RENO — Brian Polian admits that there wasn’t a lot of positives to come out of his first season as the Nevada Wolf Pack’s head football coach.
“I know it wasn’t the year the fans wanted,” Polian said.
It was a disappointing season that even most realistic Wolf Pack fans haven’t had nightmares about for a very long time. The Pack finished 4-8 and won fewer than five games for the first time since 2001. The program failed to qualify for a bowl game and lost to UNLV for the first time since 2004. In short, Polian’s first year made the frustrating 7-6 seasons in coach Chris Ault’s final two years look like a reason to throw a parade down Virginia Street.
“Clearly, the first thing that stands out is that 4-8 is not good enough,” said Polian, who made the rare jump from special teams coach to head coach in one year. “It is not up to the standards of excellence that exists here at the University of Nevada.”
The Wolf Pack did face arguably the toughest schedule in school history this past season, playing national powers UCLA and Florida State on the road as well as BYU at home in non-conference games. And they had arguably the toughest Mountain West schedule of any team in the conference with road games at Fresno State, Boise State, San Diego State and Colorado State.
Polian, though, knows that Pack supporters – which have grown accustomed to preparing for a bowl game in the holiday season – don’t want to hear excuses right about now.
“We didn’t live up to expectations,” he said.
The loss that turned the Wolf Pack season from a mere disappointment into a full-fledged disaster was the 27-22 setback to UNLV on Oct. 26 at Mackay Stadium. The Wolf Pack unraveled in the game, committing 13 penalties and converted just 2-of-15 third down plays. Nevada blew a 16-14 fourth quarter lead and lost at home to their top rival for the first time since 2003. And there is now a void at the end of the hallway at Cashell Fieldhouse where a blue Fremont Cannon had lived since 2005.
“Losing to UNLV is not acceptable,” Polian said. “We understand that.”
There were a lot of unacceptable events that happened to the Wolf Pack in 2013. They lost all six of their road games and were outscored on average 29-10 after halftime in the eight losses. Attendance only increased on average 1,500 a game despite all of the optimism and hope surrounding the new head coach and attractive home games against UNLV and BYU.
But perhaps the biggest sin of all was the decline of the running game in the pistol offense.
The Wolf Pack had established itself as one of the top rushing teams in the nation since Ault invented the pistol offense in 2005. The Pack, though, went from a great running team to a decent one, falling from seventh in the nation last year to 56th this year. The Pack ground game averaged nearly a yard a half per rush (5.2-3.8) and 100 yards a game (271-179) fewer in 2013 than just a year ago.
“We clearly need to run the ball better when all is said and done,” Polian said. “Improved offensive line play is the key to that.”
The Wolf Pack basically had just one offensive lineman -- left tackle Joel Bitonio -- that they could count on to stay healthy and remain consistent all season long. And there was a revolving door at running back, from Don Jackson to Kendall Brock (team-high 812 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns) to Chris Solomon that also contributed to the up and down ground production.
Stefphon Jefferson had 1,883 yards and 24 touchdowns on 375 carries in 2012 as the Pack’s top ground gainer. The top five backs in 2013 – Brock, Jackson, Solomon, Nate Lytle and Nate McGauran – combined for 1,495 yards and 15 touchdowns on 386 carries.
A knee injury to quarterback Cody Fajardo in the second game of the year also didn’t help the ground game.
The offense, which always seemed to cover up a lot of the defense’s sins in the Ault era, slumped in just about every important category in 2013. The Pack averaged more than 10 points a game fewer in 2013 than in 2012 (37.8-26.9) and also churned out nearly 100 yards a game fewer (514.8-429.2).
The injury to Fajardo might explain most of the offense’s decline. The junior quarterback was never the same after the knee injury that forced him to miss two full games. Most noticeable was his inability to simply run away from defenders, an ability he showed most every week his first two seasons. Fajardo, who had to wear a bulky knee brace on his right knee, averaged 5.9 yards a carry in 2012 and just 4.4 this season.
Polian, who said that Fajardo’s knee will be checked out by doctors this off-season, expects his quarterback to be fully healthy in 2014. He also challenged Fajardo to improve in areas that aren’t measured by statistics.
“Cody needs a great off-season physically and in terms of leadership,” Polian said. “He needs to make this his offense and he needs to make this his team. He needs to lead this football team the way a fourth-year starting quarterback should lead his team.”
Polian also reiterated his belief in the pistol offense.
“We are keeping the pistol,” he said. “We are keeping the core principles of the running game. The lack of production in our running game, I don’t believe, was the fault of the system. It’s not an X’s and O’s problem. We are keeping the pistol but we also need to continue to grow, build and develop it.”
Polian also expressed his loyalty to the philosophies of the Pack defense under first-year coordinator Scottie Hazelton, who runs a version of the Tampa-2 defense made famous by NFL coaches Monte Kiffin and Tony Dungy. The Tampa-2 defense, though, requires its players to tackle exceptionally well, run fast and hit hard, three things the Pack did not have in 2013.
“I believe in what we’re doing on defense and I believe in our coaches,” Polian said. “We’re going to continue to do what we do. We just need to do it better. There is evidence of when we do it right, the system works.”
Those moments were few and far between and when they did appear they were short-lived. The Pack held both UCLA and Florida State to 17 points each in the first half, shut out Hawaii in the second half and held Boise State to seven points in the first half. But the Wolf Pack defense, which also struggled for much of Ault’s 28 seasons as head coach, seemingly reached new lows this year.
The Wolf Pack was the second worst defense against the run among the 123 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in the nation, allowing 258.5 yards a game on the ground. They were also 117th in total defense, allowing 505.3 yards a game, 118th on third down (allowing opponents a 47.8 per cent success rate) and 101st in points allowed at 344 a game.
“We are one of the worst in America at stopping the run,” Polian said.
Polian said there was one glaring fundamental weakness of this Wolf Pack defense all season long.
“We have to become a better tackling team,” he said. “I’m sick of watching us whiff on tackles. We miss way too many tackles.”
The good news for the Wolf Pack for 2014 is that they lose just two seniors -- Bitonio, wide receiver Brandon Wimberly -- who were major contributors on either offense or defense this year. Defensive tackle Jack Reynoso, who was in and out of the lineup with various injuries throughout his career, also will be missed as will cornerback Markus Smith, who played well at times.
The other bit of good news for the immediate future is that UCLA and Florida State are not on the schedule next year (the non-league opponents include Arizona, Washington State and BYU) and the Mountain West road trips do not involve Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State.
“Our staff needs to go out and recruits its tail off now,” Polian said.