Roll On: Previewing The Nevada Defense

Can Cal emulate the type of success Oregon's offense had against Nevada last year?

Emotionally, I just want to write a hackneyed, return-to-memorial preview. Strawberry Canyon. Sunsets over the Bay. Bathrooms that violate the Geneva Conventions. The North Tunnel. Script Cal. Roll 'em up. Footbaw.

It's what you're thinking right now, isn't it? But we've got a specific game against a team that is hardly a guaranteed win for obvious, obvious reasons. So let's try to do this preview right.

When you think back to what went wrong against Nevada in 2010, the focus obviously falls on everything that Colin Kaepernick did to Cal’s defense. But an underrated aspect of Cal’s defeat was the inability of the offense to transform yards into points. You may have forgotten, but the Bears actually outgained the Nevada offense, 502 to 497.

But that was two years ago. Can this Cal offense do the job against this Nevada defense? The Wolf Pack are led by a new defensive coordinator after Andy Buh left to accept a position at Wisconsin. That led to the promotion of safeties coach Mike Bradeson. Old Blues might recognize the name – he was Cal’s secondary coach from 1992-95 during the Gilby era. I’m a bit too young to evaluate his success as a coach in Berkeley, but Bradeson has a history of putting together solid pass defenses at both UNLV and Nevada, at that appears to be the strength of their defense this year.

Unfortunately for Nevada, the rest of the defense is filled with question marks - question marks that the Bears should be able to exploit to gain some measure of revenge for what happened two years ago. Let's dive right in with the most valuable preview of all: one based on exactly zero results from games this season!

Personnel

Defensive Line: So. DE Brock Hekking, So. DT Jordan Hanson, Jr. DT Jack Reynoso, RS Fr. DE Lenny Jones

In 2011, the four projected starters on Nevada's defensive line combined for 8 starts, 31 tackles and 2 sacks. Almost all of that production comes from Reynoso, who is coming off of a broken leg that prematurely ended his sophomore season. It's tough to say much about Hekking, Hanson and Jones because they've seen so little action. All are two star recruits and I can only imagine that this game may be something of a trial by fire for all of them. Expect Reynoso to see plenty of double teams.

Linebackers: Sr. SAM Jeremiah Green, Sr. MIKE Albert Rosette, Sr. WOLF DeAndre Boughton

Conversely, the linebacker unit can’t get any more veteran, can it? Still, this unit does have to replace two NFL draftees in James-Michael Johnson (4th round) and Brandon Marshall (6th round) so there hasn’t been 100% continuity by any means.

Green is the returning starter, and based on his stats (10 passes defended, 3 interceptions, no sacks) he was used in coverage frequently. Rosette was originally a linebacker, was converted to defensive end, then converted back to linebacker this year. Boughton is a JC transfer that redshirted with an injury in 2011. So although the starters combine for plenty of years in the program, they haven't gotten a ton of game-time together.

By the way, I’m assuming that the WOLF position is a fancy Nevada name for the WILL position, in case you were wondering.

Secondary: So. CB Charles Garrett, Sr. SS Duke Williams, Sr. FS Marlon Johnson, Sr. CB Khalid Wooten

And plenty more experience in the secondary to boot. All in all Nevada’s defense sports six senior starters. This unit lost all WAC 1st team cornerback Isaiah Frey to the NFL, and replacing his talents (and 5 interceptions) will be critical. Wooten is a solid 3 year contributor coming off a 4 interception season. Marlon Johnson is a two year starter, and although he doesn’t pile up a ton of stats, the success of Nevada’s pass defense generally indicates that he’s plenty good at preventing big plays over the middle of the field.

But the star of the unit (and perhaps of the entire defense) is Duke Williams. He played as a true freshman and has started every game over his last two seasons, picking up plenty of all-conference honors along the way. Expect to hear his name plenty on Saturday

Against the Run

4.51 yards allowed/attempt, 78th in the nation

That number looks mediocre, but it looks significantly worse when you consider that Nevada only returns 1 starter on the line. Nevada really got gashed early in the season against Oregon and Boise St. before putting up stronger performances against Boise St., Southern Miss, and the dregs of the WAC. But whatever progress the Wolf Pack made over the course of last year probably has to be thrown out since nearly the entire front 7 has been rebuilt.

Against the Pass

6.5 yards allowed/attempt, 24th in the nation

I’ll admit it, I was pretty surprised to see this number. That’s legitimately impressive. The important question: How much of Nevada’s success against the pass was due to the departed Isaiah Frey? I fully expect veteran CB Wooten to cover Keenan Allen whenever possible, likely with Johnson helping over the top. Until Cal proves they have a viable 2nd target through the air Keenan’s going to get insane amounts of attention.

Even without Frey, I wouldn't expect Maynard to gash the secondary. And experienced safety pairing should prevent anything over the top, and having an excellent linebacker to cover over the middle in Green might negate what Cal wants to do with tight ends this year.

Stats of Dubious Value

Turnovers

25 forced turnovers (10 fumble recoveries, 15 interceptions), 39th in the nation

Losing Frey's interceptions to the NFL hurts, but this is a defense that will likely punish a QB for poor decisions and inaccurate throws. If Maynard struggles we shouldn't freak out, and if he excels we shouldn't dismiss it.

3rd Down

Opponent conversion percentage of 36.17, 34th in the nation

A stat that reflects Nevada's efficiency against the pass. I'd like to think that Maynard will have time to throw on 3rd and long, but will anybody be open? In the category of 'duh:' Avoiding obvious passing situations on 3rd down would be extremely advantageous.

Red Zone

Scoring allowed in 73.17% of opponent red zone possessions, 13th in the nation
Touchdown allowed in 60.98% of opponent red zone possessions, 74th in the nation

What these numbers tell me is that Nevada saw lots of kickers miss field goals that ranged in difficulty from average to chippies.

Conclusions

At first blush, Nevada’s 2011 defense seemed to fall somewhere between average and above-average. The missing piece of context is strength of schedule. The Sagarin ratings gave Nevada’s schedule a rank of 88th , despite playing both Oregon and Boise St. The Wolf Pack defense generally struggled against the best competition their schedule offered.

In my mind this is a game for Sofele, Anderson, and the offensive line. Nevada’s strength is definitely in their secondary, and despite Maynard and Allen’s psychic connection, Cal’s offensive strength is still likely the running game. Any time our strength matches up with their weakness I'm all smiles.

Potentially exciting development: The intrigue will likely come from seeing how Maynard and a new receiving core does against a secondary that shouldn't be discounted. If Maynard stays calm in the pocket and spends the game picking out Bryce Treggs, Richard Rogers and Maurice Harris then that's a great sign that the talent might be in place for a productive offense.

Potentially terrifying development: If the offensive line struggles against Nevada's completely new and completely inexperience front seven, you have my permission to worry about how they'll do against the conference schedule.

Prediction: Isi and C.J. do most of the heavy lifting, Maynard has an efficient if unspectacular day, and the offense does enough for a relatively comfortable win.

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