Know The Foe is back this week and with the Aggies hosting Nevada on Saturday for Homecoming, we've enlisted the help of Chris Murray from the Reno Gazette-Journal. Chris covers Pack football and basketball and his blog is one of the best in the business and his coverage of the WAC will be sorely missed when the Wolf Pack jump ship to the Mountain West next season.
After starting out 1-3 (albeit against some very very good competition) the Wolf Pack seem to have really found their groove. Two outstanding defensive performances against UNLV and UNM (two horrendous teams but still...) gave way to a solid all-around performance against Fresno State. What's been the biggest reason for the current three game winning streak?
The biggest difference has been the schedule. In addition to playing three really good teams (Oregon, Boise State, Texas Tech), Nevada was on the road for its first four games. Getting back home against some poor opponents has helped heal the wounds. But Nevada's defense also has been greatly improved, especially on pass defense. The Wolf Pack also has zeroed in on one quarterback (freshman Cody Fajardo) rather than toggling back and forth at the position. But mostly it's been the schedule.
The Wolf Pack have played both senior Tyler Lantrip and freshman Cody Fajardo but Fajardo seems to have caught fire after being called out by Coach Ault. What do each bring to the table and will we even see Lantrip in the game on Saturday or has Fajardo wrestled the starting job away from Lantrip?
Fajardo has the job. He's started the last three games and already has one 300-yard passing game and one 100-yard rushing game under his belt. He's the perfect fit for the Pack's Pistol offense because of his dual-threat abilities. Lantrip, a senior, is a more pure passer. He has more experience in the offense but does not run as well as Fajardo or Colin Kaepernick before that. Fajardo should play wire-to-wire unless it’s a blowout or he struggles with his reads. He was almost pulled against Fresno State despite throwing for 300 yards and leading the team to 45 points. Coach Chris Ault has high standards of his quarterbacks, so one or two mistakes can get you pulled.
Mike Ball had a huge game against Fresno State. How does he compare to the great running backs that Nevada has had over the past several seasons in Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott, both of whom seemingly always had huge games against the Aggie defenses.
Ball is an interesting player. He's not very big, but he runs aggressively and doesn't shy away from contact. He uses the stiff-arm a lot and gets plenty of yards after contact. He's shiftier than both Taua and Lippincott but lacks great breakaway speed. He's becoming a "Nevada Back," which is a label Ault gives to his best backs. Ball has had trouble staying healthy, but is usually a guaranteed 100-yard guy if he can make it through the game.
Rishard Matthews is clearly the best wide receiver the Wolf Pack has, who are some other guys in the wide receiver group that Aggie fans should be aware of?
Shane Anderson is a senior who plays the slot for Nevada. He's a solid receiver. A good blocker. He'll grab three-five catches per game. Again, he doesn't have breakaway speed, but he's the team's second-best receiver. The group also has guys like Tray Session (who has great speed), Aaron Bradley (a talented freshman) and Corbin Louks (who started at quarterback for Utah as a true freshman), but none have sustained success this year.
Offensively, everyone is pretty much aware that the Wolf Pack runs the Pistol offense, what wrinkles, if any, has Coach Ault added this year to the package?
The team is doing a little more play action. Ault wanted to throw the ball more this season. That was mainly because Lantrip started the year at quarterback. Now that Fajardo is in there, the offense looks pretty similar to what you would have seen last year. But the Pack has done a nice job throwing out of play action this season.
Defensively, what can Aggie fans expect to see from the Wolf Pack on Saturday and will Nevada blitz the Aggies more than normal in an attempt to knock Matt Christian and perhaps even Travaughn Colwell out of the game?
Nevada didn't blitz at all last week against Fresno State and, as a result, didn't get to the quarterback very often. That should change this week. I expect more blitzes and the Pack surely wants to get some early hits on Christian to get that shoulder barking. The Pack hasn't done a great job of rushing the quarterback this season. The team misses Dontay Moch, who is now with the Bengals. Defensive tackle Brett Roy has a team-high six sacks, but nobody else has been able to consistently get in the backfield.
Who are a player on offense and a player on defense that may have been flying under the radar through the first six games but could really have a breakout game on Saturday against New Mexico State?
On offense, it would be somebody like Louks, Bradley or Session if Nevada tries to the throw the ball. All are fast and could make some plays. Also look for true freshman Kendall Brock, who scored 40 touchdowns as a high school senior in the Fresno area. He burned his redshirt two weeks ago and is now returning kickoffs and serving as a running back on reverses, screens and gadget plays. On defense, look for defensive end Kaelin Burnett, who has been able to get a little more pressure on the quarterback in recent games. He's a speed rusher who could have a big game.
Is there any chance that the Wolf Pack might look past New Mexico State on Saturday with a showdown with Hawai'i looming in Reno?
No. The Pack actually has a bye next week before playing Hawaii, so the team probably isn't looking ahead. Ault does a good job of drilling it into his players' heads that his team isn't very good. That keeps them humble. Nevada has taken notice of the Aggies' improved offense and overall record. They've said they aren't looking ahead, but we'll see on Saturday.
The Wolf Pack will win if…
It doesn't turn the ball over and limits big plays on defense. Nevada has had some turnover issues, but was clean against Fresno State. However, in that game is allowed some big runs and kick returns. That has been an issue in the past. If the Pack quells that problem, it should be all right.
The Aggies will win if…
It forces turnovers and the offensive line gives Christian time to work. NMSU has its share of play-makers on offense and could make this interesting if it wins the turnover battle and is able to keep Christian clean. Your predicted outcome:
Nevada 42, New Mexico State 24