Nevada football travels to Idaho
Appeal Sports Writer
Climbing the ladder. That’s what Nevada is trying to do in Western Athletic Conference play after opening the conference season with losses to Fresno State and Hawai’i.
The Wolf Pack have rebounded nicely with back-to-back wins over San Jose State and New Mexico State to get back into the thick of the WAC and bowl chase.
Nevada (5-3, 2-2) looks for its third straight WAC win when it invades the Kibbie Dome to take on Idaho (4-5, 3-2) at 2 p.m. The game can be seen locally on KREN-TV.
If Nevada wins today, it becomes bowl eligible for the second straight season. Idaho needs to win two of its last three games to get to six wins.
“I’m pleased with the way we are working our way back up the pecking order,” Nevada coach Chris Ault said. “In terms of defense, there are still some things we’re working on.
“No question, defense wins game. The offense is keeping the defense off the field. Our defense the last three weeks has been doing a great job of taking it away and making big plays. We’re playing a lot of people, and I expect us to get better.”
Quite simply, Nevada’s defense would be hard-pressed to play better than it did against San Jose State and New Mexico State. The Pack held San Jose State to one score and 239 yards, and it held New Mexico State to less than 300 yards passing.
“I thought we were playing poorly early,” Ault said. “We simplified things, and we’re better and faster. We execute what we want to do.”
“We’re playing great on defense,” Nevada quarterback Jeff Rowe said. “They have taken a lot of pressure off the offense. They are playing with confidence.”
Linebacker Ezra Butler, who was the WAC Defensive Player of the Week, said the team started to come together after the Hawai’i loss (41-34), and you could certainly see the change. The Pack have been able to get tremendous pressure on the quarterback the past two games, and the results have been obvious.
“They are playing very well,” Idaho coach Dennis Erickson said. “They have played well about every game (except Arizona State). They had a lot of experience coming back. The front seven with Hines and the two linebackers (Josh) Mauga and (Ezra) Butler. These guys are players. They play well and they are tough.
“They do a lot of different things with the 3-4. They are a very, very physical group.”
San Jose State’s Dick Tomey agreed.
“They are probably the most physical,” Tomey said earlier this week. “They were more physical than we were. Tougher because of weight training and hard work.”
While Nevada’s defense is at the top of its game, the offense struggled early against New Mexico State, but came back to play three strong quarters. Jeff Rowe shook off early rust and managed the team well in the second quarter before turning the ball over to back-ups Nick Graziano and Travis Moore, both of whom threw a TD pass.
“It (the pistol) is a little different,” Erickson said. “It will take some adjustment. It’s an interesting concept, and they have done a heck of a job with it.
“All he (Rowe) does is win. He has great mobility and he’s very accurate. He’s just a great quarterback. There are a lot of great quarterbacks in this league, and he’s one of them. He doesn’t get a chance to throw as much as (Chase) Holbrook and (Colt) Brennan, but he’s just as effective as any QB in the league. They are a zone running team, and they do a lot of the same things we’ve done over the years (as a coaching staff). (Caleb) Spencer is an outstanding player.”
Spencer leads the team in receptions, but Mike McCoy has been making some huge plays with nine scores in 19 receptions. Jack Darlington (13.1) and Marko Mitchell (10.3) have been effective, too.
Ault has a healthy respect for the Vandals, who are coming off a 68-10 loss to Hawai’i last weekend in Honolulu.
“We’re taking a look at the last four games (before Hawai’i),” Ault said. “You can see they are vastly improved. They play well at home. They gave Boise State all they wanted.
“They do a nice job with their play-action passing game. They have one of the better quarterbacks (Steve Wichman) and their defense is flying around out there.”
Linebacker David Vobora is the second-best tackler in the league with 100 stops. Fellow linebackers Josh Bousman and Brandon Ogletree have also played well. Freshman safety Shilo Keo and cornerback Stanley Franks, who has seven interceptions in his last seven games, are the leaders in the defensive backfield.
Wichman has completed 51.2 percent of his passes for 1,875 yards and eight scores. Running back Brian Flowers has some nagging injuries (shoulder/knee), and Erickson isn’t sure whether he’ll play. Flowers has 375 yards rushing and 121 yards receiving. Tight end Luke Smith-Anderson has 23 catches for 331 yards, and Wendell Octave has 26 grabs for 323 yards.
The big question for the Vandals is can they get past last weekend’s debacle?
“You can’t dwell on it, yet you have to understand why it happened,” Erickson said. “You can’t throw it completely out the window. You have to sit down and look at the tape. We have to evaluate how it happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s the bottom line. Then you throw it out the window and get ready for your next game.
“Now, we have to prepare for Nevada, which is as good a football team as any of those (other) guys. You have to learn from it. We’ll play better than we did last week. Our players have pride and a lot of heart.”
Idaho has proven that twice. After a 56-10 loss to Washington State, the Vandals beat Idaho State 27-24. After a 38-0 loss to Oregon State, the Vandals beat Utah State (41-21), New Mexico State (28-20) and Louisiana Tech (24-14).
Notes: Idaho has a couple of ex-coaches and players with Reno ties. Jeff Mills was a defensive coordinator for the Pack, and former player Carl LaGrone is a grad assistant for Idaho. Erickson spoke highly of LaGrone, and feels he has a bright future as a coach … Wichman is in the Idaho Top 10 in career passing yardage (4,621, 9th) and completion percentage (54.3, 9th).
NEVADA (5-3, 2-2) at IDAHO (4-5, 3-2)
When: Today, 2 p.m.
Where: Kibbie Dome
Radio: 630 AM, pre-game starts at 1 p.m.
Prediction: Nevada 28, Idaho 20