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Opponent preview: Nevada runs from its problems

OBNUG’s game previews are written by reader-turned-contributor Stephen Grettenberg. Because not every article should contain pinings for Marty Tadman.

Boise State vs. Nevada

Four weeks ago, Boise State’s BCS computer ranking was tied for 7th, the next week 8th, the following week 9th, and now the average BCS computer ranking is 10th. All this time Boise State keeps winning, but other teams play tougher schedules, and Boise State slips. The undefeated schedule works a little better for voters, but to have any chance at a bowl stronger than the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, BSU has to win out impressively and have its former non-conference opponents do well, too.

This week is a potential challenge from a WAC opponent. I know that sounds strange, but it is true. This could easily be the No. 2 team in the WAC by the end of the year. They rank first in the WAC for total and scoring offense (BSU is 2nd for both). The difference maker is that the Boise State defense is ranked first for total defense and scoring defense in the WAC, and 2nd in the country for scoring defense, while Nevada is a more pedestrian 5th in total defense and 6th in scoring defense in WAC play.

I saw a Scout article, which states this is the most challenging game for Boise State this season – not bowl-bound Oregon, which is now ranked No. 24 in both the AP and BCS. Of course, the same article botched some defensive statistics. While I don’t think Nevada is that good, SI’s 60th ranking is clearly far too low for how the team is playing right now. The article actually seems to give the Broncos little chance. I certainly don’t agree, but this game is for real. Vegas has the Broncos by six.

Lately Nevada has been winning games by running other teams into the ground. Few Boise State fans will forget the scare Nevada gave the Broncos at home last year in a 69-67 four overtime win – the highest scoring FBS game since statistics started to be kept in 1937. Nevada will be motivated to try and upset the Broncos in Nevada this weekend by testing BSU’s run defense. In fact, Nevada actually has the strongest running game in the Division I-A, averaging 325 rushing yards per game.

It looks to be a real challenge, on paper at least. Boise State can earn the outright WAC title by winning at Nevada this Saturday.

Nevada on Offense:

Nevada has been improving, fueled by its running game in recent weeks. Two weeks ago Nevada beat preseason media darling Fresno State 41-28 at Fresno, despite a poor passing day by QB Colin Kaepernick. RB Vai Taua was stellar, running for a career-best 263 yards with a 9.4-yard average and a late touchdown, Kaepernick added 118 yards and two scores, and RB Courtney Randall added 66 yards and a TD as Nevada romped to a 472-yard rushing day. Kaepernick threw for 128 yards and a TD with 7 completions in 17 tries. Combined, they hit their 3rd 600-yard offensive yardage mark of the season. Nevada converted a lot of long fourth down plays in the game.

Last week Nevada had a stronger showing as they dismantled San Jose State 41-17 in Nevada. Kaepernick rushed for 147 yards and 2 TDs and completed 15 of 31 passes for 192 yards and a TD. While that is not a great percentage rate, it is just good enough to prevent a defense from completely keying on the run. Taua rushed for 125 and a touchdown as well, as Nevada ground out 333 rushing yards.

So the Pistol offense has been working, on the ground at least, and has made the difference in WAC play for Nevada recently. Overall this offense is fifth in the nation in total offense. This year Boise State has been much stronger against the run than last year, starting with improved linebacker play. Here is the chance to prove it against two of the country’s better rushers.

One thing Boise State has is good depth, and I expect it will be important to keep fresh defensive players in the game, and to have them wrap up and finish tackles cleanly. If you let a running team like this get going, they can wear a defense down. Boise State needs some three and outs to take control of the game early. Nevada can’t play catch-up and won’t be able to keep up with Boise State with its passing game alone.

Nevada on Defense:

Overall the Nevada defense has been inconsistent and not exceptional. They did pull off a strong game against San Jose State last week in keying against the run, actually moving the Spartans backwards 23 yards on the ground. Surprisingly, Nevada purportedly has the 2nd ranked run defense in the nation, and has a decent pass rush.

How does Nevada pull off such numbers – well, they stack the box heavily against the run, rush the QB, and hope that is enough. Their defensive backs aren’t up to the same standards, making Nevada one of the worst ranked passing defenses in the country.

Here is a game that could showcase Kellen Moore’s strength. I’d also like to see Jeremy Childs have a breakout game. Although he leads the Broncos with 57 catches, 688 yards, and 6 TDs, he hasn’t dominated corners this year as much as some past seasons. Lately his numbers have been improving. With his speed he should be able to beat the corners deep for a TD at least once and also stretch the defense out. Balance that with short routes underneath once they realize they have to play off him, and he should have a good game.

Boise State should be able to pass and score on this defense, though Nevada may make a few sacks to disrupt things here and there. The Broncos might just need those points.

The Game:

Nevada wants to win this game badly, and a win would guarantee them a bowl and an outside shot at a share of the WAC title. I expect them to play hard, but come up short.

This game is a real test for the run defense, to see how much it improved from last year. I expect Kellen Moore to pull Boise State away with the passing game in a hard fought contest. The Broncos are not likely to repeat last week’s strong rushing numbers but should come away with a WAC title.

The pick:

Boise State by seven points, in a tough battle.