RENO - What, exactly, is wrong with the Nevada Wolf Pack football team's defense?
"You name it," Wolf Pack defensive coordinator Mike Bradeson said. "We have to keep improving in every area."
Bradeson, in his first season as the Wolf Pack's defensive coordinator, is more focused on the immediate task at hand than he is the big picture right now. The 6-4 Wolf Pack, after all, still has two regular season games and a bowl game remaining this season.
"We just have to keep playing harder and keep making improvements," Bradeson said. "We're at the University of Nevada. We don't make excuses. Our goal is to do everything well."
And, right now, that isn't even close to happening on the defensive side of the ball.
The Wolf Pack finds itself among the worst defenses in the Mountain West Conference and the nation right now. The Pack has allowed 33.9 points a game, which is ninth in the 10-team Mountain West and 101st in the 120-team Football Bowl Sub-division. The Pack is 97th in the nation in run defense (199.1 a game) and 67th in pass defense (239.7) and 91st in the nation and seventh in the Mountain West) in total defense (438.8 yards allowed a game).
"This defense is in the same place as it was last year, the same place as it was in 2010 and the same place it was in 2009," head coach Chris Ault said. "We're not a very good defense. But the difference between this year and in 2010, is that the 2010 defense got better every week. Last year and this year our defense has either leveled off as the year has gone on or gotten worse."
The Wolf Pack defense has allowed 44 points, 471 yards and 29 first downs a game over its last four games against UNLV, San Diego State, Air Force and Fresno State. The end result has been three consecutive losses heading into Saturday's game at New Mexico with the one victory (over UNLV) in the four games requiring a miraculous 21-point comeback.
"I'm sick and tired of it," Ault said. "And the blame starts with the coaching staff and me first of all."
The Pack defense is allowing its most yards a game since the 2001 team allowed 494.8 a game. The only three Wolf Pack defenses that have allowed more than the 438.8 yards the Pack has allowed this year since the program joined Division I-A in 1992 are the 2001, 1999 (470.2) and 1997 (448.7) Wolf Pack.
The 33.9 points a game allowed are the most the Pack has given up since the 2004 team allowed 34.4. The 2001 (39.2), 2000 (38.7) and 1999 (38.0) teams join the 2004 team as the only Pack teams since 1992 to allow more points per game than this year's team.
The Wolf Pack has seemingly struggled against the pass every year since it made the jump to I-A. The Pack has allowed under 200 passing yards a game in just three years since 1992. The 1992 team allowed 192.4 passing yards a game, the 2004 Pack allowed 190.3 and the 2006 Pack allowed 197.7.
The difference this year is the Pack's performance against the run. The 199.1 rushing yards allowed each game is the most the Pack has allowed since the 2004 team allowed 209.1. Just three other Pack defenses (1999-01) since 1992 allowed more than 200 rushing yards a game. The 1999 team allowed 240.1, the 2000 team allowed 232.5 and the 2001 team allowed 224.2 on the ground.
It was just four seasons ago (2008) that the Pack had one of the top run defenses (sixth in the nation) in the country when it allowed just 88.6 yards a game on the ground.
"The effort has been good," Bradeson said. "It hasn't been because of a lack of effort. But nobody is happy with the results."
The Wolf Pack knew it would experience growing pains on defense this year. The defense, after all, had to replace six starters. Ault this past week added, 'We're not a very talented team."
"We knew that coming in," Ault said. "But that's not really the issue. Going into this season I said we had to play with more passion and energy on defense. That might sound like a cliche but this is what I meant by that. I meant that we have to play hard on every play. But you can't play hard if you don't know where you are on the field. We've just had too many guys all season not in the right spot."
The Air Force game, when the Pack allowed 461 yards rushing, was a sign that the Pack had serious problems on defense.
"We had guys forgetting what they've been told and going out there and forgetting how they've been coached and simply doing what they wanted to do," Ault said. "They wanted so badly to make a play they just decided to take it upon themselves and not take care of their responsibility.
"That's what we mean by doing your one-eleventh. It's doing your job out on the field so that your teammates don't have to do it for you. It's not going out there and trying to do someone else's job."
The message from the coaches isn't getting through to the players, Ault said.
"We as coaches haven't been demanding enough," Ault said. "When we tell a guy, 'Get in the C gap,' and then he goes out there and doesn't get in the C gap, we have to hold that player accountable. We haven't been demanding enough because the same things keep happening."
Ault wasn't all that upset with his defense after the 52-36 loss to Fresno State last Saturday. The Fresno defense, after all, scored 21 points off Wolf Pack turnovers. The Pack defense still allowed 500 yards and 31 points in just a little more than 29 minutes but Ault saw improvement in the Pack defense from the Air Force game two weeks earlier.
"Those first three quarters we did enough to win the game on defense," Ault said. "We had a few stops and we made a few plays. I can't complain about that. But by the fourth quarter I think our defense just wore down. The offense kept making mistakes and that brought everybody down, especially on defense."
Ault said he isn't planning on making any major changes to his defensive coaching staff.
"Not at this time," he said. "That might change after the season but right now, no."
He also said he doesn't plan on adding a defensive coaching position after the season. After last season Ault took a fifth defensive coaching position away from the defense (coordinator Andy Buh left to join Wisconsin's staff) and moved it over to offense so that he could hire former Hawaii offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich as the Pack's offensive coordinator and quarterback's coach.
"My plan was to spend more time over with the defense, especially during games," Ault said. "But that hasn't happened this year because it takes time to teach this offense. This offense is pretty complicated. You can't learn it in a few months. So I've had to keep most of my attention on the offense side this year. But next year that will change. Next year I will be able to go over to the defense during games and when I tell a guy, 'Get in that C gap,' you can bet he'll get in that C gap."
Ault also said that the Wolf Pack's emphasis in recruiting is also not going to change.
"We've always emphasized defense in recruiting," Ault said. "I always recruit defense first. Whatever my defensive coaches want I do my best to give it to them. If we're going after a player who can play both offense and defense we always give him to defense first. I always gear my practices around the defense."
Although a Mountain West championship is out of the question -- the Pack was eliminated from the race with the loss to Fresno State -- the Pack still has a lot to play for.
First and foremost is the matter of snapping this three-game losing streak and avoid becoming the first Pack team in history to end a season with six consecutive losses. The 1915, 1934 and 1957 teams all lost their last five games. An Ault-coached team has never ended a season with more than three losses in a row (2004). Just three other Ault teams (1977, 2006, 209) lost as many as two in a row to end the season.
"It all comes back to winning," Bradeson said. "That's the bottom line. If we're winning games, then nobody is talking about this (the defense's struggles). Things will take care of themselves if we win ballgames."
Winning ballgames, Ault said, will require the defense to show improvement over the final three games.
"I'm sick and tired and I'm frustrated as hell," Ault said. "We have to get this fixed. We have to show improvement over the rest of the season. That's the important thing. We have to show improvement and right now we weren't doing that."