back, and 1 TE (often flexed) set.  By spreading the field, the offense maintained distinct advantages in the passing and running game.  One of these advantages is spreading defensive personnel to help an undersized offensive line.  Another utilizes the position of the hidden back (placed directly behind the QB) to keep the backers--who commonly key on the RB--honest as they cannot get a good look at him at the snap of the ball. [...]

This offense has evolved into a scheme used in both high school and in a limited role by the pros and has evolved to utilize more spread concepts.  Teams with true athletic quarterbacks have adapted concepts of read option and various counter plays.  Once again, the design of the formation allows flexibility and keeps the opposition honest while implementing these newer plays.

From Chris Brown:

When the pistol works, it's the best of both worlds for Nevada: Both I-formation and spread, both old and new school. Ultimately, however, there's only so much magic in simply putting your running back behind your quarterback -- that's not exactly a novel proposition. What has made Nevada dynamic offense go has been Ault and his staff's ability to teach these schemes and to adjust week-to-week. Without getting all Bill Callahan in a restricted space, Nevada actually has one of the most diverse playbooks in terms of the number of different blocking schemes; it's something they have developed to stay ahead of the game.

There has never been a better Pistol quarterback than Colin Kaepernick, who combined the world's greatest play-fake with long, ostrich legs. He was devastating in the zone read -- if he decided to keep the ball, not only would you be completely fooled by the fake, but he would also be five yards upfield in two strides -- and in his four seasons in Reno, he went from passing liability to passer. His 2010 was a masterpiece: 3,022 passing yards (8.4 per pass, 65% completion rate, 21 TD, 8 INT) and 1,265 pre-sack rushing yards (+25.8 Adj. POE, 20 TD). There are so many times in college football where you are regretful because a player with extreme upside doesn't quite reach his potential. With Kaepernick, that is not the case.

But now he's gone. Senior quarterback Tyler Lantrip has patiently waited for his opportunity to run the show, and now he gets his moment. Unfortunately, there is almost nowhere to go but down after the standard Kaepernick set last year. Lantrip will be joined in the backfield by a new starting running back as well. Vai Taua (1,610 yards, 5.7 per carry, -6.1 Adj. POE, 19 TD; 226 receiving yards, 3 TD) departs after quite a successful career, and though he did not exactly achieve at a level that others couldn't replicate (his negative Adj. POE suggests that his offensive line and weak opponents accounted for a good portion of his success), he was still solid and experienced. And his replacement won't have Kaepernick's playfake on their side.

  • So who are the replacements at running back? One has to figure it starts with Mike Ball (259 yards, 6.8 per carry, +3.9 Adj. POE, 3 TD), who did well as a backup last year. There are plenty of carries to go around, however, and Lampford Mark (413 yards, 7.5 per carry, +1.7 Adj. POE, 3 TD) and freshmen Anthony Knight and Teondray Caldwell will probably have something to say about the distribution of carries. There are more known weapons in the backfield than in the receiving corps, where No. 1 weapon Rishard Matthews (879 yards, 15.7 per catch, 60% catch rate, 5 TD) and Tray Session (313 yards, 18.4 per catch, 74% catch, 3 TD) are the only two of UNR's top seven weapons returning for 2011. As you probably remember, Brandon Wimberly was shot and critically injured this offseason. Session was quite explosive in limited opportunities; if he plays at a high level as a starter, then the passing game could click.
  • Despite all the turnover, it's not all doom and gloom for the Wolf Pack offense. Four players with a good amount of starting experience return (63 career starts in all), led by weakside guard and all-conference performer Chris Barker. As has been said many times, never underestimate the positive impact a good line can have on a new quarterback.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 57 50 62
RUSHING 85 75 92 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 48 43 53 64
Standard Downs 105 105 97 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 39 37 43 37
Redzone 20 19 20
Q1 Rk 105 1st Down Rk 90
Q2 Rk 41 2nd Down Rk 71
Q3 Rk 117 3rd Down Rk 97
Q4 Rk 40

Clearly Nevada's offense was primarily responsible for the Wolf Pack's breakthrough season, but the team was at its best when the defense was also making big plays. (A team is better when both offense and defense are playing well? Rocket science!) The Nevada defense is lacking a bit in athleticism, but they attacked with reckless abandon on passing downs, and it often worked. The problem, of course, was that they were a sieve on standard downs. It's great if you can make a bunch of plays and end drives once you've leveraged opponents into passing downs, but that is only a marginal strength when you cannot force standard downs. For instance, I'm pretty good at shooting 3-pointers. But it doesn't really matter because I cannot get open and I cannot create my own shot.

The line wasn't really the problem last year; they held up reasonably well against the run and got at the passer. The pass rush should suffer with the departures of Ryan Coulson (43.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks) and the devastating Dontay Moch (53.5 tackles, 22.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 PBU), but tackles Brett Roy (39.0 tackles, 14.5 TFL/sacks) and Zack Madonick (22.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks) are underrated and effective against the run. Roy had one of the best stat lines in the country for a tackle last year, though the problem for Nevada wasn't the plays they made, but the plays they allowed.

Other tidbits:

  • Combined with the returns of linebackers James-Michael Johnson (69.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) and Brandon Marshall (51.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU), however, I do think the run defense will improve this year. OLB/safety Kevin Grimes (67.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) is gone, but between DeAndre Boughton, junior college transfer Jonathan McNeal and three-star freshman Bryan Lane, the overall linebacker depth should still be decent.
  • The pass rush had quite a bit to do with this, but Nevada's overall pass defense was quite solid last year, and the secondary should improve. They might not improve enough to account for the loss of Moch and Coulson up front, but seven of the top eight defensive backs return. Cornerback Isaiah Frey (41.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 14 PBU!) is outstanding, while Thaddeus Brown (28.0 tackles, 3 PBU), Khalid Wooten (13.5 tackles, 2 INT, 1 PBU) and Cincinnati transfer Fig James should be able to make up for the loss of Doyle Miller (48.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 9 PBU). At safety, Duke Williams (62.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 2 FF, 4 PBU) and Marlon Johnson (46.0 tackles, 2 INT, 1 PBU) are both solid.

Nevada's 2010 Season Set to Music

I'd go with "Pistol of Fire" by Kings of Leon, but ... I don't really care for Kings of Leon. So we'll go with Rage Against the Machine's "Pistolgrip Pump" instead. Or if I wanted to branch out, I do love some Mission of Burma "(That's When I Reach For My) Revolver"

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Nothing advanced this time. Instead, we'll just gaze in wonder at Colin Kaepernick's four year achievement/improvement.

  • 2007: 2,175 passing yards (8.8 per pass, 54% completion rate, 19 TD, 3 INT) and 425 pre-sack rushing yards (+2.9 Adj. POE, 6 TD)
  • 2008: 2,849 passing yards (7.4 per pass, 54% completion rate, 22 TD, 7 INT) and 1,257 pre-sack rushing yards (+48.6 Adj. POE, 17 TD)
  • 2009: 2,052 passing yards (7.3 per pass, 59% completion rate, 20 TD, 6 INT) and 1,148 pre-sack rushing yards (+21.9 Adj. POE, 16 TD)
  • 2010: 3,022 passing yards (8.4 per pass, 65% completion rate, 21 TD, 8 INT) and 1,265 pre-sack rushing yards (+25.8 Adj. POE, 20 TD)

That's 10,098 passing yards (82 TD, 24 INT) and 4,095 rushing yards (+79.2 Adj. POE, 59 TD), or an average of 2,500 passing yards (21 TD, 6 INT) and 1,000 rushing yards (+20 Adj. POE, 15 TD) per season. Lordy. Good luck, Tyler Lantrip.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 63
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 99
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +5 / +1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (5, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -4.3

There will be an inevitable step backwards this season, simply because a) the Wolf Pack must replace a lot and b) that's what typically happens after you have your best season ever. But in their final season in the WAC, there's still a solid chance that they are the class of their conference. In the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, we give Nevada a 90% chance of finishing 6-1 or 7-0 in conference (other teams: Hawaii 28%, Fresno State 16%, Louisiana Tech 4%) and a 99% chance of finishing better than 6-6. It's amazing what a worse conference can do for your win totals, eh?

That said, 2011 will certainly still offer quite a few challenges. Never mind the money woes, which will continue to weigh over everything ... Nevada starts the season with four consecutive road games against Oregon, San Jose State, Texas Tech and Boise State. Even last year's team would have likely started 1-3. The Almanac doesn't account for cumulative frustration, and a 1-3 start could make some teams implode, or at least fray at the edges. Survive that with their ego intact, however, and Nevada should destroy the rest of their schedule. Fresno State and Hawaii both visit Reno, and the only remaining road trips are to New Mexico and Utah State. The future may be uncertain for the University of Nevada-Reno's athletic department, but fans should at least have another winning team to root for in 2011 while they wait to see if the hammer drops.

 

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

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* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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