Rice option to test Nevada defense | NevadaAppeal.com

Rice option to test Nevada defense

RENO – Nevada’s young defense gets possibly its severest test of the season when it faces off against Rice’s high-powered option offense tonight at Mackay Stadium.

Kickoff for Nevada’s homecoming game is set for 6:07 p.m.

This is a game Nevada (2-4, 0-2) needs if it has any chance of getting to seven wins and becoming bowl eligible. The Wolf Pack must win five of their last six games to accomplish that feat. It won’t be an easy task, however, as Rice (3-2, 2-1) punishes teams with its option game (361 yards rushing per game).

“Obviously they have a great offense,” Nevada coach Chris Ault said. “They do a great job with their option. It’s a big challenge for us. It’s assignment football. Each time the ball is snapped you have one or two people that might get the ball. It forces you to do something different; it forces you to be much more disciplined.”

The option forces a defense to do three things – play the quarterback, play the dive with the fullback and have players responsible for the pitch man on either side of the field. It’s no secret what Rice will do.

The question is whether Nevada can read the play and keep Rice from making big plays as it did in last year’s 52-42 win in Houston.

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Nevada’s defense will have gone from preparing for Hawai’i which throws 50 or more times a game to preparing for Rice which may run 60 times and may only throw eight or nine times. It’s not an easy transition in 4 1/2 days. Linebackers Jeremy Engstrom, Jamaal Jackson and Roosevelt Cooks, tackle Chris Barry, ends Craig Bailey and J.J. Milan and the secondary led by safety Keone Kauo will have their hands full.

Rice coach Ken Hatfield doesn’t know why it’s so difficult to prepare for an option team in a short span of time.

“Coaches like to have carry over from one week to the next,” he said. “You go from Hawai’i where Timmy Chang throws 68 straight passes before even running the ball to the next week where we’ll run the ball a lot more (than pass). It’s a difficult situation for all defenses.

“I remember when I was at Arkansas, and everybody in the Southwest Conference ran the option. That made it easier week in and week out to prepare. I’m sure Nevada will have a great game plan for us.”

Rice comes into the game with two quarterbacks, and Hatfield said both senior Greg Henderson (379 rushing yards, 6 TDs) and redshirt freshman Joel Armstrong (313 rushing yards, 2 TDs) will play. Armstrong guided the team to a 44-10 win over SMU after Henderson suffered a chest injury. Henderson practiced Wednesday, but Hatfield said he wasn’t ready to name him the starter.

“Joel has been in enough as a redshirt freshman that he deserves the right to play,” Hatfield said. “He was the only quarterback we had (last week). Joel had 83 plays in the game, and to execute and stay healthy, gave us a big lift.

“Both run the offense extremely well. We’re better when they both have a chance to play. Greg is very tough.”

Fullback Ed Bailey, the WAC’s Offensive Player of the Week for his four-touchdown effort against SMU, has gained 463 yards and scored six times. Marcus Rucker (294 yards, 2 TDs) and Bio Bilaye-Benibo (127 yards) are the halfbacks. Rice has yet to get Thomas Lott, perhaps the best back on the team, on the field this year because of an injury.

Hatfield admitted he is none too anxious to have another high-scoring game with the Wolf Pack.

“I’ve been in one of those this year, as big as there has ever been in the NCAA (70-63 loss against San Jose State),” Hatfield said. “That’s enough excitement right now.

“This will be a tough challenge. They’ve always thrown the ball, and they always attract those kinds of skill people. They run the ball and have a good offensive scheme. They’ve given up less yardage and have more offensive production. This is going to be another tough ballgame. This is going to be a dogfight like it was here last year.”

Indeed. Nevada’s Chance Kretschmer is coming off his best game of the season (34 carries for 178 yards) and quarterback Jeff Rowe (1,132 yards, 7 TDs) is due for a breakout game. Talib Wise is coming off a career-high 10-catch effort against Hawai’i and has established himself as the third-best receiver on the team behind Nichiren Flowers and Caleb Spencer.

“The biggest thing Nevada has going for it is (Chance) Kretschmer,” Hatfield said. “He’s such a great runner.

“He led the nation in rushing in 2001 then tore his knee up. That’s a big difference in a passing attack when you have a strong, physical runner like that. You have to account for him all the time.”

That means that Hatfield needs big games from safety Terry Holley (3 interceptions, 2 sacks, 26 tackles), defensive tackle John Syptak (27 tackles, 6 sacks), defensive back Chad Price (38 tackles, 2 interceptions) and linebacker Adam Herrin (25 tackles).

Nevada will be aiming to do a better job of producing when it gets inside Rice’s 20-yard line. Too many times the Wolf Pack have been forced to settle for field goals or turned the ball over. Nevada is averaging 419 yards per game on offense, but its

scoring average of 27.8 is a tad low when you equate yards with points.

“It’s been frustrating,” Rowe said. “It’s been little things. We need to eliminate the mistakes when we get in there; we need to get touchdowns not field goals.”

Rowe and the Wolf Pack hope to get off to a quick start. The first quarter has seen Nevada score just 20 points all season. The Wolf Pack have been most effective in the fourth quarter by scoring 72 points.

Some of those have been in meaningless situations (Louisiana Tech and Hawai’i) when the team was way behind.

A key for Nevada is to have a fast start and force Rice into throwing situations. An option offense can lend itself to big passing plays when the game is tight because the secondary players become so involved in stopping the run, receivers get behind them in 1-on-1 coverage. Nevada needs to force Henderson and Armstrong to throw the ball consistently, which is something neither does real well.

Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1281.