"There is no greater challenge than to have someone relying upon you; no greater satisfaction than to vindicate his expectation."
~Kingman Brewster, Jr.
Given that Coach Ault often says that football is about doing your one eleventh and trusting your teammates to do theirs, I thought a win like Saturday's warranted a quote like this one. And on a related note, before Nevada's 844 yards against Idaho, their previous record for offense in one game was 794 yards against NSU in 1993. Needless to say, the Rabbles are grateful for this.
Fresno State Bulldogs
If you thought Coach Ault was the WAC coach under the most pressure heading into this season, you would've only been half right. Every coach's best seasons set the bar for where fans expect a team to continue to perform year after year, and Fresno State has arguably the steepest expectations outside of Boise in that regard. Pat Hill has set a high standard in his time at Fresno State, guiding his teams to numerous Top 25 appearances, bowl game wins, and the second-most wins over BCS-conference competition among non-BCS programs in the last decade (Utah has the most). With the fan support they often enjoy and the reputation they've built up, they're by most accounts a model football program at the mid-major level.
But ever since taking USC down to the wire in 2005 -- ranked #1 at the time and in the prime of their dynasty years -- Fresno State football has had a hard time reaching the same heights of their previous teams. They've gone 34-28 overall since that night at the Coliseum, including only one bowl win in that time period -- not up to par with typical Fresno State standards. During this time, Nevada has slowly but surely seen its program rise to increasing prominence, and Coach Ault has helped equalize things with the 'Dogs after Nevada lost six straight in the series from 1999 to 2004. Swiping more and more recruits out of the San Joaquin Valley -- once the front door step of Hill's prime recruiting area -- hasn't helped matters. And with the series assured of being continued for the foreseeable future in the Mountain West, the stakes for both programs will be heightened that much more.
This is the stage that both teams find set for Saturday night. Nevada, in the midst of what's been a (mostly) stellar season, seeks to continue its war path and reaffirm which 'No Town has the better team. And Pat Hill -- ever the motivator in these types of games -- would no doubt relish the chance to scalp another nationally ranked team and relieve some of the pressure he continues to face.
What jumps out first about Fresno State isn't their offense, which is neither great nor poor in terms of average yardage but has managed to put up plenty of points (34.8 per contest). Instead, it's the 3 sacks per game and 24 total sacks that Chris Carter and the defense have put up. Their opponents have only converted 34.8% of their third downs, but this is negated somewhat by their own offense's inability to do the same (35.2%). While Fresno boasts a surprisingly good pass defense yardage-wise (196.8 per game), the same cannot be said for their pass efficiency defense (131.02 per game, 79th in the country). Oddly enough, the reverse is true for Nevada. Both teams will seek to control the clock, with Nevada's average time of possession fourth in the country (33:46 per game) and Fresno not far behind at sixth (33:11). Special teams play -- normally one of Fresno's areas of strength -- is pretty much a wash, with neither team particularly standing out in any one facet.
Nevada strolls into a hostile environment unimpressed and remains so after the game. Kaep continues his hot passing streak, punishing the 'Dogs for committing to stopping the run. The run game is established later as a result, with Vai and another back combining for 250+ yards. A Nevada receiver gets 100+ yards worth of catches and a couple of touchdowns. Fresno, by contrast, is unable to keep pace, falling behind early and never catching back up. They have, in fact, jumped the shark.
Fired up and eager to atone for last year's loss, Fresno's pass rush pushes Nevada out of its comfort zone and straight into the loss column. Fresh off of a strong rushing performance last week, the Bulldogs surpass Nevada on the ground. Offensive execution relapses to pre-Hawai'i status, with Kaep unable to pass often enough to open up the run. Third downs decide the outcome, with Fresno stymieing just enough of them to keep the Pistol off the field. They have not, in fact, jumped the shark.
The Bulldog offense is fine enough in its own right, but the fact is that the Pack's is still better. When Fresno finds itself in third-and-long situations, Nevada cannot afford to let them convert. The opposite battles between the Nevada offense and Fresno defense on third downs are ultimately where the game will be decided: Nevada excels at converting them, and Fresno excels at stopping them. Something has to give, and my money is on the visitors having their way.
Finally, if you happen to have a subscription at silverandbluesports.com (and why wouldn't you, really?), you can hear yours truly pitching in to the post-Idaho, pre-Fresno discussion here.