Tuesday, October 12, 2010

PWtW Week 7 Preview

"Vacations prove that a life of pleasure is overrated."
~Mason Cooley

The Wolf Pack's brief vacation from reality is now firmly in the past, and Yours Truly should probably assume some of the blame for it ("'Take these guys seriously?' We don't have to! Pistol Whipping the WAC said so!"). Now it's time for the bi-annual "working vacation" that is the Hawai'i Road Trip. No volleyball on the beach. No girls in bikinis. No cursed Tiki statues. And no fruity tropical drinks except for whatever (much harder) alcohol I'll be imbibing as I try to cope with what could be a close game the only way I know how.

Hawai'i Warriors

In the time since the 2010 season started, my outlook towards Nevada's game at Hawai'i has gone from "Oh snap! They look pretty good" after the USC game to "Well, maybe not" after the Colorado game back to "Oh snap! Now they look good again" after their win at Fresno State. In that same time, my elation at Nevada's national ranking has only dimmed slightly, going from "That wasn't pretty, but it was good enough" after BYU to "That wasn't pretty, but it was a rivalry game" after NSU to "That wasn't pretty...and it still wasn't pretty" on Saturday.

Looking back, I had probably worked myself into a Beatdown-like fervor and eliminated any possibility of a relatively average win. I expected the Pack to open a few of these on a lowly opponent and was disappointed when my expectations were only partially met. And 6-0 is still 6-0 no matter how many hairs you split or mistakes you obsess over. But as some have pointed out to me, I'd much rather the Pack's "you're not as awesome as you think" wake-up call be a home game they could still comfortably win than a road game they could realistically lose...like their next one.

Enter the Warriors. While not on the same level as their 2006 and 2007 teams, their offense is starting to look more like that of past Hawai'i teams -- ridiculous passing stats put up on late Saturday night telecasts from the islands against haplessly jet-lagged visitors. In the first two years of Greg McMackin's tenure, the Warrior offense was out of its element and in denial of its true nature trying to convince people they were a "traditional" offense. Like Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football, it just didn't work. So McMackin brought Mouse Davis -- the coach who did the most to popularize the Run and Shoot offense -- back to Hawai'i in the off-season to coach the Warrior receiving corps. Now their offense is back to its old self, and this blog's Cavalcade of Stupid Names continues anew.

Clancy. Jimmer. Bronco. Mouse. The Cavalcade of Stupid Names is a long and proud list...

But unlike the name Mouse -- as appropriate as it may be, considering Davis' height -- the Warriors' passing attack won't be the subject of anyone's ridicule this week. Bryant Moniz and his receivers hook up for a national-best 421.7 passing yards per game, the first and arguably toughest of the Murderer's Row of passing offenses the Nevada defense will face off and on over the next five weeks (Idaho is tied for 7th, Fresno State 34th and Boise State 13th in that same category). Through six games in 2010, Nevada's defense has managed to hold its opponents to 18.8 points per game, compared to 28.5 for all of 2009 and 32.3 in 2008, while its pass efficiency defense has thus far improved from 158.49 last year (third worst in the country) to 107.33 as of last week (good for 19th). But Nevada has partly benefited from playing two of the country's only true freshmen starting quarterbacks in Pete Thomas and Jake Heaps -- a disadvantage Hawai'i won't be hampered by.

So Hawai'i passes and they pass very well. But what else do they bring to the table? A few things of note, but not much else. Like many Run and Shoot offenses, they don't have much of a ground game to speak of -- just enough to get by. Their secondary isn't particularly special, but they do have nine interceptions on the year (eight in the last three games alone, with Jeramy Bryant accounting for four) and boast a turnover margin of +4. Their kick and punt return averages (19.32 and negative .5 yards, respectively) are both atrocious and none of their other defensive statistics particularly stand out as impressive.

Going back to the Warrior offense one more time, this is where things get really interesting (if by "interesting" you actually mean "terrifying"). Senior wide receivers Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares are second and fourth, respectively, in the nation in receiving yards per game at 126.2 and 121. The next-best receiver Nevada has faced to date has been NSU's Phillip Payne all the way down at 77.8 yards per game. Furthermore, Hawai'i leads the nation in the number of passing plays completed for over 10 yards (93), 20 yards (34) AND 30 yards (18). For a defense which has been the textbook definition of "bend but don't break" so far, this is the equivalent of the high-stakes final exam after six warm-up games.

Best-Case Scenario

Nevada controls the pace of the game from the opening kick-off, converting most of its scoring opportunities while limiting those of the Warriors just enough to come out ahead. Colin, Vai and the Union (a great name for a band, by the way) are the heroes, pounding away at the Hawai'i defense with multiple sustained scoring drives. The defense surrenders relatively few big plays, definitively completing their restoration to adequacy under Coach Buh. All of the maddening mistakes of last week are firmly placed in the rear view mirror and don't pose enough of a threat to derail an otherwise victorious effort.

Worst-Case Scenario

Nevada continues its recent trend of playing down to its competition, and the result is a one-sided, exploitative loss. The team falls behind for the first time all year (possibly as early as the first Hawai'i drive) and can't quite get back on top the rest of the way. The defense is utterly helpless to stop Hawai'i's quick scoring strikes, and is forced to go back to the proverbial lab to contemplate what went wrong. Like the 2008 game at Hawai'i, all of the offense's success is rendered moot by a few heartbreaking and costly mistakes in execution. The Warriors beat the Wolf Pack score for score, and lessons are not learned until it's too late.

This is it, muchachos. Time to either nut up or shut up.

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