Wednesday, September 22, 2010

PWtW Week 4 Preview

I've tried to start off my first three previews with profound words or pithy observations to set the tone for the rest of the blog entry. But I have to admit that this week...I got nothin'. Nothing except a burning question that's stayed with me ever since the Wolf Pack basketball team lost a close game to BYU in Las Vegas last year: who in the blue hell would ever willingly call themselves "Jimmer"? That defies explanation for so many reasons to me. If his parents actually named him that, it would raise a whole different set of questions and he would have my pity. But his real name is actually James! He calls himself "Jimmer" BY CHOICE!!! W-T-F?! Let's get this preview over with before my headache gets worse.

BYU Cougars

If someone had told me before the season started that Nevada would go into its first road game of 2010 as a slight favorite, I would've told that person to put down their bong and/or hand it to me for a hit of whatever it was they were clearly smoking. But I also would've said the same thing if that person had told me Nevada would beat Cal by three touchdowns while being out-gained on offense. Needless to say, it's been a very odd but wonderful week in Packland, and without the aid of recreational drug use, no less (at least, for this blogger).

I always try to identify prominent or recurring themes leading up to each week's game, and the theme this week is definitely "role reversals." Normally it's Nevada who begins each year stumbling out of the gate and unsure of themselves. Normally it's BYU who has the dynamic, high-flying offense. Normally it's Nevada who finds themselves an underdog at home to a visiting opponent on a roll. Normally it's BYU who gets Top 25 attention of some sort. You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension...

The losses of quarterback Max Hall, running back Harvey Unga, tight end Dennis Pitta and defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen, among others from last year, created a humongous void of leadership the Cougars haven't been able to easily replace this year. And sure enough, the Cougars' stats through their first three games paint the picture of a team accustomed to success suddenly gripped with a whole host of problems all at once.

Their quarterbacks can't pass (101st in passing offense), their running backs can't run (67th in rushing offense) and their defense can't get into backfields and create pressure (tied for 69th in sacks per game and tied for 98th in total tackles for loss) or defend much of anything in front of them (98th in total defense). Their offense has struggled to score (15.7 points per game), get first downs (18.3 per game, tied for 79th), convert third downs (32.6%, one spot below New Mexico) and even hold on to the ball (27:41 of average possession time and a turnover margin of -3). Their defense allows opponents to convert 44.7% of their third downs (95th, only two spots ahead of UNLV) and yields 20.3 first downs per game (tied for 84th) and 28.7 points per game (tied for 86th with San Jose State). Simply put, this is not a BYU team its fans (or many other fans) are used to seeing.

So one would think with all of this data to back up the assertion that BYU just isn't very good that I'd be fully confident in Nevada's chances of winning Saturday. Not quite.

For all of the Cougars' present hardships, they still have legitimate reasons to be confident which are rooted in their prior successes. LaVell Edwards Stadium is a tough place to play and an even tougher place for visitors to win in, particularly since Bronco Mendenhall took over in 2005 (26-5 in Provo as of this week). And in spite of the obvious handicap of being named "Bronco" (it is, in fact, his actual name, but I'll let it slide for the simple reason that it isn't "Jimmer"), he has never lost three straight games as a head coach. Lastly, even if Mendenhall himself would probably be reluctant to admit it, his offense stands a much better chance of getting into a consistent rhythm with only one quarterback taking snaps, particularly with one as highly touted as Jake Heaps (pictured above). Playing a true freshman is always fraught with problems, but Nevada fans of all people should know just what can happen when one quarterback takes over for another following an injury...

Best-Case Scenario

BYU's identity crisis persists and Nevada is able to continue on its hot streak. Mounting injuries on both sides of the ball leave the Cougars unable to either contain the Pistol or stage any kind of comeback. The hostile crowd is silenced early on, and Nevada is able to comfortably put together long scoring drives and some timely defensive stands as a result. Heaps can't get into a dependable rhythm, but Kaep personifies it. Nevada's offensive line, running backs and senior-laden roster rule the day.

Worst-Case Scenario

BYU plays with reckless abandon and desperation that are too much for the Pack to overcome. Nevada gets rattled in its first road game and makes enough mistakes -- either forced or unforced -- to keep the Cougars in the game for all four quarters. Scoring drives are halted prematurely, and the defense is helpless to counter Heaps' sudden new confidence. BYU plays with the urgency many hope they do, and Nevada is left to wonder if the Cal win was just a fluke and if they have any staying power.

And because I would be remiss if I didn't mention it in this post: Attention Nevada players! If doing it for your coaches, your senior teammates or your fans isn't enough motivation, at least get out there and win one for the Kretschmer!

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