Pistols...at High Noon: Previewing the Nevada Offense


Welcome to where time stands still. No one leaves and no one will. Yes. YES! College Football season is upon us, gang. Not only that, but we'll be opening the 2012 campaign in a renovated and sparkling Memorial Stadium, in case you hadn't heard. WELCOME HOME. I am so fired up. I feel like I could bench press the whole Simpson High Performance Center, you guys. While I've enjoyed stepping into the role of resident recruiting analyst here at CGB, let's just acknowledge the fact that actual football is so much better than discussing 7-on-7 tournaments and SPARQ Ratings. WOW. It's good to be covering it again. I really don't know how I managed for so long without any college football in my life, let alone Cal Football. In Memorial Stadium. YAAIIISSS!!!

The only downside, in my opinion, is that we'll be facing the most devilish and nefarious of offenses this Saturday at noon in our "welcome" home opener: Nevada's Pistol (I go forward with the assumption that most of you are well familiar with the Pistol and how it works. If you want to read up on the very basics, go here). UGH. We all vividly remember how the Wolfpack Kaepernicked all over our faces back in 2010 I'm sure. And while the pilot at the helm of that deadly attack has moved on to the NFL, the innovator of the pistol offense, Nevada head coach Chris Ault, is still there. That fact gives me some pause.

Nevada endured a predictable dropoff in 2011 (their last season in the WAC before joining the Mountain West Conference) after QB Colin Kaepernick took his freakitude and moved on to the Niners, but that doesn't mean they didn't have some success offensively. They had plenty actually. Like...over 500 yards/game and 7th nationally. Which is really the issue at hand. While Kaepernick made the Pistol offense so effective and so great, Ault's system is innovative enough that with the right quarterback running it, it'll still be damn good. Exhibit A? A redshirt freshman accounted for 17 total touchdowns last year, despite not playing in three games and not being tabbed as the starter until week 5. This year...he's a sophomore and the unquestioned starter. Diggity doom!

After the jump, we'll get to know Nevada's offensive personnel and learn a bit about what we should expect from each grouping. I'll attempt to taper everyone's expectations accordingly before reminding you that we're talking about a team that's gone 0 for it's last 10 against BCS opponents in season openers, and not even taking into account the fact that our offense should stomp a mudhole in a defense with an inexperienced and undersized front 7 (Nick will fill you in tomorrow on that). And lest we forget...this is a revenge game. So let's hop to it. FOOTBAW!

2011 Record: 7-6

2011 OFFENSIVE STATS:

Passing- 259.2 yards/game (32nd)

Rushing- 247.5 yards/game (8th)

Scoring- 31.7 points/game (35th)

QB

STARTER- Cody Fajardo, Sophomore - 6'2, 205 lbs

Fajardo came onto the scene last season as a redshirt freshman and won the starting job from now-departed senior Tyler Lantrip after a few weeks of backing up. He's obviously nothing physically like Kaepernick; shorter, but much more compact and sturdily built (seemingly). He also is possibly a more polished passer than Kaepernick was though. Nevada hired a new offensive coordinator during the offseason, adding former Hawaii OC Nick Rolovich (a Run and Shoot disciple) to the staff. This may mean the pass will be featured more prominently in Nevada's offense than the run, but I'm not so sure. Fajardo threw for just over 1700 yards, 6 TD's and 6 INT's while completing 68.8% of his passes last year. Much of Nevada's passing game is predicated on the play action...which works best when the run is working well. On the ground, he rushed for 694 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 5.42 yards per tote. If anything, more passing may preserve Fajardo's health a bit more; he missed time last year due to injuries. It's possible Rolovich may implement more short and quick passes since Fajardo doesn't seem to possess as much arm strength as Kaepernick did. This could also help keep Fajardo upright. With Lantrip gone, Nevada doesn't have a quarterback with any game experience on the roster outside of Fajardo...sophomore Mason Magleby transferred to Sac State in the offseason.

Upside: Mobility, PISTOL

Downside: Experience, durability, depth, non-Kaepernickness

What to Expect:

That depends. If Coach Pendergast insists on the scrape-exchange defense to the Pistol offense, we may see Fajardo running free and not seeing a defender until he's 7 yards downfield a la UCLA's Kevin Prince last year. That is something I really don't want to see. In fact, it just might make me fucking barf. For those who would like a detailed explanation of the scrape-exchange, check out Smart Football's piece on it here. For those that want a quick synopsis, just picture Cal's outside linebackers crashing down the line on UCLA's running backs as Kevin Prince waltzed right around them and off to daylight. Conceptually, the defense should work. But the two times Cal tried this strategy against the Pistol (at Nevada in 2010, at UCLA in 2011...where we did not adjust at all in either game after it became abundantly clear IT WASN'T WORKING), it sure as hell didn't. It puts a lot of pressure on the inside linebackers to get out into space to take on the quarterback. If they hesitate, misread, or it just doesn't happen, you get Kevin Prince's Heisman day. It's a decent strategy when mixed with other looks, and only then in my opinion. What I would prefer to see more of, since we will be lining up two tall, fast and very athletic outside linebackers in Chris McCain and Brennan Scarlett outside a very stout defensive line, is for the OLB's to focus on Fajardo rather than the running backs. Let our defensive lineman and the inside backers focus on stopping the dive. McCain and Scarlett's sole job should be to fuck this kid up when he tucks the ball (and even when he doesn't?). I believe they're athletic enough to handle Fajardo in space and that we're strong enough inside to not need them to crash down. There's questions about Fajardo's durability, and huge questions about the capability of the guys backing him up. We should be one of the biggest, fastest defenses Nevada faces this year. We should ruin him. But will we be disciplined? The Pistol demands that, and a good quarterback will be able too exploit mistakes. We tripped on our dicks against the pistol when we were asked to either focus too much on assignments, or just weren't disciplined enough to keep to our assignments. There's a fine line there that we need to stay on the right side of.

Through the air, play action will be Fajardo's best friend in terms of avoiding the rush and allowing his receivers and big tight end to find space. I anticipate us using a Cover 2 zone so that the corners can come up in run support easily if necessary. This will put some pressure on the safeties to stay deep, but considering Fajardo probably won't be airing it out much on Saturday, that should be okay. Considering he averaged only 16 pass attempts per game in 2011, you can see why I'm focusing less on this aspect of his game and what we'll need to do. I WANT Fajardo to throw the ball 30 times. That means he's not having any success running. If the run game isn't working, then the play-action won't work. If he's consistently dropping back, Nevada's in trouble.


RB

STARTER- Stefphon Jefferson, Junior - 5'11, 210 lbs

Jefferson steps into the starting role this year after Nevada saw its two leading rushers from 2011 in Lampford Mark (911 yards and 10 TD's) and Mike Ball (704 yards and 3 TD's) move on. And that's not backwards...his FIRST name is Lampford and his LAST name is Mark. Jefferson was no slouch either, rushing for 429 yards (6.13 YPC) and 5 touchdowns last year. The bulk of those yards did come in just two games though, when he started against both UNLV (100 yards on 17 carries) and New Mexico (108 yards on 14 carries). For the record, both of those teams were total shit in 2011...3 wins between them. Just sayin.That said, he's an ideal size for tough running inside, and Nevada's offense will always produce big numbers for running backs. Multiple backs will get some carries though, so watch for senior Nick Hale as a short yardage/bruiser, sophomore Kendall Brock as a quicker, versatile change of pace guy (he'll play some wide receiver and be utilized in the return game as well), and redshirt frosh Tony Knight as likely candidates to spell Jefferson as needed. Knight looks like the guy who could be interesting, and at 6'1/225, could supplant Jefferson as the starter based on his performance in the Spring Game (10 carries for 63 yards).

Upside: PISTOL

Downside: Experience, low star ratings from recruiting services lol

What to Expect:

It's the pistol offense, so I expect Nevada to try to butter their bread in the running game. And they'll have some success most likely. I typically wouldn't have many doubts about our defense's ability to stop the run, but kooky shit happens when they face run-oriented gimmick offenses. There's not a ton about this group that worries me, frankly. I see Fajardo as the guy the defense really needs to focus on. But that doesn't mean they're not to be respected necessarily. As a team, Nevada was held under 200 yards rushing just three times last season. They lost all three of those games and scored 17 or less points in each of them. You kill this rushing attack, you essentially kill their offense. As i mentioned before, Nevada's passing attack is best off of the play action...but if the run isn't working then the play action doesn't do much good. I think we have the personnel to handle this group. I love both Kendick Payne and Vei Moala as a duo that will both bring unique styles to the nose tackle spot, and I believe that JP Hurrell and Robert Mullins are up to the task of plugging gaps and laying hat to ensure that no Nevada running backs emerge from the trenches unscathed (assuming we switch things up and don't go with a scrape-exchange all game. PLEASE). Their relative familiarity with the Pistol makes this a good game to utilize their experience in...even if not all of that experience was good. For the record, in Nevada's three other losses last season they rushed for 283, 312, and 253 yards. While I'd like to see us hold them under 200 for the game, it's not necessarily critical to us winning. As far as winning in a dominant fashion, which is what I'm hoping for, it will be.

WR

STARTERS-

Brandon Wimberly, Senior - 6'3, 215 lbs

Aaron Bradley, Sophomore - 6'1, 180 lbs

Joe Huber, Junior - 5'9, 185 lbs

Nevada lost four of it's top five receivers from 2011, with just sophomore Aaron Bradley (28 catches for 336 yards, 3 TD's) returning from among that group. Senior Brandon Wimberly actually looks like the most dangerous of Nevada's wideouts though. After being named the WAC Freshman of the Year in 2009 and having a solid 2010 season, he missed the entire 2011 season after being shot in the abdomen. There's gotta be a Reno joke in there, right? Maybe not. Wimberly caught 41 passes for 482 yards in 2010. He's got the size to outmuscle most defensive backs and could serve as a security blanket for Fajardo in the passing game. I'll be curious to see just where he's at physically. The upside seems to be there if he's fully recovered mentally as well. Bradley came on big late in the 2011 season, recording 7 receptions for 136 yards and catching all three of his touchdowns against a putrid Idaho team in Nevada's last regular season game, then recording another 7 catches in a bowl-game loss to Southern Miss. Wouldn't be surprised if he emerges as Fajardo's go-to guy. Sophomore Necho Beard is the only other Nevada receiver on the roster who has recorded a catch in a college game. And it's just one catch. For 4 yards. His name is Necho. Meh. Former walkon Joe Huber (a junior) looks to be the third starter at receiver though. He's small.

Upside: Umm...PISTOL?

Downside: Experience, gunshot wounds

What to Expect:

This is not an overly impressive group. They're relatively unproven and untested, especially once you get beyond Wimberly and Bradley. I see little here to be concerned about based on the caliber of wide receiver our secondary is accustomed to facing every day in practice, but if we're getting gashed in the run game that will give these guys space to work with and they could take advantage of that. I don't see a gamebreaker here who's going to go all Paul Richardson on us. More likley is a bunch of short, quick patterns that will allow Fajardo to get rid of the ball quickly. The onus will then be on the receivers to not only catch the ball, but then churn out some YAC. Our DB's will need to make sure they finish their tackles more than anything else. Nevada isn't gonna be that type of team to really air the ball out this season, and they don't have that deep threat guy on their roster this year as far as I can see. Nevada passed on 39% of it's offensive plays last year, and roughly a third of the team's receptions were credited to the now-departed Rishard Matthews. For this game, in my opinion, the real receiving threat will come from the tight ends.

TE

STARTER- Zach Sudfeld, Senior - 6'7, 255 lbs

Sudfeld broke his leg last year in the season opener against Oregon and was granted a sixth year of eligibility. I'm always impressed when a guy has been in college longer than I was. At 6'7/255, he's a monster and a legitimate threat in the passing game. During Nevada's inter-squad scrimmage, he caught 9 passes for 119 yards (in comparison, Aaron Bradley was the second leading receiver with 6 catches for 36 yards). If Fajardo has a go-to guy, it looks like it's gonna be Sudfeld. While Sudfeld was out in 2011, JuCo transfer Kolby Arendse filled in admirably and got some good experience in the offense, recording 26 receptions for 340 yards and two touchdowns. At 6'3/255, he's not as lanky as Sudfeld but is a more capable run blocker. He'll be on the field with Sudfeld in any double tight end sets. Both of these guys are good, with Sudfeld looking to be a serious threat in the red zone.

Upside: Experience, size

Downside: Um, neither guy is Virgil Green

What to Expect:

This would appear to be the more likely place for Nevada to hurt us through the air, based on Fajardo's seeming inclination to look for Sudfeld in the air and the fact that I have doubts about our ability to defend it. Thanks, Ed Dickson! Sudfeld's height makes him a challenging matchup for our safeties, so it'll be interesting to see just how he's used. I'd expect he'd be most dangerous up the seam, but who knows really. He's not a real fast guy, but he can go get it. With Nevada's propensity for play-action, he'll benefit from a strong running game the most, and he's assuredly going to be the main red zone target. But that assumes Nevada even GETS to red zone on Saturday! Hurr durr! /not really. If we end up going with a Cover 2 defense to allow our cornerbacks to help in run support, that'll make Sudfeld and/or Arendse the linebacker's responsibility. I like Mullins and Hurrell much less in coverage than I do as run-stuffers. Of course, there's a serious likelihood that Pendergast doesn't opt for a Cover 2 Zone. In which case, a safety on Sudfled would make me much more comfortable. Hey, don't mind me...I expected Joseph Fauria to abuse us last year. Wrong gawky white kid on UCLA I guess!

OL

STARTERS-

LT- Jeff Nady, Senior - 6'7, 305 lbs

LG- Chris Barker, Senior - 6'3, 305 lb

C- Matt Galas, Sophomore - 6'1, 275 lbs


RG- Alex Pinto, Senior - 6'3, 305 lbs


RT- Joel Bitonio, Junior - 6'4, 315 lbs

Left side. Strong side. This is probably the best group on the offensive side of the ball for the Wolfpack, and that's primarily thanks to Jeff Nady and Chris Barker. At left tackle, Nady is a 3 year starter who was second-team All-WAC last season and is a first-team All-MWC preseason pick this year. He's started 23 games thus far for the the Wolfpack, and has the size and skill to play on Sundays. Joining him on the left side of the line is Chris Barker, a dude who has started all 40 games he's played in. Barker was a second-team All-WAC selection in 2010, a first-team selection in 2011, and is unsurprisingly a preseason first-team All-MWC selection this year. He's probably the best lineman in the Mountain West this year. Joel Bitonio is manning the right tackle spot, and he started 13 games there last season. The new faces on the line are at right guard and center. Alex Pinto, a former walk-on and one of the strongest guys on the team, looks to have secured the starting spot at right guard. Matt Galas, Dom's little brother, has won the center job. Like Dom, Matt is a tad undersized but thanks to his high school wrestling background, he's more than capable of scrapping. In addition to two new starters, Nevada also brought in a new offensive line coach in the offseason. Gone is former OL coach and run-game coordinator Cam Norcross (off to Fresno State), and in comes former Arkansas State OL Coach Darren Hiller. Curious to see if that proves to have a positive or negative impact on this group. Norcross was well thought of and had assisted with OL development since 2003 at Nevada. Hiller does come from a spread offensive system though.

Upside: Size, experience, technique, PISTOL

Downside: Young/inexperienced depth, the WAC, the MWC

What to Expect:

This is where the game could be won or lost. Yes, in the trenches...AKA FOOTBALL CLICHE TOWN, USA! Seriously though, Nevada will be good on the line. They're big, they're relatively experienced, and the pistol requires them to be disciplined and technical. They only surrendered 17 sacks...last...season..and....Hold up a minute, I have to go and put on my size 8 and a-half Arrogance Hat for a second. Okay, it's on...Yes, Nady and Barker are preseason all-MWC guys and have earned all-WAC honors in the past. Umm, so? It's the WAC and the Mountain West. Enough said. /farts. Okey dokey, Arrogance Hat is off. Just felt like that needed to be pointed out. We're pretty darn stout and deep along the defensive line, so I don't think Nevada's line will be able to push us around too much. If we're disciplined as well, this should be a good battle. I alluded to it earlier, but I think Matt Galas is really going to have his hands full with Kendrick Payne and Tiny Moala. I also think the middle is where we'll need to have the most impact along the line, and that appears to be where Nevada will be weakest. If we can set up camp in Nevada's backfield and really get to Fajardo and make him uncomfortable, the wheels could come off quick. Much easier said than done, but we have the ability to do it. This one will be strength on strength, but we can throw a LOT of different styles and bodies at these guys. Consider having to battle a monster like DeAndre Coleman for a couple snaps and then, just when you start thinking about how badly you could really use a drink of water, you're having to deal with the first step of Todd Barr. YES. Watch the trenches closely. Salvation lies within.

IN SUMMARY

This is no light opponent. Nevada is no slouch offensively...we know that first hand. /Pukes. Fajardo is a good quarterback who can run this offense effectively. Nevada's running backs are never an issue; this offense makes them good. They have a guy with the potential to be a very good wide receiver if he's fully back from injury. They have an enormous tight end that the quarterback will lean on. And their offensive line is big, experienced and for the most part battle-tested. This is an offense we've struggled with before.

But I'm feeling really optimistic. I think our defense will be very good this season, despite the great guys that we lost. We're big, athletic, fast, and deep (up front at least). We're also playing at home...to open the season...in our renovated stadium. That matters. A lot. I'd be far more concerned if this were a road game, as past experience has taught us. Our guys have had more time to focus and prepare for THIS offense. The same one that embarrassed us two years ago. If that still stings you, think how the guys who were on the team, and even Coach Penderagst, are feeling about it.That bodes well for us. This is a revenge game. If we implement and execute the right schemes, this is a side of the field we can really make a statement on.

Personally, I'd be satisfied with the season if we won 8 regular season games. If that's going to happen, we need to win this game and win it good. That's what an 8+ win team would do. Fuck it up, and I'll start having trouble spotting 4 or 5 wins on our schedule. This should be the biggest home-field advantage EVAR this weekend. The largest crowd Nevada played in front of last year was 58,818 at Autzen; They lost 20-69. Sure, they still put up 500 yards of offense, but they lost by 49 points. No excuses, we need to pin Nevada down and absolutely bludgeon them. Fuck the point spread, we should win by three touchdowns at least. If we're gonna take the next step as a program, it has to happen Saturday. It can. It should. If not, fine. I'll take any win we get. But if we struggle, it'll plant those familiar seeds of DOOM in my belly right off the bat one week into the season. Normally those seeds don't start germinating around these parts till week 3 or 4. And I really like having a couple weeks for the sweet and delicate flower of hope to sprout and start to blossom before it gets choked to death by doom weeds. CAN YOU JUST GIVE ME THAT?

Which side of the fence are you one? Me? I'm bullish on this one. Hope springs eternal in July, so welcome home. FUCK YEAH. PREDICTION: 41-20 BEARS


LINKS

NevadaWolfpack.com- Football Team Site

SB Nation's Bill Connelly Previews 2012 Nevada

Dr. Saturday on Nevada's Pistol Offense

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