Nevada defense ready for bowl matchup
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – Chris Ault had seen enough.
Nevada Day was fast approaching. His Nevada Wolf Pack football team had just allowed 45 points to the Idaho Vandals at Mackay Stadium the previous Saturday on Oct. 24. It was time, Ault said to himself, to get offensive about the defense.
“I just told everyone, ‘Enough is enough,'” said Ault last week before leaving for Hawaii where the Pack will take on the SMU Mustangs Thursday night (5 p.m., ESPN) in the Hawaii Bowl. “I was very disappointed in our defense the first seven games.”
Ault told everyone last summer that the Pack defense, which allowed an average of 27 points and 399 yards a game in 2008, would be much improved in 2009. After seven weeks this season, however, his defense was proving him wrong.
“We had eight starters back from last year,” Ault said. “Everything we did from the end of last year to the first game this year was geared toward making our defense better. We spent more time working on our defense this off-season than we’ve ever done before. And then what happens? We see all the same stuff — big plays, confusion — that we saw last year.”
Did Ault’s “Enough is Enough” edict make an impact? Well, yes, for a while. The Pack rolled through its next four games, whipping Hawaii, San Jose State, Fresno State and New Mexico State by a combined score of 208-62. The Pack defense did not allow more than 21 points in any of those four games.
Enough, it seemed, was indeed enough.
“That Fresno game was our best defensive game in two years,” said Ault of the Pack’s 52-14 victory at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 14. “After that game you thought to yourself, ‘OK, we have our confidence back. Things are going well. We are making improvement every single week on defense.'”
And then came Boise State.
With a national television audience (ESPN2) watching on Nov. 27 and the Western Athletic Conference championship at stake, Boise State dumped 44 points and 427 total yards on the Pack defense. The Pack, which saw defensive coordinator Nigel Burton leave the program to become the head coach at Portland State two weeks after the Boise debacle, is still licking its wounds.
“Those touchdown passes (by Boise) were a disaster,” Ault said. “Once again, all the confusion comes in. We thought we were past all that. But that game showed us that we still did not have a complete understanding of what we needed to do. The execution of our defense was not complete.”
Looking back, all of the so-called improvement the Pack defense showed against Hawaii, San Jose State, Fresno State and New Mexico State, might have been accomplished with mirrors.
Hawaii, after all, passed for 374 yards on the Pack with its backup quarterback. San Jose State, a program in turmoil, passed for 238 yards. Fresno lost its star running back (Ryan Mathews) in the second quarter and then proceeded to pass for 362 yards. New Mexico State, which featured one of the most inept offenses in the nation, scored 20 points on the Pack after scoring 16 points in its previous four games combined.
“To play at a championship level, you have to play good defense,” Ault said. “We aren’t there yet. We have to get there.”
Did the Wolf Pack defense improve in 2009? Not really.
The Pack has allowed 27.2 points a game this year after allowing 32.3 a year ago. But even that number is a bit misleading when it comes to the defense. Take away touchdowns by special teams and opposing defenses and you’ll find the Pack defense allowed an average of 28.5 points a game in 2008 and 26.5 this year.
The Pack allowed an average of 19.2 first downs in 2008, 19.5 this year. The Pack defense allowed an average of 400.2 yards a game in 2008, 398.9 in 2009. The Pack had 16 interceptions and 36 sacks last year and has just eight interceptions and 29 sacks this year. The Wolf Pack defense allowed opponents to score points in the red zone 76 percent of the time in 2008. This year it’s 88 percent.
The Pack allowed an average of 88.6 rushing yards and 311.6 passing yards in 2008. This year the numbers are 114.7 rushing and 284.2 passing.
Call it a wash.
“I saw some nice things,” Ault said. “(Defensive end) Dontay Moch (the WAC Defensive Player of the Year) had a great year. Jonathon Amaya (safety) was outstanding all year. Mike Bethea (linebacker) played real well. But, no, we didn’t improve like we thought we should have. And that all starts with me.”
Amaya, a senior, said he did see improvement in the Pack defense this season.
“We struggled at the beginning but then we made a few adjustments and found the right fit for people,” Amaya said. “You know, a defense kind of works like a clock. If one of the pieces doesn’t fit right, nothing will work. I think it just took us a little while to find the right pieces.”
The numbers might be eerily similar to 2008 but Amaya said he saw improvement in other areas. “Our chemistry and the way we played together was better this year,” Amaya said. “You could feel that throughout the whole team.”
A familiar problem on defense continued to haunt the Pack this season — allowing the big play. The Pack has allowed 20 touchdowns (16 on passes) this season of 20 yards or longer. Last year they allowed 21 TDs of 20 yards or longer (14 on passes) in one more game played.
“We just gave up two many big plays again,” said Ken Wilson, the Pack’s associate head coach and linebacker coach who will fill in for Burton as defensive coordinator in Hawaii. “We had the sacks and (tackles for losses) on defense but we just had too many breakdowns in the secondary. That is an area we have to fix.”
Wilson, the Pack’s defensive coordinator in 2007 before Burton was hired, said it all comes down to the secondary.
“We had to play some young guys back there and they had to learn by fire,” said Wilson, referring mainly to sophomore Isaiah Frey and freshmen Duke Williams, Ahmad Wood and Khalid Wooten.
Wilson said he saw improvement in the Pack defense in Burton’s two seasons as defensive coordinator.
“We did a much better job of stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback,” Wilson said. “So I think Coach (Ault) likes the direction we’re going in those areas. But when you lead the conference in sacks and have all those tackles for losses and still give up all those big plays, there’s something wrong in the secondary. That’s where we have to get better.”
Wilson, a Wolf Pack assistant coach since 1989, said he doesn’t expect much change in the Pack’s defensive philosophy next year even with a new defensive coordinator.
“There’s not going to be wild changes,” Wilson said. “Coach Ault likes the direction we’ve been going. Whoever gets hired (as defensive coordinator) will have some tweaks, I’m sure. But the general philosophy will likely be the same. We want to stay aggressive, keep the sacks and big plays on defense. But we need to stop allowing those 60 and 70-yard touchdowns.”
Before the season began Ault said the Pack was going to fit its defensive scheme to the players this season. That technique, Ault admitted, has had its ups and downs.
“We didn’t do a good job of that,” Ault said. “And, again, that starts with me. We have to be much more specific to our players on how to play, what is expected of them. Be specific. I can’t emphasize that enough. We weren’t specific enough and that’s when we saw the confusion.
“We were just too inconsistent this year on defense again.”