Nevada expectations high in ‘final’ WAC season
RENO – Expectations couldn’t be higher for a Nevada football team picked to have the best chance of dethroning league champion Boise State in what could be the last season for both teams in the Western Athletic Conference.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Vai Taua are back for their senior seasons with the offense that led the nation in rushing last year, averaging 345 yards per game – Taua with an NCAA-best 7.8 yards per carry.
On the other side of the ball, NFL scouts have their eyes on senior defensive end Dontay Moch, the WAC’s 2009 defensive player of the year.
Nevada coach Chris Ault doesn’t blame the Wolf Pack faithful for getting their hopes up about the team that went 8-5 last year. He said Kaepernick is the best running quarterback in the country and Moch is the fastest defensive lineman he’s ever coached, and that includes NFL great Charles Mann.
“My expectations are always high,” said Ault, whose team started 0-3 last year but won the next eight before closing with losses to Boise State and to SMU in the Hawaii Bowl.
“We expect these guys to compete at the championship level,” he said. “Now there is another level to go to, and that’s beat teams you haven’t beat.”
One of those is Boise State, which begins the season ranked third in the nation and travels to Reno the last Friday night in November for a nationally televised game on ESPN2.
“You know they are going to be loaded,” Ault said about the squad that has beaten Nevada nine straight times, won the WAC title six of the last nine years and gone undefeated in league play four of those seasons, including last year’s 14-0.
“Somewhere along the line you have to step up and find a way to win it,” Ault said.
“Right now, they are the best team on our schedule, obviously. Regardless of where we are, that is going to be a great opportunity for this program to step up and do something that hasn’t been done. It will be quite a game against the best team in the conference.”
It will be the last time the two meet in the WAC.
Boise State announced earlier this summer it’s transferring to the Mountain West Conference next year. Last week, Nevada and Fresno State announced they would make the move too, although they haven’t settled on an exit date with WAC officials, who argue the two schools missed a deadline so are bound to compete in the WAC through the 2011-12 school year.
“That’s definitely a team you think about because if you want to win a championship you have to go through Boise,” said Kaepernick, who ranks 12th among quarterbacks in NCAA career rushing yards with 2,906 to go along with his 7,076 career passing yards, 61 TD passes and 16 interceptions.
“There’s definitely a lot on the line being your last year, your last chance at everything,” said the 6-foot-6, 225-pounder from Turlock, Calif., who also was a star pitcher in high school and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs.
Ault said the Pack is more experienced than a year ago and showed signs in spring and fall camps of shoring up a defense that has been one of the worst against the pass the last two seasons.
“I think we can be an awfully good football team,” Ault said. “The key is going to be our defense. I don’t expect our defense to go out and just snap a finger and be better, but I expect them to get better and better with every practice.”
For the first time since 1991, Nevada opens the season with three straight home games – Eastern Washington, Colorado State and the Cal Bears in another Friday night ESPN2 game Sept. 17. Ault said that’s a nice break that will allow him to play more young players and develop some depth for their 13-game schedule that also sees them traveling to BYU.
“The schedule is more suitable for us to start better. We don’t jump right into South Bend,” Kaepernick said, referring to last year’s season-opening loss at Notre Dame.
“Our senior class kind of realizes and we have to convey to the underclassmen that we started off slow in the past and we need to change that this year,” he said.
Last year, Kaepernick (1,183), Taua (1,345) and Luke Lippincott (1,034) became the first three players in NCAA history to each rush for more than 1,000 yards on the same team in the same season.
Lippincott is gone but most of the offensive line is back, and Ault said Taua is being pushed by a number of backs who saw some playing time last year, including Lampford Mark, Courtney Randall and Mike Ball.
If Kaepernick runs for at least 694 yards this year, he’ll become only the fourth player in NCAA history to throw for 7,000 yards and rush for 3,500. The others are Antoine Randal El (Indiana), Joshua Cribbs (Kent State) and Brad Smith (Missouri). Smith is the only one to top 4,000 yards rushing and 8,000 yards passing.
Ault recently began to describe Kaepernick to reporters as “the heart of the offense,” but cut himself off in mid-sentence.
“The offensive line is the heart of our offense,” he said. “Kap is the leading artery. He’s going to continue doing his thing. He is the best running quarterback in the country. For us to be a better ballclub, the other people have to step up.”
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